As one of the most visited national parks in the United States, just the name “Grand Canyon” brings to mind scenes from movies , sweeping photographs, and travel stories from relatives who have visited America’s deepest and largest canyon.
With all the hype floating around the Grand Canyon, and with the rise of “Instagram-tourism” and un-vetted information sources, it can be hard to pin down exactly why the Grand Canyon is so important. After all, the Grand Canyon is not the largest canyon in the world in terms of either depth or distance. Tibet’s Yarlung Tsangpo and Pakistan’s Indus Gorge are the two largest gorges in the world, but it’s rare to find anybody who has even heard of those. Here is what makes the Grand Canyon truly important.
11 Native American tribes maintain deep connections with the Canyon, and have been farming, building houses, hunting, and living along the rims since what they consider the beginning of time. The connections with the Grand Canyon have woven themselves into many tribes’ creation stories and tales of heaven and hell. They say the Colorado River at the base of the canyon to be a spiritual place to wash away troubles and burdens.
Travelers to the canyon should know that the Canyon is not just a park, but is a place, for many Native Americans, of deep historical and spiritual connection.
From its origins, people sought to use the canyon for many purposes, but thanks to this American success story, the Grand Canyon remains largely unscarred.
Many of the early visitors to the Grand Canyon had big ideas of how to make it profitable. From a failed mining experiment to placing hotels on the rim, the Grand Canyon was headed in a direction very different from the one we see today. Fortunately, another early visitor was Teddy Roosevelt, who immediately had a great admiration for the Grand Canyon, later stating, “You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”
With this in mind, Roosevelt took action, and made the Grand Canyon a national monument, and eventually the National Park we know today. They tore down standing lodges and structures on the rim, and made it so that the Grand Canyon could be as close to its natural state as possible.
Thanks to his foresight, the Grand Canyon now stands as a symbol of the great expanses of the Western United States. As the only American representation of the Seven Wonders of the Natural Word and a UNESCO National Heritage Site, the Grand Canyon is a towering American icon known around the world.
We know Arizona as the Grand Canyon State, and visitors to the Grand Canyon helped make Tourism the number one export industry in the state during 2019. In 2019, tourists in Arizona contributed $3.8 billion dollars in taxes alone.
Given the size of the Grand Canyon, and being the second most visited national park in the United States, it isn’t hard to imagine how the Canyon benefits its surrounding communities. A national park service report showed that over 6.2 million recreational visitors came to Grand Canyon National Park in 2018 and spent $667 million in communities around the park (Williams, Tusayan, Cameron, etc.).
This spending supported over 9,000 jobs in the local area and had a cumulative benefit to the local economy of $938 million. And that report isn’t including the west rim of the canyon where the Hualapai people have also turned to tourism through their native land. Through Grand Canyon tours and permits, the Hualapai tribe relies almost entirely on the canyon for its livelihood.
There is another tribes that own part of the canyon, and It is said that the Havasupai tribe issues roughly 350 camping permits daily, with permits selling out within months of going on sale. That’s nearly $18 million per year in tourism revenue on the low end just on camping permits!
There is much more wildlife at the Grand Canyon than you might think. Elk, lizards, brown bats, squirrels and many bird species are just some animals you’re going to run into on your next trip to the canyon. There are some rather special species that rely on the canyon entirely, however. The California Condor, North America’s largest bird with a 9 foot wingspan, almost became extinct in the 20th century and they placed the rare bird on the federal Endangered Species list in 1967. Following a breeding program that began in 1983, they released six young condors into the wild just north of Grand Canyon in 1996.
The re-introduction program was a great success, with 71 condors recently counted in the Grand Canyon region and 195 birds in the wild in the United States. Another animal that relies on the Grand Canyon also holds a title of “largest”. It is the largest land-mammal in North America, the American Bison. After being herded down from the north in the early 1900s, the Bison found a place they could call home on the north rim of the canyon where, strangely enough, there are vast grasslands and forest perfect for the bison. The bison rely on the canyon as their little oasis surrounded by desert .
Related Reading: 5 Amazing Facts About the Grand Canyon (Will #1 Gross You Out?!)
The rocks themselves at the grand canyon are not necessarily unique, as they can be found all throughout the southwest.
However, there are two other aspects of the canyon that make the Grand Canyon such an important place for geological studies.
The first is the sequence of the rocks along the canyon walls. It is rare to find such a large column of rock that has been preserved so clearly and as well as the Grand Canyon. This makes the canyon one of the best places to study geology, as scientists can literally study millions of years of the earth’s history from a single spot! In this sequence also lies one of geology’s largest puzzles. Geologists have been able to figure out a clear bottom column of rock (deposited around 2000 million years ago) and a much younger, top column ranging from 550 to 250 million years ago. The middle portion of rock, to the surprise of many geologists, is missing! This is known as the great unconformity and there is constant debate among geologists about the whereabouts of the missing rock.
A second mystery worthy of study is the formation of the Grand Canyon itself. It is generally accepted by scientists around the world that the Colorado river carved the canyon we see today. To what degree the river did the job, though, is still debated upon. Could it be that the rain, snow, and wind itself tore the canyon apart faster than the river itself? The answer is unclear.