Geography Features The Grand Canyon
About the Grand Canyon, the biggest canyon in the world, history and geography of the canyon.
It is one of the most impressive geologic formations in the world, consisting of gorges, can-yons, and ravines cut by the Colorado River along a winding 217-mi. course extending from Arizona's northern boundary with Utah to its eastern border with Nevada. The most spectacular segment of the canyon is the 56-mi. section within the Grand Canyon National Park, where the canyon floor is 5,300 ft. below the rim.
As a scenic wonder, the Grand Canyon has few rivals. Predominantly red, its steep walls contain layers of subtly shaded tans, grays, greens, browns, and purples. Panoramic views can be seen from the South Rim, which is open year round, or from the North Rim, which at 8,200 ft. is snow-covered and closed during the winter. The two rims are connected by a 21-mi. trail that winds through the canyon and provides a good chance for visitors to see the varied flora and fauna, which range from subtropical to arctic. The canyon's trails can be explored by foot or by mule; rafts and powerboats provide a scenic journey along the river.
Geologically, the Grand Canyon is a record of a period spanning more than 1 billion years. At the base of the canyon are the most ancient rocks, contorted granitic formations comprising the roots of long-eroded mountains. The colorful layers of rock higher up on the canyon walls consist mostly of limestones, shales, and sandstones that have been eroded by the Colorado during the last 10 million years. It has been estimated that the river continues to carry off about 500,000 tons of sediment a day. Near the rims of the canyon are plateau tops partially covered with lava sheets and volcanic cones of relatively recent origin, some of which may have been active in the last 1,000 years.
Within the sedimentary formations of the canyon are fossils and bones comprising an incomparable history of life forms. These range from fossil remains of primitive algae and seashells to tracks and bones of dinosaurs, camels, horses, elephants, and ground sloths.
Many ruins of prehistoric pueblos and cliff dwellings have been found in the canyon, but today only the Havasupai Indians inhabit it. They live in a small settlement below the South Rim near the park's western boundary and offer their services as guides to tourists.
The first white men to report sighting the canyon were members of the Coronado expedition of 1540. Modern scientific exploration began with John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Colorado River in 1869. Since the 1890s the area has been a popular tourist attraction, and in 1919 Congress created the national park, extending over 673.575 acres. More than 2 million people visit the canyon each year.
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