Wednesday 18 September 2019

Impossible to Conceive: Grand Canyon National Park

I have come here to see the Grand Canyon of Arizona, because in that canyon Arizona has a natural wonder, which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world. I shall not attempt to describe it, because I cannot.  I could not choose words that would convey or that could convey to any outsider what that canyon is. I want you to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest and in the interest of the country--to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.
Theodore Roosevelt, the greatest American president, spoke these words on his first visit to the Grand Canyon in 1903, five years before he would exercise executive power to preserve it as a National Monument. He was not alone in his sentiments. Even the lyrical John Muir, spiritual father of the US National Parks, wrote in 1902 that "it is impossible to conceive what the canyon is, or what impression it makes, from descriptions or pictures, however good."

Click on images for a larger version.
All photos by Cory Gross unless otherwise noted.

The most accurate description of the Grand Canyon is to admit that it simply cannot be described. Nothing does it justice. No words can capture its subliminity. No photograph prepares you for its vastness. The four edges of a screen constrain the pure power of being surrounded by its sheer walls of living rock. Listing off its dimensions is of little help: 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and 1.25 miles deep. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon sits at approximately 7,000 ft elevation - as high as some alpine passes in the Canadian Rocky Mountains - and the North Rim towers another 1,000 ft higher than that. During summer, the relentless Colorado River that continues to carve out the Grand Canyon flows at a rate of 100,000 cubic feet per second. For all but the most geographically astute, those are mere numbers.

The Grand Canyon from a viewpoint called "The Abyss".

The most able descriptor of the Grand Canyon's sheer power was Ferde Grofé. While working as an arranger for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Grofé took on a role as the chanticleer of the American experience. He composed the Mississippi Suite in 1925 and Metropolis: a Fantasy in Blue in 1928. In 1931 he completed his magnum opus and most well-known work: the Grand Canyon Suite. In five movements lasting just over a half hour, Grofé captured in Jazz orchestral form the mystery, terror, and grandeur of the world's most magnificent geologic specimen. Its stirring refrains (and the clip-clop rhythm of hoofbeats) are some of the greatest in American popular music.

Yet Grofé does stray from the Grand Canyon itself: the second of its movements is "The Painted Desert". The story of the Grand Canyon is not limited to what is contained between its two rims. Its existence is owed to the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, spanning significant portions of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. Complications in the roiling mantle of the Earth underlying the plateau began to push it upwards 20 million years ago. Drainage off the plateau in turn carved out and turned up an incredible array of geologic features. The Colorado Plateau has the highest concentration of US National Parks units in the country, with 9 National Parks and 18 National Monuments. The Grand Canyon's story is truly a regional story.

The Painted Desert 

Easiest viewing of the Painted Desert comes in another one of those National Parks of the Colorado Plateau: Petrified Forest. In the northernmost section of the park lies incredible views of badlands in hues of red, yellow, gray, blue, purple, green, and brown. These startling colours are a product of the conditions under which the 225 million year old Chinle Formation was laid down.

Five views of the Painted Desert from north to south and lowering in elevation.

A roadside trio of peaks called "The Tepees."

Photos of the Blue Forest area.

At the time, Arizona was on the equatorial southwestern edge of the super-continent Pangaea. Sediments deposited in its humid, subtropical climate were rich in iron and manganese which eventually oxidized into the Painted Desert's stunning palate. These same minerals worked their way into the great fallen logs that fossilized over millions of years. Petrified wood from the Petrified Forest is world-renowned for its brilliant starbursts of white quartz, of yellow, red, and brown iron oxides, and of blue, purple, and black manganese oxides.

A huge petrified log called "Old Faithful."

Limitless fields of petrified wood make for limitless photographs.

Between jams of Triassic timber are found the remains of a strange diversity of prehistoric reptiles of which the earliest dinosaurs were only a small part. The Triassic was the Age of Crocodiles, like the terrifying predatory Postosuchus and armored herbivore Desmatosuchus. Ironically, the role of crocodiles was taken by phytosaurs, a crocodile-like cousin that lay in the water to ambush unwary Archosaurs (the group that includes dinosaurs, crocodiles, and pterosaurs) and the mammal-like reptile Placerias. In 1931, the Rainbow Forest Museum was constructed to house exhibits of the park's palaeontological and archaeological resources.

The Rainbow Forest Museum.

A phytosaur skull. This superficially crocodile-like animal most common
animal found at Petrified Forest and an excellent example of convergent evolution.

The cow-sized Placerias, more closely related to humans than to dinosaurs.

Postosuchus (left) and Desmatosuchus (right), two species of
prehistoric reptile more closely related to crocodiles than to dinosaurs.

