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How The Grand Canyon Was Formed

Updated on July 15, 2011

The Grand Canyon

John Wesley Powell, a famous explorer and one-armed Civil War veteran, was the first to aptly use the name, "Grand Canyon" in describing one of the world’s natural wonders. In 1869, Powell, and nine companions became the first to mount an expedition through the 1,000 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon.

The expedition was equipped with four wooden boats. However most of their supplies were lost when two of the boats capsized in the dangerous rapids. The party experienced unbearable heat, low morale and loss of three men before completing their historic journey. A second trip was made in 1871—1872, which provided important additional data about one of the last unexplored parts of the United States.

Land Of Abundant Resources

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government show cased the West as a land of abundant resources. The discovery of zinc, copper, lead and other resources in the Grand Canyon attracted a large number of miners during the 1870s-1880s. However, extraction and transportation of ore from the canyon was extremely difficult, and many abandoned their claims to engage in the more profitable tourism trade.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt, changed Grand Canyon from a game reserve to an official national monument. Grand Canyon was named a World Heritage Site in 1979 for its exceptional natural resources.

Santa Fe Trail

When the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821, enterprising fur trappers, traders and fortune seekers began passing through the region on their way to California. This was followed by the war with Mexico after which much of the Southwest became part of the United States. The government then sent army surveyors to chart the unknown territory. In1857, a U.S. Army survey party commanded by Lieutenant Joseph Ives was dispatched to explore the Grand Canyon. His report was less than promising. Ives wrote “The region is of course altogether valueless. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality." Apparently he was wrong.

Eons Of Time

The Grand Canyon was formed over eons of time by the Colorado River cutting through it. Millennia of history can be seen at a glance, from the Precambrian bedrock at the river's edge to fossilized sand dunes at the rim.Some of the earth's most ancient rock is found here. Research has revealed about 300 million years after being formed; geologic forces pushed the rock up into a great range of mountains which might have been up to six miles high.Over time, those mountains eroded into a plain and about a billion years ago, it was raised into a second mountain range.

The Colorado River has cut through the accumulated layers of the earth's surface revealing a billion years of history which can be seen at a single glance. Thousands of feet thick, the rock is made up of sediments. 

During later ages, the region sank beneath an inland sea. Primitive shellfish fossilized the sea bottom and eventually became shale. Eons later, the region rose once again as a high plateau and the former sea bottom was now on top and the ancient rocks below.

It’s at this point in time, about six million years ago, the Colorado River began cutting into the upper layers. Tediously carving inch by inch over millennia, it finally uncovered the oldest rocks nearly a mile below the surface.

By the 1880s, John Hance, a hapless prospector known for his witty repartee and engaging tall tales, began leading sightseeing parties into the canyon. His legacy lives on today. The Grand Canyon’s rich geological history and awe inspiring scenic beauty, is one of the world's most popular sightseeing destinations. It is visited annually by over five million sight seers.


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