Friday, July 6, 2012

The Abandoned Lands...A Journey Through the Colorado Plateau: The Grandest Canyon

"The region . . . is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it, there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first and the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be unvisited and undisturbed."

Joseph Ives (1851)

Joseph Ives did a lot of hard and dangerous work to be remembered only for the famous quote shown above. His expedition spent months exploring the region, collecting huge amounts of data on the geology, hydrology and biology. Often cited as one of the most incorrect predictions ever uttered, the statement to a certain extent is actually true. Nearly five million people do in fact visit Grand Canyon National Park every year, but the vast majority of them merely stand on the rim and look down. Tens of thousands may hike down the handful of popular trails, and a few thousand float down the Colorado River. But hundreds of square miles of the park see no visitors at all most years. The canyon is mostly inaccessible, and I have no doubt that there are many new discoveries to be made about the geology and biology.

Profitless? Pretty much true. A handful of mines in the Grand Canyon made modest profits, but most mining ventures failed, due to poor ore values and lack of access.There is no lumber to speak of within the canyon, and utilizing the water of the Colorado River was impossible until the great dams of the twentieth century, and they aren't actually in the Grand Canyon. Tourism is the only economic gold mine around here.

It is possible to look at the canyon and not be impressed. When Coronado's troops reached the rim in 1540, their perspective was so skewed that they thought the mile-deep canyon was only a thousand feet deep and that the Colorado River was only six feet across. A day spent trying to scramble down the cliffs quickly cleared the misconception, and they left the region. For literally centuries.

I think the same sort of thing happens with casual tourists, too. It is so easy sometimes to step out of an RV where one has been watching a large screen tv and see the vast depth of the canyon as a flat canvas, very colorful, but without depth. It's so easy to snap a few pictures and head on to the next overlook or the next park. As has been said so many times, the only way to really appreciate the scale of the Grand Canyon is to see it from the inside out, to walk it, to ride a burro into the depths, or to float on a raft down the Colorado River.

I have no doubt that someone also thought of the other alternative: build paved roads and let people wear out their brakes on a drive down to the bottom and look back up before destroying their transmissions and radiators on the steep climb back out. There are just one or two problems with that: besides invading the precious wilderness that lies below the rim, there is the Coconino Sandstone, and the Redwall Limestone. There are engineering problems with practically all the Paleozoic and Proterozoic formations of the canyon, but these two are especially troublesome. They are cliffs of such uniformity throughout the Grand Canyon that there are only a few dozen places where trails can breach the inner canyon. Roads? It just can't be done (or else it would have done in the formative years of the National Park Service; think of Going to the Sun Highway at Glacier, Tioga Pass in Yosemite, or the Crater Lake Rim Highway). If you have only that precious few days of vacation, you are going to want to see as much as you can of all the parks in the region, and leave the four day backpack to that unspecified future time when you get back into shape...
Yeah, they got the trail through the Redwall Limestone here; but where would you put a highway?
Seeing the Grand Canyon on foot made me a geologist. The week-long trip I took in 1976 was one of the pivotal events of my life. There is simply no substitute for walking the full depth of each of the layers of the canyon in turn, seeing the crossbedding, the ripplemarks, the fossils, the faults and folds to truly appreciate the magnitude of geologic time and the complexities of the history of these rocks. It is awe-inspiring to lay one's hands on the Great Unconformity and touch a billion years between your fingertips. There is nothing like it, and it is an almost impossible experience to offer in the confines of today's budgetary limitations in education. We can no longer take just eight students and make a viable class that will pass muster with the bean-counters in the administration.

So that was my conundrum last month. How could I share the incredible story of the Grand Canyon with my students when there were 34 of us, and only a day? It turns out that there was one place where I could drive them down the canyon: Peach Springs Road and Diamond Creek on the Hualapai Reservation in western Grand Canyon. It's a winding 21 mile road that reaches the Colorado River 4,000 feet down in the gorge. But how could they have constructed this road? I don't know when it was built or why (anyone out there have some info?), but they did it. It was all the fault of...well...the fault. The Hurricane fault to be specific. The fault has dropped the rocks on the west side over a thousand feet, so a route could be selected that simply never had to cross the cliffs of the Coconino or Redwall (see the diagram below). The road starts in the Devonian Temple Butte Limestone, and only has to drop through the Cambrian sediments and the underlying complex of Proterozoic gneiss and granite, which is rugged enough, but the erosion of Diamond Creek did most of the work before the roadbuilders arrived.

The road is utilized as a major take-out point on the Colorado River by the rafters. It is not a particularly good choice for the casual tourist. It's not so much that it is too rugged, but in summer the temperatures are sizzling, and this exacts a toll on radiator and electrical systems. You may remember reading about my own failure to reach the Colorado River a month earlier due to car problems. It's also expensive; the Hualapai nation charges $25 per person to drive the canyon (I didn't mind paying; tourism is pretty much the sole income for the tribe). But we did it with students this year for the first time ever. That story comes in the next post.

Here is the explanation of my "abandonment" theme for this series:
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