In 2019, the Grand Canyon celebrated 100 years as a national park. We look back at some centenary highlights.
The Grand Canyon has been around 6 million years or so. Although its human history is just a blink in geologic time, even that is impressive, from the time when game-seeking early hunters migrated through to when ancient Puebloan people inhabited the rim 4,000 years ago to the summer of 1869, when American geologist John Wesley Powell made the first recorded Colorado River passage by white men through the length of the canyon.
Powell knew it was futile to try to take it in all at once or adequately describe it. “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,” he wrote. Having seen it, he was frustrated in attempting to convey it: “The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
Thomas Moran, one of the most celebrated painters of Western landscapes, perhaps came closest to capturing the canyon. His travels to Yellowstone in the 1870s yielded works of such grandeur and beauty that they influenced the formation of the national park, the first to be designated. “Of all places on Earth, the great Canyon of Arizona is the most inspiring in its pictorial possibilities,” he once wrote, and he would sketch and paint its wonders over the next 40 years.
These last 100 years have been memorable in part because that’s how long we’ve celebrated its singular geologic beauty with the designation national park. Here are just some of the Grand Canyon’s greatest moments during that time.
“Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon,” wrote Bill Bryson in his 1989 travel book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. “No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.”
In his 1937 essay Midnight on the Desert, British author and playwright J.B. Priestley wrote of the Grand Canyon: “I have heard rumors of visitors who were disappointed. The same people will be disappointed at the Day of Judgment. In fact, the Grand Canyon is a sort of landscape Day of Judgment. It is not a show place, a beauty spot, but a revelation. ... The Colorado River made it, but you feel when you are there that God gave the Colorado River its instructions. It is all Beethoven’s nine symphonies in stone and magic light. Even to remember that it is still there lifts up the heart. If I were an American, I should make my remembrance of it the final test of men, art, and policies. ... Every member or officer of the Federal Government ought to remind himself, with triumphant pride, that he is on the staff of the Grand Canyon.”
In Movies and TV Shows
In Grand Canyon Trail (1948), Roy Rogers plays the owner of a silver mine who is nearly swindled out of a fortune. Don’t look for the actual canyon, as the movie was shot in California. But it does feature the first appearance of Riders of the Purple Sage, the singing ranchers who replaced the Sons of the Pioneers. The “King of the Cowboys” also recorded a title song for the film, which was not released until 2005 on the album Songs and Stories From Grand Canyon.
The shocking final scene in Thelma and Louise (1991) is arguably the most famous movie moment featuring the Grand Canyon. Spoiler alert: The fugitive friends played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis elude capture by driving their 1966 Ford Thunderbird off one of the canyon’s cliffs. Director Ridley Scott was denied permission to shoot the scene at the Grand Canyon because park officials didn’t want to inspire copycat suicide attempts.
Among the many other movies partially filmed at the Grand Canyon: The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Wanda Nevada (1979), Maverick (1994), Bride and Prejudice (2004), and Into the Wild (2007). The 1964 spaghetti western Massacre at Grand Canyon, however, was filmed in Italy and Croatia.
Lawrence Kasdan’s 1991 film Grand Canyon — with an ensemble cast that includes Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, and Steve Martin and location shooting at the namesake in Arizona and Utah’s Glen Canyon — earned four out of four stars from Roger Ebert for its story of the relatively small chasms that separate people and the vast vacation-destination chasm that unites us.
Less serious by far, The Brady Bunch opened its third season with a three-part story chronicling the family’s trip to the Grand Canyon. Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto opposite Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger in another classic series, guest-stars as Chief Eagle Cloud.
The Bradys spend a lot more time there than Clark Griswold, played by Chevy Chase, in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), in which he and his family spend 12 seconds taking in the Grand Canyon’s scenery before hopping back in the car en route to Walley World.
In the 1962 Flintstones episode “The Rock Vegas Caper,” Fred and Wilma visit the Grand Canyon as it was in the Stone Age, when the Colorado River was just a trickle of water and are similarly unimpressed. “It doesn’t look like much to me,” Wilma says. “Not now,” Fred replies. “But they expect it to be a big thing someday.”
American Ferde Grofé composed his paean Grand Canyon Suite in 1921. It would become his best-known composition and was recorded by RCA Victor with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1945. Grofé himself conducted a recorded performance of it in 1960; it was digitally remastered and reissued on CD in 1997. And Disney’s a fan: In 1958, the company used the suite as the soundtrack for its short film Grand Canyon, which won an Academy Award. If you go to Disneyland and ride the Grand Circle Tour today, that’s the third movement of Grofé’s suite playing on the Grand Canyon portions of the tour.
Back on the big screen, Lawrence Kasdan scored the end of Grand Canyon with American composer James Newton Howard’s “Grand Canyon Fanfare,” sending moviegoers off with appropriately grand horns and choir.
Folk-rock singer Ani DiFranco, country singer Kathy Mattea, and Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers have all written and performed songs titled “Grand Canyon.”
Of course it’s not just Americans who are inspired. In 1995, English composer Nicholas Gunn released The Music of the Grand Canyon, a CD of evocative instrumental compositions partially recorded in the canyon.
In the U.S. Mail
In 1999, the U.S. Postal Service destroyed 100 million stamps printed to honor the Grand Canyon because the caption placed the canyon in Colorado. One estimate placed the cost of reprinting that many stamps at about $500,000.
Some full-time residents of the Grand Canyon, including members of the Havasupai tribe, still receive their mail via mule train. The journey takes three hours down and five hours back up.
In the Future
Rose Torphy was 3 years old when the Grand Canyon was designated a national park. Earlier this year, at age 103, she visited the canyon and joined its Junior Ranger Program. She hopes her job of spreading the word about the park’s beauty and attractions will help preserve it for her three daughters, nine grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, and 10 great-great-grandchildren.
From the November/December 2019 issue.
Photography: (Main photo) Courtesy Arizona Office of Tourism; (Grand Canyon of the Colorado by Thomas Moran, ca. 1912) courtesy Library of Congress.