The most comfortable place from which to view the Painted Desert is the Painted Desert Inn, located within Petrified Forest National Park. The hotel began life in 1920 as "Stone Tree House",  was sold to the National Parks Service in 1936 and redeveloped by the Civilian Conservation Corps, only to close for the duration of World War II. When the doors reopened in 1947, it was under the auspices of the Fred Harvey Company. Founded in 1878, the Fred Harvey Company became America's first chain restaurant, providing quality food and service to travelers across the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in the years before dining cars existed. The "Harvey House" became a fixture along the route, staffed by the "Harvey Girls" in stiff, starched white aprons. Harvey's trackside restaurants eventually expanded into an empire of hotels, tours, and transportation that has since morphed into Xanterra, the largest National Parks concessionaire in the country.

The Painted Desert Inn.

Another famed woman whose name is inexorably linked with the Fred Harvey Company is designer and architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. Her association with the company began in 1901 and she quickly rose to become its chief architect and decorator. For the Painted Desert Inn, she repainted the hotel, installed new plate glass windows to maximize its commanding view of the Painted Desert, and commissioned Hopi artist Fred Kabotie to adorn the hotel's walls with murals depicting Indigenous spiritual life.

Painted Desert Inn's soda fountain, once used for quicker meals for travellers.

The original dining room.

One of Fred Kabotie's murals.

The hotel's common room with the plate windows installed by Mary Colter.

The view of the Painted Desert out the windows.

Rooms in the Painted Desert Inn were more like
attached cabins accessed from the outside of the building.

The challenge for every architect associated with the golden age of the National Parks was how to build functional and beautiful spaces that not only fit comfortably into their stunning natural surroundings, but amplified their majesty. These quaint lodges and grand hotels not only satisfied material needs for food and accommodation, but also satisfied romantic ideals of the American landscape. Architects like Thomas Vint (who designed the Rainbow Forest Museum), Herbert Maier, and Merel Sager worked with a simple ethos of using local stone and log construction. A few, like Gilbert Stanley Underwood, developed a signature style that is easily recognizable from Yellowstone to Yosemite to the Grand Canyon. Mary Colter was a genius of themed design, building each of her plans around a central story or idea.

Colter's masterpiece was La Posada Hotel in nearby Winslow, Arizona. The town was the state headquarters for the Santa Fe Railroad and they, with the Fred Harvey Company, wanted a spectacular showpiece. In 1929, Colter was given complete control over every aspect of the Spanish Colonial Revival style hotel's design, from the architecture to the stained glass and lighting fixtures. Her guiding principle was a story she fabricated of an old Spanish family dating back 120 years. Each succeeding generation of ranchero prospered, beautifying and expanding the family hacienda until the stock market crash of 1929. The final Don Alphonso de los Pajaros was forced by circumstance to sell the property to the Santa Fe Railroad and Fred Harvey Company. Sadly the Santa Fe Railroad decommissioned the hotel in 1957, renovating it into an office building before abandoning it altogether. The hotel was saved from demolition in 1997 when it was purchased by Allen Affeldt and his wife Tina Mion. The pair have transformed La Posada into a fascinating, artistic boutique hotel.

Entrance to La Posada Hotel off Route 66.

The gardens on the track side of the hotel. For railway travellers,
this would have been the entrance to the hotel.

The original Santa Fe railway station attached to the hotel, currently
a museum of railway history though the hotel still serves as an active Amtrack station.

The original ballroom.

Mexican style dominates La Posada in keeping with
Mary Colter's story, though now mixed with Tina Mion's
paintings and other objects d'arte.

Everything is beautiful in La Posada.

The gift shop is well stocked with imported Mexican goods like these
tin and tile boxes, Indigenous rugs and goods, and Arizona souvenirs.

The Turquoise Room, La Posada's five-star restaurant.

Shaded outdoor seating areas abound, allowing guests to enjoy the gardens.

While the National Parks showcased the unparalleled sublime reality of nature, Colter adorned it with a dreamscape of log cabins, haciendas, pueblos, watchtowers, and hermitages that romantic fantasy demanded. She found ample work on the Colorado Plateau, taking inspiration from its geography, history, and Indigenous peoples.

The Sinagua People

Amidst the fossils of Petrified Forest National Park are the archaeological remains of past Indigenous cultures. The oldest go back 13,000 years to the mammoth-hunting Clovis culture that dominated North America at the very end of the Ice Age. The Puerco Pueblo site housed up to 200 people at its peak around 1300 CE. Much of the building material for these prehistoric cultures came from the fossils around them. Petrified wood was used for spear tips, then arrowheads, then buildings. Agate House was a pueblo dwelling built of petrified wood some time between 1050 and 1300 CE.

The ruins of Puerco Pueblo.

Agate House, constructed of petrified wood.

