Sunday, December 23, 2018

Rolling Through the Grand Canyon

23 December 2018

We had a fabulous five day trip to (and from) the Grand Canyon.


I'll back up.  We left on Thursday, 13 December, and drove up to the town of Camp Verde, in the Verde Valley.  This was a bit past halfway, so roughly 200 miles (320 km).  We had heard that there was a hotel with a casino that had the largest non-smoking area in the state, so we though we'd spend the night.  Good choice, we had fun, it was a nice hotel, and we headed out the next morning.  Drove the other 130 or so miles to the town of Tusayan, just south of the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park.

We arrived Friday afternoon, and it was COLD!  Grey and cold, with snow and ice on the ground.  We were cold, it was sort of dark, and we opted to settle in to our hotel and plan our trip around the Canyon for the following day.

So Saturday morning, we bundled up in multiple layers, and ventured forth.  Found the Pink Jeep company, and made arrangements for a two hour tour.  Fortunately, there was no chance of being shipwrecked!!!

And it was AMAZING!!!!  Absolutely incredible.  At our first stop, I was completely awestruck.  Overwhelmed.  All of the photos do not prepare one for how HUGE the Canyon is.  Really, it fills the view and continues on forever both across your view and out of sight to the left and right.  It becomes impossible for your mind to really comprehend how enormous this natural wonder really is.  It fills your vision and your brain, and everything else becomes nonexistent.

I could barely speak.  And when I went with a simple "WOW," it came out as a whisper - as if this place is too sacred for a normal voice.  

I can't even explain it.  This is more than breath-taking, more than mind-boggling, more than awe-inspiring.  There is something reverential, something spiritual and holy, about this place.

As I whispered this tiny WOW, barely a breathed word, another traveller walking by heard me and turned his head, saying in barely a whisper, "It is!"  Everyone seemed to be struck by the beauty and power of this giant chasm and canyon, striped with color and full of rises and falls and sheer drops, somehow symbolic of so much beyond our tiny human selves and our feeble powers to comprehend the force of Nature and the will of the Universe.

Our friendly tour guide and driver, Heather, gave us a few minutes to try to take it all in.  And in our resilient human way, pretty soon it seemed normal to be standing maybe a yard (or meter) from a sheer one mile drop (1.6 km), with a panoramic view of what seems to be the backdrop of half the Western movies ever produced.

Dad's hat was jumping up and down, and landed on a layered stone sign showing the various strata of the Canyon - all kinds of stone, ranging from easy to erode sandstone and limestone to harder shale to metamorphic rock such as quartzite and granite.  The upper layers are nearly perfectly horizontal, which gives the Grand Canyon its signature look.  The bottom layers at the basin of the Canyon, however, are diagonal, showing the uplift that started the whole process of the Canyon's development.  And Heather explained the more scientific view of what created this world wonder.  (More on that later.)

We walked around a bit, and then visited the Yavapai Geological Museum.  The view from the museum is incredible, since the building juts out over the Canyon a bit, and there are no trees or people to block the view.  The museum also does a wonderful job explaining the origins of the Canyon, and a bit about the history of human interaction with this amazing place.

Eventually we drove on to a couple of scenic viewpoints, with more gorgeous vistas and even a few views of the Colorado River.  

We even saw several elk families, mostly mothers and their young, foraging through the snow and nibbling on the grass!!!!  No big bucks, but several of the adolescent elk appeared to have the beginnings of antlers on their heads.  Oh, interesting note - Heather explained that the elk and deer in the park seemed quite used to humans since we are frequent visitors.  But the elk also seemed to try to stay near the human development, having learned that their arch enemy and predator, the mountain lions (pumas!) try to avoid humans.  So the elk feel safer around humans, and are willing to tolerate us so they can avoid the mountain lions.  (I was hoping to see a puma, of course, but only saw a sign for the pumas.)

All too soon our tour was done.  It really was incredible.  The price included the Imax movie by National Geographic about the Grand Canyon, so I went to see that.  It was more about the human interaction with the Canyon, especially John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran who navigated the length of the Canyon through the Colorado River.  Impressive exploratory feat given the wooden boats of the late 1800s, but part of the whole westward expansion and concept of Manifest Destiny that seems so hubristic to our more modern way of thinking.

On Sunday, Richard stayed in while I drove the south rim road of the Canyon, from the park entrance to the Desert View Watchtower overlooking the Painted Desert to the east of the Canyon, some 25-30 miles (40-50 km).  (Map at the end.)  I had a fabulous five hour trip, with a takeaway breakfast and coffee to eat/drink while overlooking those amazing views.  

The view actually is much different in the early morning or late afternoon versus mid-day.  In the middle of the day, even when there isn't much sunlight, the shadows are fewer and thus the view and perspective are flattened.  The Canyon looks less dimensional, and you lose the feeling of depth.  The Canyon ranges from 8 miles to 18 miles across (12.8 to almost 29 km), but during mid-day you really don't get that feeling of distance.  In the morning, however, the view is so different with the deep purple shadows.  You can really see and feel the distance across and the depth down into the Canyon!

