At 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide and more than a mile deep, the Grand Canyon is one of the most unusual natural environments anywhere on the planet. More than 4 million people visit each year, staying at resorts nearby such as Yavapai Lodge.
But a question many have is: how on Earth did something as staggering as the Grand Canyon come to be?
There’s a lot of folklore around the Grand Canyon’s origin. Along with measurable facts.
The Navajo have their own legend about its formation. After many days of rain, the water rose high over the tops of the mountains. After the rain stopped, the waters rushed down and carved out the canyon.
Some Christian theologians believe the Grand Canyon was the site of the biblical Great Flood, thus proving the existence of Noah’s Ark.
But scientists like Richard S. Laub – assistant professor at the University at Buffalo and former curator of geology at the Buffalo Museum of Science – will tell you that to understand the Grand Canyon’s origin, you have to literally and figuratively dig a little deeper.
“The Colorado River helped to create the Grand Canyon beginning approximately 5 million years ago but this was driven by plate tectonics,” said Dr. Laub, who holds a doctorate in paleontology. “When the plate bearing the North American continent began overriding plates beneath the Pacific Ocean, powerful geological forces were put into place, which led to the formation of mountains, volcanos and geysers. This is what shaped the unique landscape we see today.”
You can get a good feel for the passage of time captured at the Grand Canyon at the South Rim’s Trail of Time. This interpretive walking timeline invites visitors to explore the magnitude of geologic time and the stories captured by the Grand Canyon rock layers and landscapes.
Erosion is another creator with its hands all over the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River has been winding through what is now the American Southwest for millions of years. The river helped to create the chasm we see today.
But why haven’t other rivers carved out canyons on this scale? The answer has to do with a river that falls on a steep incline, and the energy created through it. The powerful Colorado River is a perfect example.
“When the crust beneath the Colorado River became uplifted, the steepness of the river increased considerably,” explained Dr. Laub. “Rivers flow from high to low. If the gradient is steep with a great incline, a river will flow more rapidly through a valley. Before it was uplifted, starting some 5 million years ago, this was a flat-lying area so it was gentler like the lower Mississippi River. As the Colorado Plateau rose and the gradient increased, the channel began to cut down much deeper.”
Prehistoric humans first settled in and around the canyon during the last Ice Age, when mammoths and giant sloths still roamed North America. At Yavapai Lodge, you can explore the Grand Canyon’s living history, at a place where ancient ages have been captured in time.
That’s one of the reasons so many want to see this national treasure in-person.
According to Dr. Laub, when you look at the Grand Canyon’s walls, you’re viewing a part of the story of the Earth.
“The Grand Canyon is worth a visit because you’re able to clearly see the changes that have taken place over the past 2 billion years,” shared Dr. Laub. “The oldest areas that date back to the Precambrian age are at the bottom of the canyon. The rock at the top is newer, around 250 million years old. So visitors gain an incredible perspective. It’s like paging through a book to get a glimpse at what’s inside.”
For those looking to get a deeper understanding of the natural phenomena that led to the Grand Canyon’s formation, the Yavapai Geology Museum is a great place to visit.
So the next time someone asks how the Grand Canyon was formed, you can clue them in. Tell them Plate Tectonics did it. With Erosion. In the Colorado Plateau.