Humans have been present at Grand Canyon  continuously for 12,000 years. Scientists have recorded nearly 5,000 archeological sites, and only 3 percent of the park’s area has been fully surveyed.
The canyon’s rims and travel corridors are a rich repository of human history, from prehistoric occupation through Euro-American exploration, mining, and early tourism.
The first humans to see Grand Canyon were Paleo-Indians who traveled large distances in pursuit of megafauna, such as bison and mammoths, around 10,000 years ago. These hunters used large stone points on thrusting spears, moving with game herds and leaving little evidence of their passage. Only one Paleo-Indian site has been located at Grand Canyon.
As the last ice age receded and the megafauna died out, hunters began to rely more on smaller game and plants. During this period, 2,000–9,000 years ago, the Desert Archaic culture roamed the Grand Canyon Region. Archaic hunter-gatherers traveled in groups, moving with the seasons as plants ripened or game animals migrated. They used atlatls (throwing tools) with darts. Remains from this period include flakes from dart points or other stone tools, grinding stones, hearths, basketry, rock shelters, and perhaps the most intriguing archaeological remains in the canyon, rock art and split-twig figurines.
One rock-art site on the western end of Grand Canyon bears a number of large anthropomorphs (humanlike figures) painted with reddish pigment, perhaps representing shamans. Split-twig figurines may also have a shamanic element. Often in the shape of deer or bighorn sheep, the figurines have been found in caves in the inner canyon’s Redwall Formation. The figurines were made 2,000–4,000 years ago from a single long piece of wood, usually willow, split down the middle and folded into shape. Some are quite refined, with details that include smaller twigs representing antlers or spears piercing the body of the figurine. Sometimes dung was stuffed inside. Carefully placed in dry caves that have helped preserve them over the millennia, these are not toys but may be totems used to ensure or reenact a successful hunt. Several examples are on display at Tusayan Museum on the South Rim .
Around 3,500 years ago, corn agriculture arrived in the Southwest. Archaic people began experimenting with cultivation to supplement hunting and gathering. They seeded flood plains, which hold moisture longer than other areas. Storage cists were used to protect surplus corn or beans, introduced later. Beans require longer cooking, leading to another innovation, pottery, dating to A.D. 500.
As people began to rely more on agriculture, they became more sedentary, at first building pit-houses, partially underground circular structures. Later, they built aboveground pueblos, structures with multiple rooms, including Tusayan Ruins  along the South Rim’s Desert View Drive  and Walhalla Glades  on the North Rim. Both villages were occupied during the summer, linked to the Colorado River via trails leading to the Unkar Delta area, where a broad floodplain and lower elevation offered a longer growing season and comfortable winter temperatures.
By A.D. 1000, the Puebloans were building kivas and outdoor plazas. Pottery types indicate trade relationships with people living in the Virgin River area north of the Grand Canyon. Archaeologists identify these and other farmers, potters, and pueblo dwellers in the Four Corners area as a single cultural group, known as Ancestral Puebloan or Anasazi (though not all archaeologists include the Cohonina in this group). Some archaeologists speculate that a combination of internal conflict, drought, and other environmental pressures pushed the Ancestral Puebloans from their homes, beginning around A.D. 1200. Others suggest that new cultural developments centered around the Hopi Mesas pulled the Puebloans east. In any case, today’s Hopi people are the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Sometime around A.D. 1300, seminomadic hunter-gatherers moved into the Grand Canyon area from farther west. The Kaibab Paiutes foraged along the North Rim . The Pai, or Cerbat, used the river corridor, supplementing hunting and gathering with agriculture and trade, and living in seasonal camps evidenced by rock shelters and stone rings where they constructed brush shelters known as wickiups. They roasted agave, a staple food, in stone-lined roasting pits. Cactus buds and blooms, piñon pine nuts, and berries added to a varied diet. Their descendants, the Havasupai and Hualapai of western Grand Canyon, continued a long trading relationship with the Hopi, while the Paiutes established ties with the Mormon colonists who entered their territories.
The Navajo Reservation bordering Grand Canyon to the east is home to the largest American Indian nation in the United States. Ancestors of the Navajo, Athabascan hunter-gatherers, entered the area from the north around A.D. 1400. Highly adaptable, the Navajo learned agriculture from their pueblo neighbors and stock-raising from Spanish colonists.
In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition of 300 soldiers, several hundred Indians, and thousands of horses, cattle, sheep, and other livestock northward from New Spain. Coronado sought cities of gold described by shipwrecked Spanish sailors who had wandered from Florida to Mexico City. The expedition crossed present-day Arizona, and Coronado sent detachments westward to the Hopi villages and the vast river they had described.
