Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Grand Canyon: America's Most Glorified National Park

-- a final response to my day in the Grand Canyon and my duty as student ambassador to this site --

In 1857, when Lt. Joseph Ives led the first U.S. Army survey party to explore the Grand Canyon, his opinion of the great crevice was less than optimistic. “The region is of course altogether valueless. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality,” he proclaimed as he floated down the Colorado River (Schmidt 12). While North American tribes such as the Cerbat and Navajo had been thriving in the canyon since the 1300’s, the first Spanish and American explorers came and went without so much as batting an eye. Yet today the Grand Canyon is undeniably one of the great American icons, mascot of the West, and symbol of nature’s potential grandiosity. As we experienced first hand during our visit, the area is bustling with tourists from every corner of the country and the globe, all eager to experience that rugged American adventure for which the West is known. Somewhere along the line of American history, the image and reputation of the Grand Canyon has been transformed from desolate, valueless wasteland to inspiring vacation destination. In following the story of our journey into the Grand Canyon, I want to explore how social institutions have contributed to our gradual change of heart during the last 150 years and how their influence has helped make the Grand Canyon America’s second most visited National Park.

As our group’s student ambassador to the Grand Canyon, I spent many hours researching the history of this ancient world wonder. The geological information on the forming of the canyon was fascinating, but it was a more recent chain of events that stood out to me the most. Ever since Major John Wesley Powell dubbed it the “Grand Canyon” in 1869, the canyon was put on the economic radar and has continued to gain attention from the U.S. government, moving up in the ranks of national historical and natural preserved sites.

A general westward expansion, the California Gold Rush, and the government’s promotion of the West as a “land of abundant resources” brought miners and settlers out to the canyon in the mid-1800’s (American). But after mining of the canyon’s natural resources – zinc, copper, lead, and asbestos – had been attempted and abandoned (because lugging these out of a mile-deep canyon proved rather difficult), tourism was decided upon as a more lucrative pursuit for the area. The canyon and several surrounding acres were surveyed and the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve was established in 1893 (Schmidt). The writers at, publishers of the popular guidebooks in the American Park Network series, help give us an idea of how and why the first tourists came.

As a new century dawned and transportation improved, Americans were changing how they viewed their young country. Writers, artists and photographers led the aesthetic revolution and, along with environmentalists, newspaper magnates and railroad barons, fought for the establishment of protected recreational areas called "national parks." At the Grand Canyon, writer/geologist Clarence Dutton and painter Thomas Moran produced imaginative works that celebrated the glory of the canyon. Soon, visitors clamored to see for themselves (American).

As the activists from all walks of life pushed for national recognition of the canyon, the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities was passed in 1906. This federal initiative is reflective of President Roosevelt’s and the nation’s growing appreciation for our public lands, and the act made way for the Grand Canyon to be upgraded to a National Monument in 1908. Finally, in 1919 the Grand Canyon became a National Park, as it remains today. Visitation increased steadily through the 1920’s as Americans prospered in a rich economy and travel through the region became more comfortable (National). The number of visitors was almost halved during the Great Depression, but quickly picked up again in 1935 and has continued to climb since. In 2008 the Grand Canyon National Park welcomed over 4.4 million visitors, making it the second most visited National Park (after the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whose visitation statistics include a number of default visits due to a major commuter road running through the park) (National).

By giving sites like the Grand Canyon titles such as “American Antiquity,” “National Monument,” and “National Park,” the government validates their aesthetic beauty and inherent worth, saying, This is what Americans value. These sites are such an important part of our identity as a nation that they are to be preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come; the Grand Canyon is for all of you, America. And Americans pick up on that. We think, “Oh, well if the government is taking note of this place there has to be something extra special about it,” so we set off to see for ourselves. Tour companies realize the importance of the government in promoting national parks and use it to their advantage, as a marketing tool. Several Grand Canyon travel sites and tour companies quote Theodore Roosevelt on their home pages: “Keep this great wonder of nature as it now is . . . Keep it for your children and your children’s children and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see” (Marvelous; Paradise; Travel). Without the U.S. government’s promotion of the West as a land of opportunity and its protection and ennoblement of the area as a national treasure, I doubt that the canyon’s popularity would have grown as fast and as wide as it has.

