No matter how many times you’ve seen it, visiting the Grand Canyon never fails to take your breath away.
Of all the scenes in the America Deserta, none has captured the imagination of the world so completely as Grand Canyon. Even among the magnificent landscapes of the American Southwest, it stands alone in its distinction. There is no single aspect of it that is most impressive, unless it is size, and even that is impossible at a glance. Only in hiking some distance below the rim does one begin to come to terms with its enormity. Although having grasped the overwhelming depth and width of the canyon, there remains the fact that it extends for nearly 480km; the most panoramic viewpoints offer a look at only a portion of it.
For geologists, Grand Canyon is the classic example of erosion in an arid landscape and one of the finest exposures of sedimentary rock in North America; for archaeologists and naturalists it is a wealth of information on the pre-history and natural history of the American Southwest. But for most of the millions of people who see it each year, and the many others in whose mind’s eye it lives as a dream or a memory, Grand Canyon is the ultimate American landscape.
The Spanish called it the Rio Colorado because of the red colour of its muddy waters. It was, more than anything else, a barrier to further travel, and lay at the bottom of a gorge unlike anything they’d ever seen. Small wonder that among the feelings it inspired were discouragement and fear.
As imposing as it must have seemed at the time, the Colorado River is no less fascinating today. Although by no means one of the largest rivers in North America, it’s not even in the top 25 and has less than one percent of the flow of Mississippi River, it drains one of the most extraordinary landscapes in the world. From its source in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Colorado River runs more than 2300km across the southwestern portion of North America to the Gulf of California.
The Grand Canyon is only one of a series of impressive canyons that trace the course of the river. In Utah, the river passes through Westwater Canyon, Cataract Canyon and Glen Canyon before it reaches Grand Canyon. Below Grand Canyon, along the Colorado River just below Hoover Dam, lies Black Canyon. These extraordinary canyons, each nearly as impressive in its own way as Grand Canyon, are a testimony not only to the power of Colorado River but to the erosive power of water in general. But the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River has come to be the canyon by which all others are measured.
It is from the South Rim near Grand Canyon Village that most people see the canyon. Here the canyon rim falls away in a series of remarkable cliffs, broken occasionally by slopes of talus or rock debris. More than 900 meters below the rim, the walls give way to the broad green shelf known as the Tonto Platform. From the rim one can discern here portions of the Tonto Trail, the 1100-kilometer-long inner canyon trail whose faint outline parallels the rim of the Inner Gorge: the narrow V-shaped slot whose steep dark walls drop an additional 300 meters (or more) to the Colorado River below. There, at the bottom of the canyon, visible from only a few places along the rim, lies the Colorado River.
The view here is dominated by horizontal layers of sedimentary rock, traceable for miles in any direction, and by an erosional landscape whose shape is startling in its appearance. The unusual shape of the canyon is directly related to these strata. Each layer responds to erosion in its own characteristic manner: the shales tend to form slopes, the thick beds of limestone and sandstone form impenetrable cliffs, and the ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks exposed below the Tonto Platform at the very base of the canyon form the steep, somber walls of the Inner Gorge. Though the canyon is far younger than the ancient rocks in which it is carved, it owes its shape to this diverse suite of rocks and to the semi-arid climate of the region. While the river is responsible for the existence of Grand Canyon, the canyon owes its present shape and character to erosional forces other than the Colorado River.
The North Rim is 16km across the canyon by air but a long 350km drive by car. The North Rim, at 2400 meters above sea level, stands 300 meters higher and consequently receives an annual precipitation twice that of the South Rim. The cooler and moister climate on the north side supports an altogether different community of plants and animals. The North Rim is at its most spectacular in early summer when New Mexican locust and lupine are in bloom, or in late September and early October when both aspen and oak, the latter scattered below the rim, give the canyon a splash of brilliant colour.
Stand before this vast rent in the earth’s crust and you’re looking down at two-billion years of geologic time. That fact does something funny to the human brain. Lit by flaming sunsets, filled with billowing seas of fog and iced with crystal dustings of snow, the mile-deep, 450-kilometer-long Grand Canyon is nature’s cathedral. You’ll feel tiny yet soaring, awed yet peaceful, capable of poetry yet totally tongue-tied.
The Grand Canyon is the southern end of the Grand Staircase, an immense sequence of sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park through Zion National Park and into the Grand Canyon. In the 1870s, geologist Clarence Dutton first conceptualized this region as a huge stairway ascending out of the bottom of the Grand Canyon northward with the cliff edge of each layer forming giant steps. Dutton divided this layer cake of Earth history into five steps that he colorfully named Pink Cliffs, Grey Cliffs, White Cliffs, Vermilion Cliffs, and Chocolate Cliffs. Since then, modern geologists have further divided Dutton’s steps into individual rock formations.
What makes the Grand Staircase unique in the world is that it preserves more Earth history than any other place on Earth. Geologists often liken the study of sedimentary rock layers to reading a history book, layer by layer, detailed chapter by detailed chapter. The problem is that in most places in the world, the book has been severely damaged by the rise and fall of mountains, the scouring of glaciers, etc. Usually these chapters are completely disarticulated from each other and often whole pages are just missing. Yet the Grand Staircase and the lower cliffs that comprise the Grand Canyon remain largely intact speaking to over 600 million years of continuous Earth history with only a few paragraphs missing here and there.
At the top of the geological Grand Staircase sits Bryce Canyon. Surrounded by aromatic pine and juniper forests, it’s best known for its iconic hoodoos, weathered spires of rock that reach up to 10 stories high. Though Bryce Canyon is one of America’s smallest national parks at just 30km long, the concentration of sunset-coloured hoodoos creates a mesmerising effect. The park is not so much a canyon as the eastern edge of a great plateau, nibbled into a series of amphitheatres at a rate of about one metre every hundred years, through layers of limestone, siltstone and mudstone that give the hoodoos their segmented appearance.
