Grand Canyon snow

A light dusting of Grand Canyon history

By

Scott Seckel

Editor's note: This story is part of an ASU Now series celebrating the centennial of the Grand Canyon National Park.

“He sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth ... ”
— Kenneth Grahame, "The Wind in the Willows"

Oceans of words have been conjured about the Grand Canyon. The majesty! The spectacle! The grandeur of nature’s glory!

What did the very first visitors think of it?

Meh.

In September 1540, García López de Cárdenas y Figueroa, a conquistador with Coronado’s army, was the first European to see the Grand Canyon. Guided to the South Rim by Hopi, the Spanish spent three days trying to reach the river. They failed. Since the Hopi have been going into the canyon for millennia, it seems obvious they were playing the conquistadors. (It worked. No other non-Indians came back to the canyon for 300 years.) The only comment the Spanish made about the canyon was that a rock they had seen from the rim was “bigger than the great tower of Seville.” That was it. No other description. If they were around today, they’d likely be the type of tourist who complains the McDonald’s in Barcelona isn’t as good as the one at home.

Flash-forward to 1857. The federal government had acquired a lot of land out West and had no idea what was out there, so a series of expeditions trudged off to have a look. Lt. Joseph Ives led such an expedition through the area, traveling along the South Rim.

"The region is, of course, altogether valueless,” Ives reported. “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 will doubtless be 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 forever unvisited and undisturbed."

More than 6.25 million canyon visitors proved Ives wrong in 2017, according to park records. They came from all corners of the globe to gawk at it, fly over it, float through it, hike down into it and marvel at it. 

In honor of the Feb. 26 centennial of Grand Canyon National Park, we present a sampler of history and trivia.

Below the rim

Only 5 percent of the roughly 6.25 million people who visit the Grand Canyon every year go below the rim, and only about 10 percent of those make it to the river.

In 2017, slightly more than 25,000 people rafted the river — 18,547 people on commercial trips; 6,607 people on private trips. What’s the difference?

Commercial trips cost around $3,000. They haul it through the canyon, usually in about six or seven days, like jogging through the Louvre. You travel with a bunch of people you don’t know. You don’t do any work. Commercial rafts are motorized, so there’s the joy of listening to an engine all day. There’s almost no danger of flipping.

Private trips cost about $1,500. You travel in oar rafts or dories, rowed by designated amateur boatmen. You do all the work, such as cooking, camp setup and toilet management. You’re with friends or family. The big rapids soak you in adrenaline as well as water. The main difference is they’re long — at 16 to 18 days, they're one of the world’s longest popular floats.

To get a permit for a private trip, you enter a lottery. In the main lottery for private trips held in 2017, 6,650 people applied for 463 launch dates. People from around the world apply for permits, mostly from the developed West. More Coloradoans and Californians apply than any other state (Arizonans come fifth).

Before the river became crowded and the park service slapped restrictions on trip lengths, private boatmen in the '70s vied at slow-boating, or making a trip last as long as possible. The crowning glory of slow-boating has gone down in river history as the Hundred Days Trip. Legendary boatman Regan Dale and his extended family floated away from Lees Ferry and spent a whopping 103 days in the canyon. They hiked every side canyon, spent as long as a week in favorite camps like Nankoweap and Granite Park, baked their own bread and wallowed in the vast silence of stone cathedrals broken only by the rustle of the river. The moon waxed and waned three times while they were there. There will never be another trip like that.

The senator

The Goldwater Center for Science and Engineering at ASU is named after Arizona’s native son, Barry Goldwater.

The senator was fond of saying, “If I ever had a mistress, it would be the Grand Canyon." He thought Thunder River Falls in the canyon was the most beautiful spot in the state.

In 1940, Goldwater joined Norman Nevills, the pioneer of commercial boating, on a 42-day trip down the Green and Colorado rivers. This landed him on the roll call of the first 100 river-runners to travel from the headwaters of the Colorado to Lake Mead.

Barry Goldwater 1940 Grand Canyon

Barry Goldwater was among the first people to float the length of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The bill of fare was canned food. Because everything got wet and the labels wore off, Nevills had Goldwater and another guy paint the cans: red for meat, green for vegetables, etc. “Well, we painted all the cans the wrong color on purpose,” Goldwater chuckled in a documentary about running the Colorado. “Norm was pretty mad about that.”

The river was the catalyst that sent Goldwater into politics. He shot a film on the Nevills trip that he showed around Arizona. He became so used to chatting with a wide variety of people, politics was the next natural step.

“Well, once you’ve been in the canyon and once you’ve sort of fallen in love with it, it never ends,” he said in an interview for an oral history project done by the nonprofit Grand River Guides organization.

The senator’s ashes were scattered along the Colorado River.  

