Flight Into Grand Canyon Animation: 3D Tour by NASA, USGS and NPS


One of Earth’s few landforms visible from
space, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River slices through 277 miles of Northwestern Arizona.
While there are certainly deeper canyons, no where else on Earth has width, depth and
length combined in such a way as to produce anything quite like this breathtaking chasm.
Over the course of 6 billion years, the canyon has been carved by the Colorado River. A mile
deep, 277 miles long, and up to 18 miles wide, this canyon is like none other. Grand Canyon begins at Lees Ferry, which is
where river runners today start their rafting adventure down the Colorado River. Here, the
first of Grand Canyon’s many rock layers is exposed. At 270 million years in age, the
whitish-gray Kaibab Limestone is the youngest in a series of layered sedimentary rocks,
each emerging as the river carves its way deeper into the Colorado Plateau. Entering on the left we see the Little Colorado
River. At this point the main Colorado River turns west, carving through the Kaibab Uplift,
exposing both the reddish pink Supergroup rocks and the dark rocks of the inner gorge. The river divides the uplift into two plateaus,
which form the North Rim and South Rim of the canyon. Flying over the South Rim and
Grand Canyon Village, we enjoy a view of the canyon well-documented by almost four and
a half million visitors each year. From the village, visitors gain access to the Bright
Angel Trail, a popular pathway for canyon hikers, established here because the Bright
Angel Fault has fractured the otherwise impenetrable cliffs. Following the Bright Angel Fault across the
canyon to the north, we arrive at the North Rim, which reaches elevations over 9,000 ft.
As we pass, note the Kaibab Monocline, which forms the eastern edge of the Kaibab Uplift. We return to the river down Crystal Creek.
In 1966 a large storm caused a debris flow to surge down Crystal Creek, enter the Colorado
River and create overnight one of the toughest rapids on the river. Ahead is Powell Plateau, an erosional remnant
of the North Rim named for John Wesley Powell, who, in 1869, was the first explorer to survey
and map the canyon from one end to the other. At Powell Plateau the character of the canyon
changes. Here the Esplanade Sandstone, one of the Paleozoic rock layers, forms a wide,
red rock bench within the canyon. Fossils in the Paleozoic rocks provide evidence of
the region’s dynamic geologic history. Shellfish, coral, reptile tracks and fern fossils reveal
the ancient oceans, deserts and swamps that once existed here. On the left, is Havasu Creek. This creek is
famous for its blue-green water, stunning waterfalls and travertine pools. This is the
traditional home of the Havasupai, or “people of the blue-green waters,” who still occupy
the canyon today. Further downriver, we approach Vulcan’s
Throne, the remnant of an ancient volcano. Beginning 630,000 years ago, lava poured forth
over the canyon rim from volcanoes such as this, damming the river at least 13 times.
Each time the river was blocked, water collected behind the dams. Eventually the weight and
pressure of the water caused them to catastrophically fail. Remains of these dams can still be seen
perched on the cliff walls. Volcanic eruptions came to an end about 10,000 years ago. Upon passing the lava flows, we cross the
Hurricane Fault, one of a series of north to south trending faults that cut across the
canyon. The Hurricane Fault was originally active during the Precambrian Era, but has
been reactivated numerous times since. Like fossils, faults provide insight into Grand
Canyon’s complex geologic history. Many fault-oriented tributaries are visible
in this section of the canyon, including Separation Canyon, named such because it was here that
three of John Wesley Powell’s men left the group in 1869, never to be seen again. Long before Powell visited the canyon, prehistoric
peoples were living along the river. Rock art, cliff dwellings and pot sherds serve
as evidence of their presence here. Additionally, caves throughout the canyon contain the remains
of large ice age mammals, such as giant ground sloth, camels, mastodon, and horses. The discovery
of clovis style spear points indicates that ice age hunters also dwelled within the canyons
walls 12,000 years ago. Our 277 mile journey through Grand Canyon
ends abruptly at the Grandwash Cliffs. As we pull away, the full, spectacular length
of this grandest of all canyons comes into view once again. The geologic story of this
impressive feature is complicated, but with each day we learn something new. As time passes,
the aged rocks will continue to be eroded. Although we can only imagine how this feature
will appear in the next million years, its value as a geologic and visual masterpiece
is apparent and we will continue to protect it for generations to come.

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