Hopi guides led García de López de Cárdenas and his men to the edge of Grand Canyon somewhere between Lipan Point  and Desert View, the South Rim’s highest reaches. Expedition journals describe the soldiers’ futile struggle to get to the river, which the Spanish judged to be around six feet wide. (This says a great deal about the unprepared mind’s ability to grasp the canyon’s vast size, as well as the Hopi guides’ cleverness at keeping their rim-to-river trails a secret.) The Spaniards returned to Mexico City in 1542, their expedition deemed a failure.
Later explorations led to colonization farther east in present-day New Mexico and farther west in California. In 1776, Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez left the colony of Santa Fe to find a northern route to settlements near Monterey, California. On their return journey, winter forced them southward, and they crossed the Colorado River in historic Glen Canyon (now flooded by the waters of Lake Powell). A year earlier, Friar Francisco Garcés, scouting a southern route, had named the river “Colorado” for its reddish waters. Garcés, Domínguez, and Escalante were the last Spanish explorers to venture near the canyon.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, hunters and fur trappers explored the Colorado River and its tributaries at either end of the canyon. One, James O. Pattie, described his 1827 venture as a horrid ordeal. Trappers and traders created new routes west, and after 1848, gold hunters followed. Next came the Army and government surveyors interested in identifying transportation routes and resources.
At Fort Yuma, steamboats plied the Lower Colorado, transporting settlers, soldiers, and supplies to California. In 1857 the Army sent Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives upriver via a stern-wheel steamer, which ran aground far downriver from the Grand Wash Cliffs. Ives continued his explorations on foot with the help of Havasupai guides, abandoning eastward progress after a couple of weeks and heading south for the Army’s Beale Road (present day I-40). He summed up the region as “uninhabitable,” “impassable,” and “altogether valueless.”
While exploration and settlement continued north, south, west, and east of Grand Canyon, the canyon itself remained one of the last blank spots on the U.S. map. The man who would change that, John Wesley Powell, was a 35-year-old Civil War veteran turned college professor. Powell’s expedition was remarkable in many ways, including the fact that he didn’t receive government funding for it. He undertook the trip mostly out of a desire for knowledge.
After Powell’s first and second runs through the canyon in 1869 and 1871–1872, only a handful of expeditions followed over the next half century. One of the most dramatic was led by Robert Brewster Stanton, an engineer surveying the inner canyon for a possible rail line. Although that scheme sounds preposterous today, Stanton made two attempts at running the canyon. He aborted his first run in 1889 after three of his crew drowned in Marble Canyon , then successfully navigated the canyon the following year, becoming only the second person to do so.
As the Mormon communities of St. George and Kanab, Utah, expanded north of the canyon, pioneers began settling the region. Timbermen logged Mt. Trumbull and the Kaibab Plateau  to supply St. George and Kanab with building materials. Ranchers raised cattle west of the Kaibab Plateau, and colonists settled towns west and east of the canyon.
Prospectors began exploring the inner canyon, mining lead, zinc, silver, copper, and asbestos. Seth Tanner, a Mormon scout and guide, settled along the Colorado River in 1876 and established the Little Colorado Mining District in eastern Grand Canyon, mining copper. Dozens of prospectors followed, though few found mineral deposits rich enough to make the effort and expense of mining worthwhile.
The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad completed tracks across northern Arizona in 1882, and communities sprang up in Flagstaff and Williams, attracting settlers from the East and Midwest. Miners who had scratched out only a meager living saw potential in guiding others to the canyon for sightseeing. One, William Wallace Bass, became the first to raise a family at the canyon. He arrived in Williams, established a base camp near Havasupai Point, constructed a wagon road, and improved Indian trails to the river, combining prospecting with guiding tourists. Bass built the canyon’s first rim-to-rim trail, crossing the river by cable, and constructed two frame houses that doubled as hotels.
On the other end of the canyon, the sheepherding Hull brothers and prospector John Hance built a wagon road to the Grandview area. Hance guided tourists and erected a tent camp near his cabin on the rim, serving meals and offering accommodations. James Thurber bought out Hance’s interests and established a regular stage route from Flagstaff, a two-day trip that cost $20. Pete Berry began mining copper at Horseshoe Mesa in 1892, building the Grandview Trail  to his mines. He and his wife owned and operated the Grand View Hotel until 1901. Martin Buggeln, who bought out James Thurber, shifted his attention farther west along the rim, where a Santa Fe Railway spur was nearing completion.