About 500 CE, a new culture developed on the Colorado Plateau that archaeologists have since dubbed the "Sinagua" people (from the Spanish for "without water"). This new culture had many similarities to other ancestral puebloan cultures around them, including the adoption of pit houses and pueblo architecture. Wupatki National Monument, created in 1924 north of the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, preserves the remnants of several Sinagua pueblos.

Wupatki Pueblo, the largest of the national monument's ruins.

A closer view of Wupatki Pueblo.

Another nearby pueblo, Wukoki.

The largest dwelling, named "Wupatki", had over 100 rooms, a community hall, and a ball court similar to those from Mesoamerica. Altogether it was the largest settlement in the region. What prompted its development was the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater Volcano, itself enshrined as a National Monument in 1930.

As a plume in the Earth's mantle caused the Colorado Plateau to rise, it also created a volcanic hotspot called the San Francisco Volcanic Field. 600 volcanoes span 1,800 square miles, erupting from 6 million years ago to a mere 1,000. The youngest of these eruptions was Sunset Crater, a cinder cone named for the beautiful red and gold "sunset" colours ringing its caldera. Trails to the top of Sunset Crater are no longer permitted by the National Parks Service, but another relatively young cinder cone, SP Crater, lies on private land and its owners allow respectful visitors to scale its peak.

Sunset Crater Volcano and associated Bonita Lava Flow.

SP Crater.

Other volcanoes of the San Francisco Volcanic Field are visible while scaling SP Crater.
The views are one of the few joys of climbing a cinder cone. Loose cinders
bring to life the adage "one step forward, two steps back".  SP Crater took
over an hour to climb up and less than 15 minutes to slide back down.

The peak of SP Crater.

SP Crater's lava flow as seen from the peak.
A cinder cone first erupts from the peak, explosively
building up the volcano with loose cinders. Once sufficient
pressure has been blown off, fluid lava ruptures from the base,
flowing for miles across the landscape.

The eruption of Sunset Crater deposited layers of fertile volcanic ash on the Wupatki settlement that in turn drew upwards of 2000 immigrants to farm the "Three Sisters" of maize, beans, and squash. By 1182, between 85 and 100 people lived at Wupatki alone. Yet by 1225 the site was abandoned.

More so than their pueblos, the Sinagua people are admired today for their cliff-dwellings. At 350 ft deep Walnut Canyon National Monument east of Flagstaff are found the remnants of 80-some Sinagua dwellings built into the recesses of the canyon's rocky face. Walnut Canyon was declared a National Monument in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson. Even more dramatic is Montezuma Castle National Monument, about a hour's drive south of Flagstaff. Montezuma Castle contained over 4,000 sq ft of floor space spread across five stories of structures over 90 ft up a vertical limestone cliff. Theodore Roosevelt listed Montezuma Castle as a National Monument in 1906, along with Petrified Forest (which became a National Park in 1962).

Walnut Canyon. Small cliff dwellings dot the walls under overhanging layers.

Montezuma Castle.

Settling in these canyons allowed the Sinagua to access stable sources of water in an otherwise dry climate. Building up the cliff face protected them from both would-be enemies and flooding of the very rivers that gave them life. But once their traditional way of life became impossible after 1300, the Sinagua people moved on. Today, many clans of the Hopi, Yavapai, Zuni, and other nearby Indigenous nations claim ancestry from the Sinagua peoples. These canyons and ancient pueblos are sacred sites to these groups. Most sacred of all is the Grand Canyon itself.

Sunset at Wupatki National Monument.

The Grand Canyon Railway

The first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon were a Spanish expedition in 1540, in search of the fabled "Seven Cities of Gold." They were lead to the South Rim by Hopi guides who were reluctant to help them explore further. After a few initial forays, they found it to be an impassable barrier and the region was effectively abandoned by the Spanish. When the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded Arizona to the United States, this remote and inhospitable chasm became the subject of increasing scientific and economic attention.

Lt. Joseph Ives was dispatched in 1857 in a steamboat called the Explorer to determine if there was a navigable route up the Colorado. He decidedly stated that his expedition would be "the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality." His geologist, John Strong Newberry, felt differently and convinced fellow geologist and Civil War veteran Major John Wesley Powell to undertake a boating expedition down the Colorado. Powell led a pair of daring journeys to explore the canyon in 1869 and 1871-73. The 1869 expedition was dramatized in the 1960 Disney film Ten Who Dared, but at the time lacked artists and photographers who could leave impressionable images of the canyon in the minds of the public. This changed in the second expedition, which was joined by artist Thomas Moran in the summer of 1873, fresh off of the Hayden Expedition into Yellowstone. From his experiences at the Grand Canyon's rim he painted Chasm of the Colorado, which lit the fire for the masses to see this indescribable wonder spot first hand.