I stopped at every single scenic overlook, vista point, museum, and place of interest on the way.  If it had a parking lot, even just on the side of the road, I pulled in and got out to see.  If there was a road out to a point or outcropping, I drove in and parked.  I stopped and saw everything, hiking from end to end at each scenic view point or whatever it was.  I didn't want to miss a drop of this experience.

I felt like I was savouring the Canyon as I sat on benches or rocks and sipped my hot coffee.  I wanted to slow down time and just be here now, in the moment, taking it all in.  I tried, I really tried to skip one viewpoint, because I knew Richard didn't have access to a car.  But I just couldn't skip even one, because this might be my one and only trip to THE GRAND CANYON!  And how could I miss one single part???

And while it was freezing cold, with snow on the ground and icy areas, I kept thinking that few people get to see the Grand Canyon with snow on the sides!!!  It really was so scenic, little patches of snow on the uneven surfaces of the cliffs and walls!!!

The ravens of the Canyon became my animal guide.  They seemed to magically appear at each stop, and they always seemed to come over and visit me.  I finally figured out that they heard me taking my camera out of its little plastic bag, and they hoped the sound meant food.  But I prefer to think that they were my animal guides along my trip, a few talking to me in their croaking voice, the others keeping watch to be sure I was safe.  At some stops, I was the only human, so my raven friends kept me company.  At others, they stayed with me until other humans appeared, and then they flew away.  As I said, they became my animal guides, leading me on this adventure.

It was amazing, it was inspiring, it was wonderful.


A few words about the Desert View Watchtower.  This tower is located at the end of the south rim road, just before the highway turns vaguely southeast and heads into the Painted Desert and on to the town of Cameron.  The tower was constructed in 1932 by architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter.  The signage at the park had this information:

"Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter designed architectural masterpieces including the Desert View Watchtower.  Blending indigenous culture with the bedrock of natural environments, she designed rustic and evocative structures.  Her timeless architecture can be seen at Hermits Rest at the other end of the south rim.   Her designs were influenced by Native American architecture and art."

We were told that she would hike into the canyon basin and look for petroglyphs and rock paintings by the indigenous people.  Ms. Colter wouldn’t destroy and remove extant structures; but if a dwelling had fallen apart, or part of the rock had fallen off, she would mark that rock for use in her local structures.

So of course I had to walk around the entire tower and take photos of the petroglyphs and rock paintings that she used in this structure.

And then the interior!!!  Ms. Colter asked various Hopi artists to paint the interior of the tower with designs and images symbolic of their culture, and the results are gorgeous.  I don't know the stories behind the images, although there are obviously suns, stars, crops, and perhaps ancestors.  But the imagery is beautiful whether you know what it means or not.

When Heather, our guide/driver from the day before, was telling me to visit the Desert View Watchtower, I asked if the original inhabitants of the Canyon used the various soils and pigments to paint in caves inside the Canyon.  Turns out that some of the people who lived in the Canyon basin were cave dwellers and later on cliff dwellers, hollowing out living spaces right in the sides of the Canyon.  And yes, some of these spaces were decorated with paintings using the pigments found in the walls of the Canyon.


Okay, enough about our experience in the Grand Canyon.  Some facts and figures from the park signs:

Grand Canyon stretches 277 miles (446 km) from Lees Ferry to Grand Wash Cliffs.

The canyon is approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) deep and an average of 10 miles (16.6 km) across. [The width varies from 8 miles (13 km) to
18 miles (30 km).]

Within the canyon, the Colorado River averages 300 feet (91 m) from side to side.

At 2,600 square miles (6,734 sq km), Grand Canyon is slightly larger than the state of Delaware. At 1,904
square miles (4,931 km), Grand Canyon National Park preserves more than half the canyon.

Scientific surveys found 1,750 species of plants living in the park, over 90 species
of mammals, and over 362 species of birds.  Fossils have been found here of known animals like the giant sloth, as well as previously undiscovered animals like the North American cheetah!!!

And the Grand Canyon is visible from space!  Astronauts look for it every time they go up!!!

Before I go into the formation of the Canyon, I'd like to share a few Native American legends about the creation of the place.  I love traditional legends because they are so much more interesting and descriptive than, well, science.  Science is interesting, but less imaginative than legend.

Plus Native Americans lived in this region for over 10,000 years.  Some lived along the rim of the Canyon, while other groups eventually made their way down into the basin and lived along the banks of the Colorado River.  At some point, the people we now call the Anasazi made their homes right in the walls of the Canyon, the famous cliff dwellings.  The Hualapai, Havasupai, Hopi, and Navajo nations still live in and around the Canyon to this day, and maintain their traditions and spiritual relationship with the Canyon.

So.  Hopi stories tell of coming into this world through a hole in the sky of the world below.  That opening, the Sipapuni, is located deep within Grand Canyon.  Their stories don't explain the Canyon, just that their people came into this world through the Sipapuni in the Canyon.

The Hualapai, Havasupai, and Navajo legends tell of a great flood that swept the lands.  The Hualapai tell of a famous hero who used a knife and club to dig a channel for the flood to flow back to the ocean; this huge channel that he dug is the Grand Canyon, baked solid by the hot sun after the flood waters receded.  