The first to settle at the future Grand Canyon Village  was Sanford Rowe, who filed mining claims three miles south of the rim at Rowe Well as early as 1890. Here he established a small tourist camp, building a road to Hopi Point . Not far away, Pete Berry and Ralph Cameron improved a Havasupai trail to Indian Garden  in order to prospect their claims in this area. Cameron registered the trail as a toll road with Coconino County. Thurber extended his stage line from Grandview to this part of the rim, building another hotel. He and Rowe guided tourists on Cameron’s toll road.
When the Santa Fe Railway completed its spur line in 1901, travelers could choose between a $15–20 bumpy, two-day-long stage trip and a comfortable three-hour train ride from Williams for $3. Most chose the train, and the canyon’s pioneer enterprises faded away, with one exception: Over the years, Ralph Cameron, acted as sheriff, county supervisor, and U.S. senator, a man with powerful friends and the resources to take a stand against the railroad. Cameron had moved the Red Horse stage station to the head of his toll trail and remodeled it into the Cameron Hotel. The Santa Fe Railway partnered with Martin Buggeln and his Bright Angel Hotel and camp, a few hundred feet east, until the railroad could complete its own hotel, El Tovar . A bitter competition ensued.
In the meantime, interest in conservation was growing on a national level. The Forest Reserve Act passed in 1891. While a senator, Benjamin Harrison had unsuccessfully tried to preserve Grand Canyon as a public park. In 1893, as president, Harrison was able to establish the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve. Theodore Roosevelt visited the canyon in 1903, making his famous speech urging its protection for future generations.
After becoming president, Roosevelt signed the 1906 Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities, which led to the establishment of several national monuments, including Grand Canyon National Monument in 1908. With this act, the canyon was protected from further private development.
The Santa Fe Railway was content to lease rather than own land, partnering with the Fred Harvey Company to negotiate contracts with the government to build and maintain attractions and lodging. They hired Mary Colter and other professional architects to design tourist facilities that were interesting and attractive. In 1913 they built the Hermit Trail  and camp to compete with Bright Angel Trail , still a county toll road surrounded by Ralph Cameron’s mining claims.
Focused on rail travel, the Santa Fe did little to improve roads or accommodate the growing number of tourists arriving by automobile. Nor was the Forest Service, with its mandate of resource management, equipped to manage rising levels of tourism. In 1916, growing public sentiment and congressional support led to the establishment of the National Park Service. Its first director, Stephen Mather, supported transferring Grand Canyon to the Park Service, and three years later, on February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill proclaiming Grand Canyon the nation’s 17th park.
With the National Park Service came improved roads and trails, administrative sites, campgrounds, sanitation, and much-needed utilities. By 1919 the Santa Fe Railway was hauling 60,000–100,000 gallons of water daily to the South Rim from Flagstaff via rail car. The septic system installed with the construction of El Tovar , unable to meet increasing demand, had overflowed into an open ditch along the railroad tracks. Employees were housed in a ramshackle collection of boxcars, tents, and shanties literally on the other side of the tracks.
The less visited North Rim was virtually ignored. One or two rangers assigned to that area of the park fended for themselves, often staying in vacated Forest Service cabins or bunking with game manager Jimmy Owens.
In order to fund infrastructure, the fledgling Park Service clearly needed the large capital investment provided by the Santa Fe Railway and Fred Harvey Company on the South Rim, and the Union Pacific Railroad and Utah Parks Company on the North Rim. Only a few family businesses were awarded concessionaire contracts, among them the McKee family on the North Rim , and the Babbitts, Verkamps, and Kolbs on the South Rim . Some, like the Bass family, were bought out. Ralph Cameron’s reign ended not long after his unsuccessful reelection bid for the U.S. Senate in 1926. In 1928, Cameron’s holdings transferred to the National Park Service.
By 1929, with capital provided by concessionaires, the park developed housing, utilities, and basic services to meet the needs of employees and visitors, who numbered 184,000 that year. The park weathered the Great Depression, relying on Civilian Conservation Corps labor for needed improvements. But World War II brought a loss in funding, drops in visitation, and a scarcity of materials. Nearly half the park’s staff left for war-related jobs, and many lodges and attractions closed. During the last year of the war, only 74,000 people visited the park.
Yet it wasn’t the bust but rather the boom that threatened the park most. The year after war’s end, 334,000 people visited the park, and the steadily rising number of visitors outstripped the Park Service’s ability to manage. Vandalism, littering, theft, traffic accidents, and frequent rescues burdened ranger services. Adding to the burden was a bed shortage: 15–30 percent of visitors seeking overnight lodging had to be turned away by 1949.
In 1956 the Park Service’s hopes for government funding materialized with Mission 66, a 10-year program intended to add infrastructure to national parks. Efforts focused on the South Rim, and many park additions, including the Yavapai, Kachina, and Thunderbird Lodges, date to this program, which extended into the early 1980s at Grand Canyon.
