blue marble adventure

How Big is the Grand Canyon?

Visiting Grand Canyon can be a nearly overwhelming experience.  Standing on the rim a peering out over the vastness is a legitimately humbling experience.  Take it from those who have spent a lifetime here; this place is as awe-inspiring as it is mind-blowing.  Simply attempting to comprehend its scale is something that most of us struggle with every time we go, no matter how many times we’ve been.  Numbers are just numbers and provide no real context to the vastness to every dimension of Grand Canyon.  Oftentimes our guests find it helpful to put context on these numbers, which has been done here.  Keeping it simple can be slightly difficult, as even some contextual visualizations escape comprehension.  For instance, did you know that the Grand Canyon has a volume of 7,345,724,462,194 Olympic-sized swimming pools?

While that’s an interesting fact (I suppose), it’s nonsensical and uninformative.  How in the actual hell would you possibly be able to picture that many swimming pools?  A better way to put it might be that if we filled Grand Canyon to the brim with water, the volume contained within it would be enough to flood the entire European continent 1-foot high.  Hmmmmm….

Let’s Think About This for a Minute….

Stand on top of the tallest building in the United States, One World Trade Center in New York City.  Realize that at the top of this tower, 1,776 feet, you are standing roughly 1/3 of the way up the height of Grand Canyon’s walls of stone. Stack two more of those babies on top and you’ve got yourself a start.  Look out over the landscape from One World Trade.  On a clear day you can see all of Manhattan, into New Jersey, and well out into the Atlantic Ocean.  This view presents one with about 1/4 of the space you can view from Zoroaster Temple, a 5000ft mountain located INSIDE Grand Canyon.

In short, the Grand Canyon is big.  By every measure, it is big.  Just how big?  Well, that’s all relative my Dear Watson.  Perhaps the most iconic National Park in the world, Grand Canyon is statistically astounding in its size, overwhelming in its scale, and humbling in its grandeur.  I’ve picked out a few of the distinctions that make it big; time, space, the river the courses through it, its status as a National Park, its human history, and its future.

Really Rad, Huge Facts About Grand Canyon

Space

Width
  • The widest point of the Grand Canyon is 18 miles as the crow flies.  This is the same length as stretching from Lower Manhattan north 7 miles into New Jersey.  In contrast, Grand Canyon is just 4 miles wide at its narrowest.  To put that in perspective, some of Arizona and Utah’s most famous slot canyons are just 5 feet wide, such as Spooky Gulch or the Buckskin Gulch.  The best way to traverse the chasm is hiking rim-to-rim or to the river-and-back, but trust us, you still have more than a little to explore.  With over 400 miles of known trails in Grand Canyon, you could hike from Los Angeles to San Francisco in the same amount of mileage.
Length
  • Grand Canyon is 277 miles long from Marble Canyon to Pearce Ferry and the Grand Wash Cliffs just east of Las Vegas.  Hoover Dam is its official modern end, though that only came into existence in 1933, nearly 6 million years after the Grand Canyon began to be carved by the Colorado River!  If you wanted to jump in the car and drive, 277 miles will get you from Washington, D.C to north of New York City.
Depth
  • Size is measured in three dimensions, so in addition to its length and width, Grand Canyon also has depth.  One mile of depth to be exact.  That’s 5,280 feet, or 1,610 meters for you metrically-inclined folks.  For perspective, you could stack 4 Empire State Buildings, both Petronas Towers, 3 CN Buildings, 7 Eiffel Towers, or 22 Statues of Liberty on top of each other to reach this depth.  The Goat’s advice: try walking all the way up ONE of these; that should give you some appreciation.
  • There are approximately 5000 individual canyons that come together to make Grand Canyon.  Grand Canyon is not so much one giant canyon as it is a tapestry of chiseled dissections in the earth.

Time

  •  Rocks in Grand Canyon record 1.9 billion years of Earth’s history.
  • The Inner Gorge of Grand Canyon is composed of some of the oldest rocks in North America.   At 1.9 billion years old, the Vishnu Schist metamorphic complex are the remnants of the North American continent being formed and great mountain ranges being thrust into the sky, nearly 6,000 feet tall.
  • The oldest-recorded signs of life in Grand Canyon are 500 million years old
  • The canyons began to form 5-6 million years ago as the Upper and Lower Colorado Rivers became integrated after action along the San Andreas fault opened the Gulf of California