Going into this trip, the Grand Canyon was one of the stops I was anticipating the most. There was excitement in the air as all ten of us piled out of the bus and into the rental vans, eager to cover the 59 miles that lay between us and the South Rim. After a quick grocery run for breakfast food, snacks, and some reading material for the drive, we were on the road. During the hour it took to get to the Park, we literally sang the whole way--someone cutting in every 20 seconds to burst into a new tune, only to have everyone join in before breaking down hysterically. For the first time during the trip, I let down my guard and allowed myself to look goofy in front of my peers and new friends. It was as if there was an unspoken contract among us: we were prepared to do whatever it took to replicate a family road trip.

Upon arriving at the canyon, it wasn’t long before we were arguing over the plans for the rest of the day – do we split up so that some can hike a more exciting, more difficult trail, or do we stay as a group and trek the “easy” trail? In the end we stuck together and were surprised—if that was the easy hike, then the moderate one should be reserved for Olympic athletes! It wouldn’t have been a true family vacation had we not ended the day by stopping at a very generic but tasty, “first-restaurant-we-come-to-at-this-exit” which happened to be the creatively titled “We Cook Pizza and Pasta.” After recharging on carbohydrates we were back on the road. One last stop before our bunks: stargazing in the Arizona wilderness. At the end of the day Heather wrote about reflecting on her own family’s road trips to places like the Grand Canyon.

Growing up, my parents loaded my brother and me into the car with our luggage, some books, and picnic lunches of salami, cheddar cheese, apple slices, and Diet Coke. We drove all over the country, visiting family, resorts, and every antique shop, art gallery, farm implements museum, or historical marker along the way. We had a good time, even if we wanted to kill each other by the time we got back, and we saw a lot of the country in the process…I remember the family moments…more than I remember the sights and resorts (Gillespie 2009).

I think this is an accurate depiction of the family road trips so many of us have experienced as children; they are an excuse to pile the family into an enclosed bubble and spend several hours together, everyone pretending they hate it even though it’s truly one of the best times the family has ever spent together. Heather continues,

Talking with Em and Pierce on the rim is more important to me than any panoramic photo of a Canyon. Remembering the way my family laughed together on the sides of mountains is more [meaningful] than any photo with my feet dangling over the edge of a cliff (Gillespie 2009).

The Grand Canyon provides the perfect backdrop for families to retreat from their daily routine and reconnect with loved ones in an unforgettable setting while rediscovering the beauty in our own backyard.

Looking back on President Roosevelt’s wish for us to “keep this great wonder of nature… for your children and your children’s children,” I’m warmed by the way we’ve clearly taken his words to heart. For over eighty years – since tourism became a lucrative pursuit for the area -- American families have packed up the kids and the car, maybe the dog, and set out to spend some quality time together amidst one of America’s most breathtaking landscapes. Lieutenant Ives couldn’t have been more wrong about the future of the Grand Canyon; it was a good feeling to know that our visit to the park carried on a long tradition of appreciation for the beauty and peace found in this desert paradise, once described as a “profitless locality.”