In the Navajo version, the people saved themselves by turning into fish.  They were able to swim in the flood waters until the waters broke through a barrier to the sea.  And when the waters receded and the land was again safe, the people-fish turned back into their human forms and walked the land.

The Havasupai legend, however, talks of two ruling gods of the universe, Hokotama and Tochopa.  The two gods fought for control over the world, and Hokotama decided to drown the world with a huge flood by suddenly expanding the waters of rivers, oceans, and waterfalls.  Tochopa managed to hide his daughter in a hollow tree with food, so she survived the flood and was able to repopulate the earth after the floodwaters passed.  The huge flood is what created the Grand Canyon as well as other natural landmarks.

Interesting, isn't it?  Flood stories similar to Noah and the ark, although in an entirely different part of the world.  

There are people to this day who believe the Grand Canyon was caused by the Great Flood.  Our guide/driver politely called this the "short time theory."  Yes, there are people who point to the Grand Canyon to prove that the Biblical story is true and can be interpreted literally.  (I'm obviously not one of them.)

The "long time theory" begins with us needing to think in terms of what the park signage refers to as "deep time." 

"Put aside your watch and calendar.  Forget about decades and centuries.  Begin to think in geologic time – “deep time” – thousands of millions of years.

"The rocks exposed in the canyon formed over thousands of millions of years as the continental basement shifted and sank, allowing layer upon layer of sediment to build up.

"Uplift began about 70 million years ago.  Geologic pressures pushed the rocks above sea level, exposing them to the forces of erosion.  The modern landscape began to evolve.

"By five million years ago, the Colorado River had begun carving Grand Canyon.  Gathering debris, the river plunged from the Rocky Mountains toward the Gulf of California.  Rockfalls, landslides, and flash floods reshaped the canyon walls."

So basically, the land everywhere on earth is comprised of deep bedrock.  Layers have build up over eons from decomposing plant and animal matter, soil or sand blowing in from elsewhere, sea levels rising and falling, continents and tectonic plates separating and colliding.  (And yes, fossilized seashells have been found in some of the layers within Grand Canyon.)

At some point, when this part of the continent was above sea level, the plates beneath the layers of rock lifted - this caused the diagonal strata that we see at the bottom of the Canyon.

Whether it was this shift in earth's crust, or other forces, the Colorado began to flow across this region.  The top layers are limestone, which is pretty easily eroded.  As that area was washed away by the river, the riverbed became more defined and concentrated.  Over time, the river eroded the next layer, and the next, while the walls of rock weathered in storms and eroded or fell - until after some thousands of millions of years, we have the canyon that we see today.

The Colorado River is no wider today than it was 5 million years ago.  The river cuts down, not out.  Its incision triggers tributaries to carve side canyons in an ever-spreading web of erosion.  With enough time and gravity, water dominates rock.

The Colorado River now flows through a granite gorge that it has carved in the basin of the Canyon.  Granite is incredibly hard, so the rate of erosion has slowed dramatically. 

The rock is divided into three basic groupings:
Paleozoic Rocks – Sedimentary rocks that retain their original horizontal layering.

Supergroup Rocks – Tilted remnants of sedimentary and igneous rocks, sporadically exposed beneath the Paleozoic layers.

Basement Rocks – Contorted folds of metamorphic rocks and igneous intrusions in the depths of the canyon developed from volcanic eruptions and high pressure.

Geologists are unsure why the river turned and began to flow across this area, however.  Scientists are also unsure exactly when all of this began.  Plus when rock and debris fall into the river, it often is washed out to the Gulf of California, losing the geological evidence that scientists use to develop and prove their theories. 

What is truly fascinating, though, is that there is a geological gap in the rock layers.  Really.  You can easily see the layers of Paleozoic rock in the Canyon - all the whites and reds and terra cotta colors.  (What looks almost black turns out to be trees growing on the canyon walls.)

Some 5,000 feet of rock has eroded from the top of Grand Canyon, losing the rock that represents the most recent 270 million years, including the time of the dinosaurs.  

Where Paleozoic Rocks rest directly on the Basement Rock, the intervening rock is missing!  This contact of Paleozoic on Basement Rock represents a gap of 1,150 MILLION YEARS!!!  Can you imagine????  The existing Supergroup Rocks, present in other areas, record some of this missing time.  But in other areas, these layers of rock are just gone!!!  Geologists call this gap "the Great Unconformity." 

Fascinating stuff!!!!

For those of you still reading, a little choice quotation:  

“To the scientist Nature is a storehouse of facts, laws, processes; to the artist she is a storehouse of pictures…..”    -John Burroughs

The artist Thomas Moran came to the Grand Canyon to accompany John Wesley Powell on his geological survey in 1873.  Moran's landscape paintings captured the feeling of power and greatness of the Canyon, and inspired both tourism of the American Southwest as well as pushed Congress to establishing the region's national parks.  YAY for the power of art!!!

I also visited the ruins of a Sinagua community, but I will save that for the next blog.  This is long enough! 

Don't forget that you can click on a photo and see a larger version of the image!