Which is more beautiful? The Grand Canyon itself, or that people come from all over the world to see it? English spoken in accents from America, South Africa, Britain, Australia, and Ireland. Languages I could discern include Russian, Indian, Dutch, French, Italian, German, Chinese and Japanese.
How do you convey the genius? Of the men who were the first to raft the entire Colorado River in the 1860s–against the advice of the Indians, and the guides who navigate people safely on it today. Of the photographers and artists who strive to capture what moves them in this massive space. Of the geologists who study rocks nearly half as old as the Earth itself and understand complex concepts about the formation of this glorious freak of nature.
How do you explain to people–avid enough to have a camera tripod–that they want to get here BEFORE the actual sunset to watch the light shift, not at 7:12 when it goes bye bye?
Over half of the Grand Canyon is the National Park; the rest is Tribal Land. Visible from space, the Canyon is larger than the state of Delaware!
A Land Before Time
The Grand Canyon was formed from cycles of geological change: oceans that receded, leaving coastal jungles. Add in a continental shift, rinse, and repeat. The rocks at the canyon floor date to 1.8 billion years ago; the Earth is 4.6 billion years old.
But then something odd happens: the layers of rock aren’t sequential–millions of years are…just…missing. How’s THAT possible? Deposit and erosion. This is the theme at Grand Canyon–and I don’t entirely get it. I wish I could call 1-800-GEOLOGIST for some help, but I’ll do my best.
Think about the Colorado River and and all the silt it brings as it’s comin’ down the mountain. That builds up a layer. Once the water recedes, the rock layer may stay, or erosion may strip away the buildup, leaving no evidence of what was there. In comes a new cycle of water, and with it, new deposits. Now we have a missing layer of rock. A real life example: think of clean sheets in the linen closet. Green on the bottom, beige above the green. You take the beige down to put on a bed–erosion. You just did wash and add yellow on top of the green, where the beige just was–deposit over a missing layer.
How do they know the layer is missing? Fossils. Think of a layered cake. You know that the bottom layer always has chocolate chips and they’re always one million years old. The middle layer always has Reese’s Pieces and they’re two million years old. The third layer always has dinosaur gummies and they’re three million years old. So if you leave the cake on the counter to cool, come back and only find layers with chocolate chips and dinosaur gummies, you know something happened to make the middle layer disappear. Now you just have the small task of figuring out what…
In addition to the erosion and deposits, the earth was simultaneously pushing the layers up. Besides the gaping hole, what makes the Grand Canyon so spectacular, is that during the upward movement, everything stayed neatly stacked. This is not true throughout the region. Other places also experienced this ebb, flow, and upward force, but they crumbled and aren’t nearly as stunning.
A River Runs Through It
I was more than a little obsessed with spotting the Colorado River. Perhaps because it’s the forbidden fruit.
- You have to make reservations years in advance to go whitewater rafting on it–how could I do that when I didn’t know what I was doing week to week?
- There’s NO WAY I’m riding a mule into the canyon, no matter how gorgeous it is.
- I’ve ridden a camel and all pack animals like to hover close to the ledge. Crazy fools. The website even said so. Unh Uh. Not happening.
- I’ve been horseback riding and it was not a wind-in-my-hair, freeing experience. I did not know it was possible for knees to hurt with so much excruciating pain. It’s from sitting in a very special way that makes me wonder why women fought to abolish riding side-saddle.
So I gazed at the river through my camera lens. It’s an interesting river, the Colorado. It goes deep, not wide. The canyon width has not changed from the river at all. It does run a mile deep, though–and is still cutting its way deeper. Some of the more, um, rigorous rapids are a mile long themselves. That’s significant. That’s a lot of holding on and praying and being flooded with water. And a lot of fun, I have no doubt!
While the river is “only” the seventh largest in the U.S., its power comes from a steep grade: it drops eight feet per mile. The Mississippi may be larger, but she lumbers only three feet per hour (the pace of a person walking). Learn about the Mighty Miss and my ride on a riverboat. Indeed!
The Power of Place
National Parks are different even from going to a quiet beach or on a nearby mountain hike. Maybe it’s because you know the space is designated, or maybe it’s the pure reality that they designated it becuase it’s special. I’m proud (and braggadocios) to say that I’ve been to 27 of the 59 National Parks. All are incredible; a very few are sacred. They have a different feeling when you pass the entranced sign. There’s something magical that Disney wishes for. There’s something more alive than the energy of the animals you’ll encounter. There’s something calming and connecting. Grand Canyon National Park is one of these transcendent places.
Have you been to the Grand Canyon? What’s one of your favorite experiences there?