I’ve talked about some of the social institutions that play a vital role in bringing visitors to the canyon, but I think it prudent to mention that, for return visitors, any influence from these social institutions is quickly overshadowed by personal experience. We are first drawn to the canyon by its reputation as depicted by others—neighbors, relatives, colleagues, teachers, advertisers, or political figures---or simply out of a desire to witness firsthand what we have seen in photographs; but we return because the experience exceeded any expectations we might have had upon arriving. Ken Burns writes (in his book about the National Parks that will be released this September) that “I was unprepared for how they [the parks] touched some of the deepest emotions I’ve ever felt…We’re aware of our insignificance, yet we feel part of the larger order of things. It’s a spiritual, transcendental experience” (pp. 96). Nature offers an abundance of opportunities for “spiritual, transcendental experiences,” but the Grand Canyon, I feel, is more apt to incite these experiences—especially for first time visitors—because of how much you underestimate it before arriving. I was instantly moved, practically to tears, as I stood speechless and breathless at the South Rim, my toes inching over the edge as I grasped the rustic wooden railing that kept me from plummeting into the depths of the Colorado River below. Personally, it was a very spiritually invigorating experience. Looking out over the seemingly endless chasm, I slowly took in the 6,000 feet of cliff that lay at my feet. And though the ground was flat for miles behind me, when I positioned myself to face the canyon, I felt on top of the world. I was mesmerized by the scene on the opposite wall of the canyon: grey, yellow, purple, brown, every shade of orange and red were arranged in horizontal stripes, as if someone had come along with a large paintbrush and walked alongside the canyon wall, letting the brush drag lazily behind them. The canyon represents, for me, the majestic wonder and creativity that is God’s fingerprint on the earth.

I think one reason people return to the Grand Canyon is to relive the excitement of their own first glimpses of it through the anticipation of their children and friends who’ve come for the first time. When I read Rashina’s blog about our day in the park, it was clear that she was thinking the same thing. She says,

Part of the excitement of this trip has been greatly composed of recognizing the excitement in my peers, and today perfectly embodied that feeling. As I saw other students standing in awe of the vast space that lay in front of us, a feeling of nostalgia spread throughout me as little moments of my memory of [my family’s] trip resurfaced in my mind” (Bhula 2009).

As we drove home from the canyon, I thought about Lieutenant Ives and his survey party arriving there for the first time, and wondered how he so grossly underestimated the potential of the area. The Grand Canyon didn’t become famous overnight, and there were many contributors to its celebrity. Because the U.S. government was eager to populate the West, it promoted the West as a land of plentiful natural resources, bringing miners and a whole slew of settlers keen on making a living providing food and lodging for the miners. After mining was called off, artists like Thomas Moran, who displayed the magnificent grandeur of the canyon in his paintings, drew the attention of a growing nation to the area. As the first tourists trickled in to explore, devoted media tycoons, railroad representatives, artists, and scientists publicized the area and stressed the importance of protecting the natural beauty of the canyon. Today, tour companies make the canyon more accessible and provide new and remarkable ways of experiencing the park. Families continue to flock to this natural wonder and share their experience with others through photo journals and stories. In this way, Americans from all time periods and walks of life have supported one of our most awe-inspiring national treasures and have made the Grand Canyon America’s most glorified national park.


American Park Network. 2008. Grand Canyon History.” Retrieved May 10, 2009. (

Burns, Ken. 2009. “This Land is Your Land.” Adapted from The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Reader’s Digest, July 2009, pp. 96.

Gillespie, Heather. 2009. “Remembering the View.” Explore. Dream. Discover, June 14. Retrieved July 21, 2009. (

Marvelous Marv’s Grand Canyon Tours. 1995. Retrieved May 2009 (

National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. 2008. National Park Service Public Use Statistics. Washington, D.C: U.S. Dept. of the Interior. Retrieved July 20, 2009 (

Paradise Found Tours. 2009. “The Grand Canyon Stands as an Icon of the American West.” Retrieved May 2009 (

Schmidt, Jeremy. Grand Canyon National Park: A Natural History Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993. Retrieved using Google Books, July 21, 2009 (

Travel Tips/Best Tourist Destinations/Travel Guide. “The Grand Canyon.” 2009. Retrieved July 30, 2009 (


  1. Shirah,

    Thank you so much for the reference to our post. We wish we could have you every day singing on our Grand Canyon Bus Tours. =)

    Be sure to look for our unique selection of high quality Oahu Tours when you make it to Hawaii. We would love to help you with any information you need to write another great post. We'd also enjoy you singing on our buses there too! =P

    All the best
    Paradise Found Tours


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