The Chasm of the Colorado by Thomas Moran, 1873.

Tourism to the canyon was limited to coach and horseback until the 20th century. That all changed in 1901 when the Santa Fe Railroad completed a spur line from Williams, Arizona, 64 miles to the South Rim. The arrival of the Grand Canyon Railway was very quickly followed by the instrument of its demise. The first automobile in the Grand Canyon arrived in 1902, and by 1930 the car became the preferred method for accessing the canyon. On the original railway's final run in July 1968, there were only three passengers. Thankfully, the line was rescued by Max and Thelma Biegert in 1988, who reopened it as a tourist attraction that now serves hundreds of people every day seeking the views of the Grand Canyon without the hassle of traffic. Coming full circle, in a sense, ownership passed to Xanterra in 2006.

A steam engine parked outside the historic train station in Williams.  

Trains depart from the Williams Depot, built by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1908 and originally housing one of the first Fred Harvey hotels, the Fray Marcos. The building is the oldest poured concrete structure in Arizona and currently in use by the GCRR as a ticket counter, cafe and giftshop. Unfortunately the Fray Marcos Hotel was effectively abandoned in 1954. While the building is still there, passengers aboard the GCRR tend to stay at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, a modern 298-room edifice next door.

Trackside at the historic train station in Williams.

Exterior of the Fray Marcos Hotel portion of the station.
the former entrance is under the colonnade.

The grand staircase in the former lobby of the Fray Marcos Hotel.
The Grand Canyon Railway currently uses the space as
cafe seating and a customer lounge.

All aboard! The Grand Canyon Railway gets ready to depart Williams for its
two-hour and 15 minute ride to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Luxury Parlor Class, the best and most expensive class
of travel on the GCRR with private bar and continental breakfast.
(Yes, that is what we rode) 

The view out the eponymous dome of Luxury Dome Class.

Pullman Class, the most affordable and historic cars on the train.
These were originally built in 1923, as opposed to the
diesel streamline era vintage of the other cars.

The railway winds from the desert through the
Ponderosa pine forest to the South rim at 7,000 ft.

Terminus for the GCRR is the Grand Canyon Depot. Built in 1909-10, it is one of only three remaining log railway depots in the United States. Designing the depot fell to Francis W. Wilson, architect for the Santa Fe Railroad, who chose a log construction to complement the El Tovar Hotel, the luxurious lodge overlooking both the tracks and the canyon rim.

The GCRR arrives at the Grand Canyon, under the watchful eye of the sheriff.

The historic train depot.

A vintage diesel engine parked outside the depot at Grand Canyon.

Another view of the GCRR's streamline cars. Luxury Parlor Class
brings up the rear, preceded by the Luxury Dome and other classes.

The El Tovar Hotel

Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the Grand Canyon to be a National Monument in 1908, by which time the Santa Fe Railroad was already well-ensconced. Santa Fe and Fred Harvey's plans for the El Tovar Hotel were already being drafted in 1902, and were hardly interrupted by Roosevelt's misinformed 1903 plea: "I was delighted to learn of the wisdom of the Santa Fe railroad people in deciding not to build their hotel on the brink of the canyon. I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon." On the contrary, when the great president returned to Grand Canyon in 1911 and 1913, he stayed at the El Tovar. The destination hotel was completed and opened to the public in 1905, who marveled at its composite of Oregon log construction atop local limestone, with Swiss, Western, Mission, Arts and Crafts, and Southwest styles.

Exterior views of the El Tovar Hotel.

Lobby of the El Tovar.

Lower floor of the rotunda.

Upper level of the rotunda, a comfortable space
for guests of the hotel to relax away from the flow
of visitors through the lobby.

Views of the restaurant with its murals representing
the Indigenous peoples of the Grand Canyon.

Across the plaza from the El Tovar and opened just a few months before the hotel, Hopi House was constructed as a themed souvenir shop operated by Fred Harvey. Mary Colter designed the building around traditional Hopi pueblo architecture and intended for it to be more than merely a store. Hopi House was to be a "living museum" where wares were crafted on site by Hopi artisans, whose creative processes could be viewed by potential customers. The building itself was constructed in the traditional manner by Hopi workers.

Exterior of Hopi House.

Acquisition of mementoes was not limited to official Fred Harvey operations. In 1906, the Verkamp family also moved to the Grand Canyon and set up their own home and souvenir shop. The store was built in Southwest style using Mission materials and construction, creating an idiosyncratic synthesis. It stayed in the family until 2008 when the Verkamps opted not to renew their concessionaires licence, whereupon the National Parks Service renovated the building into a visitor's centre.

The grand fireplace inside Verkamp's.