Bryce Canyon National Park is a geologic wonderland. The erosional force of frost-wedging and the dissolving power of rainwater have produced here what is probably the Earth’s most famous example of pinnacled badlands. Within the canyon’s spectacular formations are deep caverns and rooms resembling ruins of prisons, castles, churches with their guarded walls, battlements, spires, steeples, niches and recesses presenting the wildest and most wonderful scene that the eye of man ever has beheld – truly one of the wonders of the world.
The famous spires, called “hoodoos,” are formed when ice and rainwater wear away the weak limestone that makes up the Claron Formation. For 200 days a year the temperature goes above and below freezing every day. During the day, water seeps into fractures only to freeze at night, expanding by 9%. As ice, it exerts a tremendous force (14-140 MPa) on the surrounding rock. Over time this “frost-wedging” shatters and pries rock apart. In addition, rain water, which is naturally acidic, slowly dissolves the limestone, rounding off edges and washing away debris.
The result is thousands of delicately carved spires rising in brilliant color from the amphitheaters of Bryce Canyon National Park. Tinted with colors too numerous and subtle to name, these whimsically arranged rocks create a wondrous landscape of mazes, offering some of the most exciting and memorable walks and hikes imaginable.
The geologic term, “hoodoo”, lives on at Bryce Canyon National Park as perpetuated by early geologists who thought the rock formations could cast a spell on you with their magical spires and towering arches 🙂
Because Bryce Canyon transcends 650m of elevation, the park exists in three distinct climatic zones: spruce/fir forest, Ponderosa Pine forest and Pinyon Pine/juniper forest. This diversity of habitat provides for high biodiversity. At Bryce, you can enjoy over 100 species of birds, dozens of mammals and more than a thousand plant species.
So many superlatives can be used to describe Bryce Canyon National Park that in the end it all becomes cliché. And even the beauty of the park itself can become a cliché: images of the park adorn so many postcards, book covers, table mats and billboards that one begins to forget the place actually exists. This small cove of rock and plateau is a lesson in meta-geology and an open invitation to trance like concentration.
In the tales of the Paiute people of Utah, long ago there lived the To-whenan- ung-wa, or Legend People, who were animals of all kinds with the power to take on human form. They were arrogant and misused the land, so in punishment, the coyote god, known as a trickster by Native Americans, turned them all to stone. They still stand in their thousands at Bryce Canyon National Park, as hoodoos.
The Scottish-born Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, who gave his name to Bryce Canyon in the late 1870s, called it ‘a hell of a place to lose a cow’. Only the park’s prairie dogs are oblivious to the maze of hoodoos, creating underground labyrinths of their own.
Zion is easily one of North America’s most spectacular national parks. The area’s primary attraction is its soaring rock walls, among the tallest sandstone cliffs in the world, which form an area geologists used to colloquially call standing-up country, and Zion Canyon, where many of the tallest cliffs surround the Virgin River, is a canyon in America likely rivaled only by Yosemite Canyon. Zion Canyon and its tributaries are departures in relief downward from the high-plateau surface. The canyons are so narrow, so deep and so well interlaced that in places the entire country seems to be made up of great gorges, cliffs, buttes, mesas and a marvelous variety of lesser erosional forms.
To this extraordinary relief must be added a lavish and bold colour overprint. The sedimentary rocks that form the walls and slopes are naturally white, red, yellow, green, purple and rust. Worked upon by the weather of countless years, the rocks have been broken to fragments and chemically altered. Today they seem to have been painted, by some monumental brush, with an infinite variety of vivid splashes and pastel shades. After rainstorms the colours can be startlingly intense. Artists and photographers are constantly being drawn here by the challenge of capturing Zion in its infinite variety of moods.
Its name bestowed by Mormon settlers who found it utterly heavenly, Zion National Park is an oasis in the desert. Here a meandering river snakes between dizzyingly high canyon walls, and secret springs and emerald pools hide in shady grottos.
What makes Zion stand out is its accessibility. In Grand Canyon, you’ve got a superb view nearly 1,800 meters down to the Colorado, but to actually experience the river, to get down to it, you’ve got to be a bit of a brute; trails there either wind along the canyon rim or plunge down steeply to the river, and once you get there the only choice is to hike back out. In Zion, however, you start at the bottom, and while there are steep tracks that lead up towards the high country most of the trails follow the canyon bottoms into far recesses.
That confluence of canyon walls often exposes water seeping through the rock; when it bursts or bubbles out, small clusters of shooting stars, monkey flowers, evening primrose, larkspurs, even orchids, blossom back with gratitude. These oases contrast sharply with the stark desert landscapes that often lie just feet away, and the endless bare rock ramparts that rise dizzyingly out of sight. The result is a seductive wilderness of breathtaking beauty that at once beckons the casual visitor and the experienced backcountry traveler.
Even with eyes closed, Zion National Park overawes with the names of its mountains and valleys – the Court of the Patriarchs, Tabernacle Dome, the Organ, the Pulpit and the Great White Throne. Mount Moroni bears the name of the angel who Mormons believe appeared to the founder of their church in the 1820s, and even the area’s native religions get a look-in, with the Temple of Sinawava – that trickster coyote god again.
Zion Canyon’s grandeur and beauty inspire overwhelming feelings of awe, reverence and peace in all who view it. These are the emotions that no doubt prompted the exalted names that have been bestowed upon its natural features, names that have been retained and added to in like spirit: Watchman, Altar of Sacrifice, East Temple, West Temple, Angels Landing, Temple of Sinawava and Zion itself are eloquent examples. The word “Zion” is Hebrew for “a place of peace and relaxation”.
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