In 1965 the Union Pacific Railroad donated the North Rim’s water system, and the Park Service launched plans to pipe water from Roaring Springs to the South Rim. Seven footbridges and the cross-river Silver Bridge carried more than 12 miles of pipeline to Indian Garden . Just before its completion, the pipeline was virtually destroyed by a record-breaking flood that swept down Bright Angel Canyon. The transcanyon pipeline was finally completed in 1970. With improvements, the pipeline continues to serve the South Rim today, although there is growing concern about its adequacy and the burden on groundwater in the canyon region.
During the 1950s and 1960s, momentum was building among environmental groups and canyon lovers to protect the Colorado River within the canyon. Though Congress approved the construction of Glen Canyon Dam in 1956,but President Lyndon B. Johnson created Marble Canyon National Monument in 1969, preventing two other proposed dams that would have flooded Marble Canyon .
The effects of Glen Canyon Dam remain under debate. On the one hand, a tamed river with predictable flows from the timed releases from the dam makes commercial river running  possible. On the other hand, native warm-water fish have become endangered and extirpated, and aggressive nonnative plants, such as tamarisk, have overtaken beaches.
The beaches themselves are in danger: The river continues to erode the canyon’s sandy beaches without the periodic flooding needed to replenish them. An environmental impact statement, completed in 1995 after a lengthy scoping period involving several public hearings from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., concluded that controlled flooding might benefit the canyon. The first controlled flood was staged in 1996, and several have followed.
Controlled flooding is one of the latest attempts to manage or correct species distribution in Grand Canyon. During the early 1900s, hundreds of mountain lions and wolves were killed in order to “protect” deer herds in the Grand Canyon game reserve. This contributed to a tragic overpopulation of mule deer, with a huge die-off from overgrazing, weakening, and disease.
Miners introduced burros to the canyon in the late 1800s, and by the mid-1900s, a feral burro population was impacting desert bighorn sheep. The Park Service’s plan for control included shooting burros from small planes. The Humane Society intervened, leading to federal protection for burros and the ambitious plan to remove burros from the canyon via helicopter. By 1981, nearly 600 burros had been airlifted from the canyon’s depths.
Dam building and other issues spurred discussions among Native American groups, federal land managers, and environmental groups over how best to protect the canyon’s resources. These discussions resulted in the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act of 1975, which doubled the park’s size to 1.2 million acres and established its present boundaries.
Yet despite physical boundaries, national parks and wilderness areas have little control over airspace or underground resources. The Enlargement Act of 1975 recognized the importance of natural quiet, but the number of tourist flights over Grand Canyon continued to increase after the construction of the airport in Tusayan in 1967. In 1987, Arizona senator John McCain and others won the fight to establish a no-fly zone over the central canyon, setting a precedent for other national parks.
However, nearly 100,000 air tours  continue to buzz the east and west two-thirds of the canyon every year. On the river, the use of motorized boats continues to be debated between those who believe the inner canyon’s wilderness should include natural quiet, and those who say limiting tours to nonmotorized boats would impact business and limit visitors’ ability to access the inner canyon.
For most visitors, air quality is perhaps the most noticeable environmental concern at the park, especially during the summer, when prevailing winds blow haze northeast from the Los Angeles basin, limiting canyon views. On a clear day, it’s possible to see 200 miles or farther. On some days, haze from a number of sources cuts visibility to less than half that distance.
Grand Canyon Trust, formed in 1985 to lobby Congress about overflights, began negotiating with the Navajo Generating Station regarding the use of scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. Studies conducted by the National Park Service showed that the power plant was responsible for as much as 70 percent of the canyon’s visible air pollution. In 1991 the plant agreed to reduce emissions by 90 percent.
Another contributor to haze, the Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nevada, closed in 2005 due to noncompliance with pollution controls. Over the years, the Trust’s focus has expanded to include sustainable grazing, groundwater protection, species diversity, forest health, and other issues in the Grand Canyon region.
Another very noticeable issue is traffic on the canyon’s busy South Rim . It seemed like a solution was near in 1999, with plans for a light-rail system to cut vehicle traffic by 80 percent. Opposed by private tour operators and scuttled in Congress just as the plan went out for bids, the light-rail system stalled. Today, the canyon has a station (Canyon View Information Plaza ) without a train, and the summer influx of cars continues to create congestion, noise, clouds of exhaust, and downright peevishness among frustrated drivers.
Grand Canyon National Park is still car-centric, although park administrators continue to make strides to reduce traffic, making the South Rim more bike friendly, improving the shuttle system, and moving parking away from Mather point so that visitors’ first experience of the canyon is as it should be: a grand theater where Nature takes center stage.