In 1904, the pioneering Kolb brothers began work on their home and studio hanging off the very precipice. Emery and Illsworth Kolb first arrived at the Grand Canyon in 1902 and started a brisk business in selling photographs. In 1911, the brothers took to cinema and filmed their own white water voyage down the Colorado. Their home reached completion in 1926 and remained in the family until Emery's death in 1976.

This interior theatre, now an exhibit space, was used by the
Kolb brothers to show their film and provide lectures for visitors.

When the Kolb brothers scoped out a location for a permanent residence, they knew it had to be at the head of the Bright Angel Trail. From the studio, they could take photos of visitors as they descended into the canyon on mule-back. By the time those visitors returned to the rim, the developed photos were ready for purchase. El Tovar Stables, built in 1904, continues to serve as home for the famed Grand Canyon mules who make daily descents to the edge of the Colorado River for guests wanting to get away from the bustle of the South Rim.

El Tovar Stables.

A National Park Service mule train leaving the corral at the Bright Angel Trailhead
to pack supplies down to ranger stations down in the canyon. 

On the Trail

It is roughly estimated that of the more than six million people who visit Grand Canyon National Park every year, less than 11% actually descend below the rim. An even smaller percentage make it all the way to the bottom: around 1%. The overwhelming majority are contented to take in the picturesque views from the edge, and are blameless for being so contented. Venturing into the depths of the Grand Canyon is not to be taken lightly. The canyon claims the lives of approximately 20 people each year, and provides emergency medical services for over a thousand more. Only a few of those fatalities, about 2-3, are from falling. Many, many more are from people who failed to show proper respect or preparation for the taxing physicality of the Grand Canyon.

Rather than make the trek on foot, mules were employed very early on to ferry passengers and supplies. Mules are the surefooted offspring of a female horse and a male burro, and were first employed at the Grand Canyon by miners seeking a fortune in minerals. Many of those tapped out mines can still be found in the canyon's backcountry today (and at least one creek is deemed unsafe due to contamination from uranium mining). The first use of mules for tourism was in 1887 and helped to widen the pathways and construct the infrastructure for both riders and hikers. Their hoofbeats are such an indelible part of the Grand Canyon experience that Ferde Grofé dedicated one entire movement of his suite to them, imitating their braying with woodwind and strings.

For those lucky enough to win Xanterra's lottery system, the destination for the overnight mule ride to the Colorado River is Phantom Ranch. This grouping of cabins at the canyon bottom was designed by Mary Colter and constructed by the Fred Harvey Company in 1922. This was preceded by "Roosevelt Camp," a tent camp named in honour of Theodore Roosevelt who stayed in the vicinity on his 1913 trip. He was preceded by prospectors, who were preceded by John Wesley Powell's expeditions, who were preceded by Indigenous peoples whose archaeological remains date back to at least 1050.

Cabins and central lodge at Phantom Ranch. Photos: NPS.

For those less lucky (or physically or financially fit to make the still-arduous and expensive journey), Xanterra offers a three-hour "Canyon Vista" tour along the rim that still offers a flavour of the classic Grand Canyon experience. Most people who do venture into the canyon, however, are forced to rely on their own two feet. 

The two most popular trails from the South Rim are the Bright Angel and the South Kaibab. The South Kaibab is the more rugged of the two, without bathrooms, potable water, or emergency telephones. For this reason, the National Parks Service recommends hikers descend on the South Kaibab and ascend on the Bright Angel. The NPS also strenuously advises hikers not to attempt to hike rim-to-river and back in a single day, or even passing the half-way point on either trail, due to the Grand Canyon's potentially fatal severity.

Sunrise along the South Kaibab Trail.

Encroaching upon O'Neill Butte.

Looking back at the sunrise over Vishnu Temple,
one of the Grand Canyon's most distinctive peaks.

Descending switchbacks down to the broad Tonto Plateau.

The South Kaibab Trail reaches the Tonto Plateau.

Connecting the South Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails just past their half-way points is the Tonto Trail. The full Tonto Trail spans the entire length of the National Park, paralleling the Colorado River for 70 miles. It is named for the Tonto Plateau, a broad platform that separates the Inner Gorge of the Colorado from the rest of the Grand Canyon. Only 4.5 miles of the Tonto Trail lie between its junction with The Tip-Off on the South Kaibab Trail and Indian Garden on the Bright Angel Trail. Yet those 4.5 miles are a lonesome, punishing, and sobering spectacle. The absence of fellow tourists leaves you feeling like the entire canyon is yours, yet you are infinitesimally small within it. From the rim looking down, the mind cannot comprehend what it is seeing and causes the eye to shrink the canyon's proportions. Within it you understand how high those walls really are, how far the distances between objects really is. The grandeur of the Grand Canyon is only truly experienced when you are surrounded by it.

Surveying the unutterable desolation of the Tonto Plateau.