The Mighty Colorado

  • At the bottom of Grand Canyon lies the river responsible for cutting it, the mighty Colorado.  Though it seems like a lazy river and prime for a swim, The Goat advises against it.  The average current in the Colorado River flows at over 16,000 cfs (cubic feet per second).
  • This is the equivalent of being bombarded with 16,000 basketballs every second.  Try swimming against that current.  Some of the most challenging rapids found on the Colorado River lie within Grand Canyon, and many early pioneers were shipwrecked and marooned in the Grand, barely escaping with their lives.
  • Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1964 and has tamed it somewhat, but the river is still a dangerous proposition.  The trade-off with the “taming” is that that water in the Colorado River stays between a brisk 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit, drawing water from the bottom of Lake Powell.  In waters of these temperatures, hypothermia can set in within 30 minutes.  Not cool.

Exploration

Ancient Exploration
  • The first peoples known to have explored Grand Canyon arrived about 12,000 years ago, after the most recent Ice Age.
  • Ancestral Puebloans – ancestors of the Paiute, Hopi, Zuni, and Anasazi – arrived roughly 5,000 years ago.
  • The Havasupai, descendants of the Puebloans, were first recorded in Grand Canyon roughly 800 years ago.
Modern Exploration
  • Spanish Explorers, with Hopi Guides, arrived in 1540 searching for the Lost City of Gold.
  • Joseph Christmas Ives, soldier and botanist, was the first known European to explore and document Grand Canyon.
  • The first person of European descent to successfully navigate the Colorado River through the entirety of Grand Canyon was Major John Wesley Powell in 1869.  The head of the United States Geological Survey at the time, Major Powell coined its name, referring to it as “The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River”.  He is also responsible for naming several other features along the length of the Colorado, including Glen Canyon, The Flaming Gorge, and the Gates of Lodore.

Grand Canyon as a National Park

  • The geographical size of Grand Canyon National Park is 1,902 square miles.  The State of Rhode Island is 1,212 square miles, and the State of Delaware is 1,952 square miles.  So yeah, Grand Canyon is the size of a couple of our States.
  • President Benjamin Harrison designated it a forest reserve in 1893.
  • Grand Canyon became America’s 17th National Park in 1919, elevating it from a National Monument designated by Theodore Roosevelt as such in 1908 using the Antiquities Act of 1906.
  • The population of the State of Arizona is roughly 7 million, with roughly 6 million of those people residing in and around Phoenix.  2016 visitation to Grand Canyon topped 6 million for the first time in the Canyon’s history as a National Park.
  • Grand Canyon is located entirely within the boundaries of the State of Arizona.  Arizona is geographically the 6th-largest state in the Union, and was admitted on Valentine’s Day of 1912.  Love it!

What does the future hold for Grand Canyon as a Natural Feature?

Grand Canyon, like most landscapes on the Colorado Plateau, is extremely dynamic.  It is not done forming, and at only 5-6 million years old, perhaps has only just begun.  The Colorado River must still remove between 2000-3000 feet of rock before it levels itself with its outlet at the Sea of Cortez.  One final BIG fact can be found here; the amount of sediment already removed from Grand Canyon, thought to be between 12000-15000 feet (most of the rocks in the Grand Staircase once covered this area, too), would be enough to fill (get ready for it) 17 million olympic-sized swimming pools!

Perhaps now you have a better feel for just how big Grand Canyon really is.  The best part, though?  It’s getting bigger.  With every rainstorm, with every flood, with every second the river flows, with every rockfall, every single second of every single day that the forces of erosion act upon it, Grand Canyon gets bigger.  It gets wider, deeper, longer.  Every single grain of dirt, clay, mud, or dust removed by wind, water, and time continues daily to shape this magnificent place.

What Now?

Go impress your friends with your stupendous knowledge of Grand Canyon! Go now! If you don’t go now, the canyon will change!  You don’t need to run, I suppose, you may yet have a few years.  I can promise that during your lifetime, Grand Canyon will remain much the same as it does today,  However, wild places require constant vigilance.  The building of Glen Canyon dam forever changed the character of Grand Canyon, and so too do future projects threaten the canyon’s wilderness. Development, industrial tourism such as helicopters and jeeps, and even mining interests still today stand at the gates of Grand Canyon, waiting.  Learn more about preserving Grand Canyon and other wild landscapes here.

The best way to appreciate places like Grand Canyon is to get there and explore them.  Hiring a guide service or outfitter can significantly enhance your experience, as the depth of knowledge and appreciation contained within the collective of these services is astounding.

May your trails be winding and crooked, the breath in your lungs pure, the sights in your eyes unspoiled.  Go!

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