As a natural wonder and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona is a high priority visit for many tourists in the US. Now, it has celebrated its 100th anniversary as a national park.
Scientists debate about whether the Grand Canyon is only 6 million years old or 70 million. What is certain is that the Colorado River took quite a long time to carve out this canyon, which is 450 kilometers long, up to 30 kilometers wide and 1,800 meters deep.
Since February 26, 1919, most of the Grand Canyon has been under special protection as a national park. Like other US national parks before it, it owes that to the efforts of early conservationists such as the writer Henry David Thoreau, the environmental philosopher John Muir and, not least, one of the most popular US presidents.
Theodore Roosevelt used his office to protect numerous American landscapes by executive decree. As early as 1908, he declared the Grand Canyon a national monument: "Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."
Native American cultures and stargazers
While Roosevelt came to the Grand Canyon by train in the early 20th century, many travelers nowadays drive the famous Route 66 as far as Flagstaff. The small town in Arizona is considered the gateway to the Grand Canyon. From there, it's about 80 kilometers to the South Rim, which has the most services for tourists and is open to visitors all year round. The North Rim, at a higher elevation, can be visited only during the six-month summer season.
For its centennial as a national park, many events are taking place around the Grand Canyon, from a tribute to Roosevelt in Flagstaff to contributions from the many Native American tribes. The history of the Hopi and Navajos is closely linked to the Grand Canyon as a home. The highlight at the summer solstice in June is a festival for stargazers that lasts several days. Because there's little light or air pollution, the celestial bodies in the night sky above the Grand Canyon are especially easy to see.
Threats to the ecosystem
But the threat to nature will also be a topic. The Republicans under Donald Trump want to overturn the ban that former President Barack Obama instituted on new uranium mining in the national park, and humans have interfered with the ecosystem in many ways in the past decades. The Glen Canyon Dam, built in 1963, changed the flow rate and water temperature of the Colorado River. Native fish species such as the humpback chub are threatened with extinction.
The Colorado River is still the main artery of the Grand Canyon's ecosystem, and if you want to see this great natural wonder from more than just its edges, you should also explore the interior of the canyon – either on foot, hiking down the Bright Angel Trail to the river, for instance, or by boat on the river itself.
For the inexperienced, it's actually advantageous that the river is tamed by a dam. After a 16-day tour through the Grand Canyon, Steve Sanborn, a river runner and ecologist who often takes boats down the Colorado, told a team of reporters from the Arizona Republic newspaper, "If everybody could see places like this we would be a whole less likely to keep mucking them all up."