The Tonto Trail winds around massive, house-sized boulders cleft from the cliff above. 

We found the one tree eking out an existence in the scrubby desert!

These immense rifts descend from the Tonto Plateau to the Inner Gorge.
Unfortunately you do have to hike around them in the punishing sun.

The Tonto Trail finally intersects with the oasis
of Indian Garden and the Bright Angel Trail.

Signage at the rim alerts visitors that going down into the Grand Canyon is optional, but coming back up is mandatory. Though descending mule rides go down the Bright Angel Trail and up the South Kaibab, the National Parks Service advises hikers to go the opposite route. All along the Bright Angel are a series of resthouses with bathrooms and potable water. This, along with its trailhead just west of the El Tovar Hotel, makes the Bright Angel the most accessible path for short jaunts or that surpassingly strenuous climb back out of the canyon.

Waiting out the heat of the day under
the green canopy of Indian Garden.

The visitor centre at Indian Garden.

Beginning the ascent of the Bright Angel Trail. 3,000 ft to go.

Approaching Three Mile Resthouse, three trail miles and
2,000 ft from the Bright Angel Trailhead.

Three Mile Resthouse, a welcome respite with shade and water.

Still ascending, now in the shade of the afternoon.

One-and-a-Half Mile Resthouse. Almost there.

The lower of two tunnels carved through the living rock.
The rim is so close we can taste it.

Late, late afternoon views out from the Bright Angel Trail.
The full hike from the South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel
Trailhead via the Tonto Trail was literally sunrise to sunset.

Preparation is the key to survival in the Grand Canyon. Too many go in unprepared, without a map or heeding the advice of the National Parks Service, and their simple family day hike becomes a potentially fatal ordeal. Hiking its depths is not a frivolous exercise. It needs to be taken seriously. The Grand Canyon demands everything from you physically, mentally, and emotionally. It demands respect, and if you do not give it the respect it deserves then it will force you to respect it.

But if you do go in with respect and preparation, then the Grand Canyon will open its sublime wonders to you. When you are surrounded by the canyon, it becomes everything. It is beautiful and horrible, amazing and punishing, inspiring and exhausting, wonderful and awful all at once.

The Yavapai Geology Museum

The grandeur of the Grand Canyon comes not only from its sheer, imposing physical presence or its sublime aesthetic qualities, but from the depth of history it represents. The study of geology is so fascinating exactly because it is the closest we can come, and perhaps ever will come, to time travel. No human has seen the world as it was 300 or 500 or 1000 million years ago, yet what those distant ages left behind reaches through time. In the Grand Canyon, the keen eye observes the petrified remains of coral reefs and sand dunes, tropical forests of tree ferns and episodes of volcanic fury. To touch fossilized reptile footprints and unfossilized giant sloth dung, both of which have been found in the Grand Canyon, is to touch the past.

A block of 260 million year old reptile tracks along the Bright Angel Trail.

A dessicated ball of sloth dung found in the Grand Canyon, currently on
display at the Museum of Northern Arizona in the city of Flagstaff.

To interpret this unfathomable expanse of time and stone, the Yavapai Point Trailside Museum was constructed in 1928 by architect Herbert Maier on a site selected by geologists to exemplify the Grand Canyon's geology. It startling panoramic views are annotated with signage and exhibits that have been constantly improved as scientific knowledge has expanded.

Unfortunately, like many buildings along the rim, the best views of the
Yavapai Point Museum would have to come from a flight through the canyon.
This is its trailside entrance.

The view from within looking out.

At the very bottom of the Grand Canyon lay the Vishnu Basement Rocks, dating to about 1.7 billion years old. At that inconceivably distant era, volcanic island chains were being grafted onto the edge of North America through plate tectonic action. At various points through the canyon, the Vishnu Basement Rocks are visibly overlain by the Grand Canyon Supergroup, a sandwich of alternating marine and terrestrial deposits dating from 1.2 billion to 740 million years ago. The Grand Canyon Supergroup appears and disappears because at some point around 600 million years ago, what is now the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon were raised up as a vast range of mountains. The entire sequence was titled by 15 degrees, uplifted, and then eroded down before the next layers were deposited. Separating the top of the Inner Gorge from the flat-lying Tonto Group is The Great Unconformity, a boundary representing 460 million years of erosion.

The gentle green slopes of the Bright Angel Shale drop off at the Tapeats
Sandstone, both part of the Tonto Group. Beneath the wall of Tapeats
Sandstone lies the Great Unconformity and granites of the Vishnu Basement.

