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Park History: Grand Canyon National Park

Toroweap Overlook. NPS Photo

The view of the Grand Canyon from the Toroweap Overlook. NPS photo

Quick now, how old is Grand Canyon National Park, 100, or 89? Some might say both answers are correct.

The correct answers lies in whether you're searching for the age of the "national park," or how long the canyon has been federally preserved for its unique landscape. But then again, you might also want to consider the Grand Canyon's federally protected age as 115.

How can those three ages technically be correct?

Well, in 1893 President Benjamin Harrison created the "Grand Canyon Forest Reserve," which covered part of today's national park. Then, on January 11, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt -- after creating the Grand Canyon Game Reserve in 1906 -- turned to the Antiquities Act to create Grand Canyon National Monument. Finally, Congress on this date in 1919 formally created Grand Canyon National Park.

And while the national park turns 89 today, some might be more focused on its centennial in 2019. Just as the National Park Service is trying to "spruce up" the national park system in time for the agency's own centennial in 2016, there's a good deal of work to be done at the Grand Canyon in time for its centennial.

Grand Canyon officials have set down some specific goals in the area of resource stewardship, visitor experience, and park maintenance as the park nears the end of its first 100 years.

“We want to make the park experience relevant to people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures and maintain and provide for a workforce to lead Grand Canyon National Park into the 21st century by ensuring the park is managed in a credible and professional fashion,” says Superintendent Steve Martin. "The selection and implementation of these goals will ensure that the park’s landscapes and ecosystems are rich in diversity and protected from degradation.”

Perhaps foremost among those challenges is developing a sound transportation system for the park's South Rim. Earlier this month park officials released an environmental assessment that contained their proposed solution for the traffic-clogged rim. Whether it's the perfect solution remains to be seen.

Beyond that, park officials have plans to further extend the South Rim's "greenway trail system" for pedestrians and bicyclists; expand educational programs "by bringing 21st century technologies and state-of-the-art science and education to Grand Canyon"; develop a strong friends group, something that has been missing; satisfactorily address concerns over park overflights; ensure that operation of Glen Canyon Dam meets the intent of the Grand Canyon Protection Act, and; complete a business analysis of the park to ensure financial sustainability.

How many of the park's 4.5 million annual visitors see the need for those improvements is hard to say. For many, simply reaching the South Rim and gazing down into the ruddy maw of the canyon from Moran Point, Yaki Point, Yavapai Point, Hopi Point or any of the other overlooks is satisfaction enough. To actually descend below the rim, either to hike a short distance down or all the way to the river and Phantom Ranch, is a bonus for many. To spend two weeks floating the Colorado River along the floor of the canyon could be a lifetime achievement.

And how many of those 4.5 million make it to the North Rim? Not many, I'd suspect (the estimate is maybe one-tenth). After all, it's a good half-day drive from rim to rim. But for those who make it to the north side, what a treat awaits. Higher than the South Rim by almost 1,500 feet, it's cooler on the North Rim during the dog days of July and August, and the dense Ponderosa pine woods are great to explore. It does take a bit more effort to get to many of the North Rim's viewpoints, but that means fewer crowds elbowing you for a glimpse of the canyon.

When President Roosevelt created Grand Canyon National Monument 100 years ago, he said the canyon was “the one great site every American should see.” When you stand on one of the rims, you'll share his belief in that statement.


There might be some confusion about just when Grand Canyon National Park became a national park, but it seems perfectly clear why the National Park Service considers 1919 to be the magic year. It was in 1919 that managerial responsibility for the park ("ownership," if you prefer) was transferred from the U.S. Forest Service to the fledgling National Park Service and the property acquired the formal title National Park (capital N, capital P). Everything that happened before that was prelude as far as the Park Service is concerned.

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