Barry Goldwater Grand Canyon laundry 1940

Barry Goldwater at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in 1941.

Canyon time

Here’s what you don’t hear in the canyon:

Back-up alarms. Smartphone alerts. Car stereos. “COME ON DOWN TO THE CARPET BARN!” The neighbor’s Chihuahuas. Jackhammers. Motorcycles. “Have you had your home’s heating system checked yet?

Here’s what you don’t think about:

What you’re going to eat for dinner. If you should put more in your 401(k). What you’re going to do two weekends from now. Getting ready for that thing that’s due at work next month. How bad the traffic will be on the drive home. Getting your home heating system checked out.

A handy guide to river carnage

Terms you may want to know before you head down the Colorado river in a boat:

Flip: The bottom of your boat is facing the sky.

Dump truck: Your boat goes up and comes back down right-side-up, but nobody is in it.

Clean sweep: Your boat goes up and comes back down, but only the boatman is in it.

Yard sale: Your gear is scattered along the shore.

Maytagged: Being spun underwater in a rapid. Combines all the fun of being beaten up by five people in a parking lot with drowning.

Top five rapids for flips: Lava, Crystal, Upset, 209 Mile, House Rock.

Top five rapids for injuries: Crystal, Lava, Hance, Horn Creek, Granite.

Rafting Grand Canyon

A raft maneuvers Lava Falls on the Colorado River. This is one of several images captured during a 200-mile,16-day trip through the Grand Canyon. Photo by Dave Morgan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Fame and whitewater

Celebrities who have rafted the Colorado through Grand Canyon make up a really disparate list of people. The tone was struck in 1967 when Robert Kennedy took down a group that included journalist George Plimpton, crooner Andy Williams, humorist Art Buchwald and Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest.

The others? You could put Danny DeVito, Ray Romano, Pierce Brosnan and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a “Last People You’d Expect to See in the Grand Canyon” group, but there’s no pigeon-holing the rest:

Edward Abbey, Al Gore, James Taylor (he played guitar in Redwall Cavern), Tom Cruise, Tony Danza, John McCain, Jimmy Carter, basketball player Bill Walton, John Denver, Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Edward Norton, George Winston, Bruce Babbitt, Ted Turner, Sean Penn, Penny Marshall, Carrie Fisher, Paul Simon, Liz Phair and Rita Wilson.

James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Interior, couldn’t stand it and had himself choppered out on Day 4.

Modern timeline of Grand Canyon

1857: Lt. Joseph Ives embarks on a government expedition through the area, traveling along the South Rim. Unimpressed, Ives declared it "altogether valueless", predicting they would be "the last party of whites to visit this profitless locality.”

1869: John Wesley Powell boats the Colorado from Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, floating almost 930 miles to the mouth of the Virgin River on Aug. 30. Powell’s personality proves worse than the rapids and four men desert, setting a pattern for future Powell expeditions. 

1883: Organized tourism begins when stagecoaches carry tourists from Flagstaff to the South Rim. The 79-mile trip takes 11 hours.

1908: U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt declares the Grand Canyon a national monument (later declared a national park by Woodrow Wilson in 1919).

1909: The Julius Stone Expedition becomes the first pure pleasure trip to float the canyon. Despite running out of food, shooting bighorn sheep to eat, and becoming injured, everyone has a great time.

1938: Amos Burg rows the first inflatable raft down the river.

1945: Flagstaff math Professor Harvey Butchart first hikes the Grand Canyon. Butchart hiked more of the park than anyone else in history, including rangers. His backcountry map still hangs in an office at park headquarters. He hiked more than 12,000 miles, climbed 83 features within the canyon and pioneered more than 100 new routes from the rim to the river. In 1963 he became the first to hike the length of the park. Butchart was banned from leading hiking groups by the Coconino County Sheriff after losing students on trips around northern Arizona.

1956: A midair collision between two commercial airliners over the canyon helps lead to the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration.

2016: Speed record down the Colorado is set by Ben Orkin in a kayak in January. Orkin paddled from Lees Ferry to Pearce Ferry in 34 hours and two minutes — a 277-mile distance.

2018: In October, Christof Teuscher, a computer science professor at Portland State University, completes the first quadruple rim-to-rim-to-rim hike. The eight crossings add up to 168 miles with about 44,000 feet of elevation gain. His time was 58 hours and 11 minutes. Teuscher was supported (met with supplies after each double crossing) because he explained, “I’m getting old, feeble and lazy."

Top photo: Winter still offers dramatic views of Grand Canyon National Park from the South Rim Historic District. Photo by Michael Quinn/National Park Service. 

Special thanks to Ceiba Adventures, River Outfitting Services, Flagstaff, Arizona.