The Tonto Group is comprised of three layers: the erosion-resistant cliffs of the Tapeats Sandstone, the broad, weak, green-tinted plateau of the Bright Angel Shale (which comprises the Tonto Plateau), and the once-more erosion-resistant cliffs of the Muav Limestone. These date to the middle Cambrian period, ~544-505 million years ago and represent a coastal offshore environment rich in fossils of trilobites and brachiopods. The overlying Redwall Limestone dates to the early Mississippian (~358-330 million years ago or MYA). On top of the Redwall is another unconformity, over which sits the Supai Group.

The Supai Group represents a late Pennsylvanian to early Permian (~318-285 MYA) sequence during which the ocean moved in on the land and back out again. The Supai Group is overlain by the Permian-aged Hermit Shale (~275-270 MYA). The top of the Hermit Shale forms a very sharp contact with the Permian-aged Coconino Sandstone, trapping for posterity the moment when the coastal swamp of the Hermit was overtaken by the Coconino desert. Mudcracks have been found in the top of the Hermit that are filled in with sand from the Coconino. Overlying the Coconino Sandstone are the Toroweap Formation and the Kaibab Limestone, representing a sequence in which the Coconino desert was overtaken by the Toroweap coast and then the underwater continental shelf of the Kaibab. The Kaibab forms the surface at the Grand Canyon and on it one can find the canyon's most easily accessible fossils. Just remember to leave the fossils where they lie, so that they may be enjoyed by others in this national park.

From bottom to top: Bright Angel Shale, Muav Limestone,
the red-coloured Redwall Limestone, treed Supai Group and  Hermit Shale,
and finally the white walls of the Coconino Sandstone.

When hiking the Grand Canyon, formations become a
more interesting and reliable a measure of progress than
feet or miles. This path is finally approaching the
Supai Group, over which looms the Coconino Sandstone.

A fossiliferous exposure of Kaibab Limestone at the rim.

The stalk of a bryozoan, a type of colonial invertebrate common to tropical reefs.

One of the Kaibab's most common fossils, the sponge Actinocoelia meandrina.

The shell of a brachiopod, a clam-like animal unrelated to molluscs. 

Mary Colter at the Grand Canyon

After Hopi House in 1905, Mary Colter was tasked with designing several more structures throughout Grand Canyon National Park. Every single one is recognized as a National Historic Landmark today for their aesthetic beauty, their attachment to a pioneering female architect, and their contribution to the development of National Parks Rustic style.

In 1914, Colter designed both Lookout Studio and Hermit's Rest. Lying within the Grand Canyon Village Historic District at the South Rim, Lookout Studio is named exactly for its purpose. Hanging off the precipice above Bright Angel Trail, it's artificially ruinous parapets and terraces offer a dazzling, unobstructed viewpoint for sightseers and photographers. 

Lookout Studio perched on the South Rim in the morning light.

The canyonside face of Lookout Studio.

Hermit's Rest was named in honour of  Louis Boucher, a Canadian prospector who staked out a claim in the area in 1891 and built the remote Hermit Trail into the canyon. The building lies to the farthest west extremity of the Rim Trail, well beyond the Grand Canyon Village Historic District. Colter designed the building to appear antiquated, rough-hewn, and grafted into the canyon rock itself, much like a hermit would have built. Nevertheless, it evokes more sentiments of Mediaeval monasticism than the American Southwest and Boucher himself was no hermit, operating a popular touring outfit.

Exterior of Hermits Rest.

The grand hearth within Hermits Rest.

Entrances to the "rug room" to the left of the grand fireplace.
Originally Hermits Rest was a communal space with a small shoppe for
Navajo rugs and crafts. Today the entire floorspace has been monetized,
infringing on the restful, meditative atmosphere cultivated by Colter.

The entry arch to the grounds of Hermits Rest.
The bell was salvaged by Mary Colter from a
Spanish mission in New Mexico.

Colter finally complemented Hermit's Rest in 1932 with an observation point at the farthest east extremity of the National Park. Desert View Watchtower was inspired by the pueblo architecture of ancient Indigenous peoples. Though built as an artificial ruin, at 70 feet it is taller than any known pueblo structure of antiquity. For the interior, Colter hired Fred Kabotie to paint Hopi murals (as she later did for Painted Desert Inn) and Fred Greer to paint petroglyph-style images.

Desert View Watchtower. Photo: NPS.

After these observation points and souvenir shops, Colter was finally unleashed on a hotel. In 1935 she was tasked with renovating Bright Angel Lodge, one of the key hotels at the South Rim. The original hotel was established by an independent entrepreneur in 1896 and the oldest modern building at Grand Canyon still resides on the property. The Buckey O'Neill Cabin was built in 1890 by William "Buckey" O'Neill, one of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders who was killed in action in Cuba in 1898. The cabin became part of the Bright Angel Lodge and Camp complex, along with a former stagecoach station and hotel called Red Horse Station, and the whole thing was bought out by Santa Fe and Fred Harvey in 1905. Come 1935, Colter replaced the tents with cabins and replaced the old hotel with a new central lodge of rustic design.

Entrance to the Bright Angel Lodge main building.

Bright Angel's lobby fireplace.

Looking back towards the lobby entrance and check-in desk from the fireplace.

The history room and former ballroom, with a prominent "Jenny Lind" figure.
These wooden figures were used to promote the Jenny Lind brand of cigars,
an alternative to the "dime store" Indigenous person statue. One of only five in
existence, it was picked up by Colter in 1935 to decorate the Bright Angel Lodge.

Colter's geologic fireplace in the history room, built of rocks from
the interior of the Grand Canyon in proper stratigraphic sequence. 

Two examples of the more expensive rim cabins.

The Buckey O'Neill Cabin.

The Red Horse Station cabin.
Several other buildings, many designed by anonymous architects, make up the Grand Canyon Village Historic District. The village has been designated a National Historic Landmark District since 1987. The only things to mar the Village are Thunderbird, Kachina, and Maswik Lodges. The latter was built in 1967 and the two former, crammed between El Tovar and Bright Angel Lodge, were built in 1968. They are architectural products of their time and reflect the "Mission 66" plan to update the parks with ugly, dated, modern buildings.

Thunderbird Lodge, detracting from the historic character of the South Rim.

The Historic Village's power plant.

This beautiful home now houses the lost and found department.

Ranger operations building.

The Grand Canyon Association headquarters, nestled into the Ponderosa pine forest.

In Months and Seconds

In the early days of Santa Fe and Mary Colter, a trip to the Grand Canyon was no mean thing. The railroad itself shortened up a trip from months to weeks. Then the arrival of the automobile shortened the travel time up even more. In the post-war period, when Route 66 overtook the American imagination with road trips across the vast and diverse countryside, the Grand Canyon was a relatively quick jaunt. It had to be. The road beckoned onwards. Petrified Forest, Jack Rabbit's Trading Post, Meteor Crater, Two Guns and the Apache Death Cave, Twin Arrows, Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater, Wupatki, Grand Canyon, Seligman, Grand Canyon Caverns, Hackberry General Store, Kingman... Ever onwards to California and the end of the 2,448 mile "Mother Road." The town of Williams, home of the GCRR, was the last to be bypassed by the Interstate-40 in 1984. Road travel became faster, ever and ever faster, and many of those bypassed places along the old Route 66 became ruin.

The Route 66 monument in Petrified Forest National Park,
the only national park that contains a portion of the road's original alignment
(parallel to the telephone poles in the background).

The Painted Desert Indian Center with its plaster tipis and dinosaurs.

The famed sign of Jack Rabbit's Trading Post.

Meteor Crater, formed in mere seconds some 50,000 years ago
by a nickel-iron meteorite 160 ft across travelling at 29,000 mph.

Ruins of the old zoo at Two Guns, housing cougars, bobcats, and gila monsters.

A bridge over Canyon Diablo was the original crossing for Route 66.
A tourist trap arose around it called Two Guns. The tower in the left background
was build above the Apache Death Cave, a mystery attraction. 

The eponymous Twin Arrows of a now-defunct and ruined service station and diner.

A gaudily decorated car outside Delgadillo's Sno-Cap Drive-In in Seligman, Arizona.

Plaster dinosaurs welcome you to Grand Canyon Caverns.

The Grand Canyon Caverns are the largest dry cave system in the United States.

Scenes outside the Hackberry General Store.

The former Kozy Corner service station and RV park revitalized as the
Route 66 Antares Visitor Center. Giganticus Headicus, the giant Tiki head,
was built in 2004 by artist Gregg Arnold.

Kingman's historic railway station and a Santa Fe steam engine parked nearby.

Route 66 eastbound through Williams, Arizona, one of the few towns
along the "Mother Road" that is truly thriving from the Route 66 renaissance
(and proximity to the Grand Canyon).

The speed of travel has taken its toll on the Grand Canyon in multiple ways. For one, it brought an almost unrelenting crush of people: nearly 6.5 million visitors in 2018. There's nothing tourists hate more than other tourists. For another, it created the reputation that the Grand Canyon is a five-second wonder. Up roll the Griswolds, pile out of the car, take a look, snap some pictures, and you've "seen" it. But it is impossible to really see anything that quickly, let alone something as sublime and grand as the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon took time to make and demands time to appreciate. Take a word of advice from John Wesley Powell: "You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths." Months of toil may be much to ask today, but what he is saying is that the Grand Canyon is not so much something you see as something you experience. To experience it takes time... A few nights at least, a few steps below the rim, a few hours in contemplation, a few minutes with Ferde Grofé. It is impossible to conceive, and impossible to appreciate without giving it time.

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