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A light dusting of Grand Canyon history

February 25, 2019

From Goldwater to whitewater, we share a sampler of trivia, jargon and timeline

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?


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. 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Mapping the Grand Canyon

February 25, 2019

ASU hosts first conference on cartography of the natural wonder

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

Without maps, we would not be able to see the Grand Canyon.

Only a bird could see the immense gash in the Earth’s crust, almost 300 miles long. Maps allow us to see the whole thing at once or particular aspects like the geology, points of interest and river rapids.

At the end of February, Arizona State University will host the first conference exploring the art, science and practice of Grand Canyon cartography.

ASU’s collection of 240 Grand Canyon maps includes an 1852 military map, where the Colorado Plateau is mostly blank, and a Spanish colonial map with the same blank spaces. A territorial map from 1880 shows the now-drowned Glen Canyon. There are aeronautical charts showing no-fly zones below 14,000 feet, cartoon maps with female tourists swooning over lanky cowboys, and the gas station maps people of a certain age will remember. Some maps capture lost landscapes, like rapids long overtaken by Lake Mead. Some are digitized copies, and some are originals.

Matthew Toro is the director of maps, imagery and geospatial services at the ASU Library Map and Geospatial Hub. He leads projects and programming at the center for GIS, remote sensing and related technologies. The idea for a conference came to him when he was in the canyon on a rim-to-rim hike.

“You think, there’s this giant hole in the ground — how did they map it?” Toro said. “Here I have the privileged position of running this little mapping shop. The history of mapping Grand Canyon is a history of exploration. It’s a history of science. It’s a history of technology. It’s a history of art. There’s a lot of history here.”

Toro did some research and found out no one had ever hosted a conference on mapping the canyon.

“Believe it or not, no one’s ever looked into that angle of Grand Canyon history: How the Grand Canyon was mapped,” he said. “And it was a surprise to me. This is one of the most iconic landscapes on the face of the Earth, not only for North America, for the United States, or Arizona. ... I realize the notion of thinking of the Grand Canyon as a whole is very much an abstraction. When you think how we know the Grand Canyon, most of our knowledge of the canyon is through maps. ... I realized there’s a fascinating history here and no one’s really looked at it holistically.”

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Among other projects, Toro is currently constructing a cartographic history of the greater Grand Canyon region. When he started work at the university, he found a set of maps in a back room that belonged to a famous cartographer, mountaineer and photographer named Bradford Washburn.

Washburn created one of the most famous maps of the Grand Canyon, “The Heart of the Grand Canyon,” published by the National Geographic Society in 1978. It remains celebrated among cartographers today.

Comments on cartography websites: “If only all maps were made to this standard.” “It’s the epitome of dedication and commitment to the craft of making a map.”

The achievement is mentioned in the first paragraph of Washburn’s obituary in the New York Times.

Ansel Adams called Washburn one of the best mountain photographers of all time. Washburn shot from unpressurized planes and helicopters, with doors removed, at temperatures far below zero, while tethered to the cabin. He made landmark climbs in Alaska and Europe, employing the unprecedented use of glacier landings and supply drops. In 1939, he took a job as director of the New England Museum of Natural History (later to be called the Museum of Science) in Boston, transforming an old, rundown joint into the greatest children’s museum in the world. In 1992 he was a member of the survey team that made the first laser measurement on top of Mount Everest, discovering the mountain was 7 feet higher than previously thought.

In the early 1970s, Washburn visited the Grand Canyon and decided there wasn’t a good enough map of it. There were U.S. Geological Survey maps, but they weren’t up to the latest standards.

“He felt they were inadequate,” said Michael Fry, the collection manager and senior map librarian at the National Geographic Society's Library and Archives since 2010. “It wasn’t useful enough for casual users like hikers and it wasn’t good enough for scientific use, so whether you were looking at the canyon for geologic or archaeological purposes, it just wasn’t something good enough for anybody. He seemed to be the sort of person when he saw a need, he wanted to fill it, and this was right up his alley.”

Washburn approached the National Geographic Society and asked the Committee for Research and Exploration for a grant to do the cartography. They were familiar with him and his work.

“The internal response here was, ‘That’s a good idea. It’s one of the most remarkable natural features on Earth. It would be right up our alley. We need to support that,’” Fry said.  “And we gave him money.”

Washburn and his hand-picked team spent four and a half years on the project, with 144 days in the field. They made 712 helicopter landings to survey lines. Washburn called it mapping “a mountain upside down.”

Bradford Washburn Nu

Bradford Washburn and his wife perched on Dana Butte, one of the reference points used in measuring and mapping the Grand Canyon, in June 1972. Photo by Gary Settle/The New York Times

GPS didn’t exist back then. Washburn used a theodolite, a laser instrument for measuring angles, elevations and distances; aerial photos; a helicopter; and his feet.

“It was a huge, huge effort,” Fry said. “He was just a dedicated, driven guy, just tenacious and skilled and had lots of experience. ... What’s remarkable about it is how much dedication and expertise went into the surveying of the canyon, the production of the cartography, the artwork that is the basis for the map.”

The map is extremely detailed. Much of the Grand Canyon is vertical. It’s cliffs. On a contour topographical map, contour lines dictate the terrain. If they’re close together, the terrain is steep. If they’re far apart, the terrain is mostly flat. A cliff is shown by a lot of lines clustered together in thick line. In a place like the Grand Canyon, that would have obscured the terrain.

“They came up with an interesting solution, which was to replace the contour lines that are typical of topographic maps, with hand-drawn cliffs,” Fry said. “That would give an effect of the verticality of the terrain without obscuring the terrain, which is what would have happened if you had taken contour lines and pushed them closer and closer and closer.”

The map’s scale is at 1:24,000, just over 2.5 inches to the mile. At that scale, Washburn represented the canyon in a way never before seen. He and his wife received the Alexander Graham Bell Medal for “unique and notable contributions to geography and cartography.” Fry will give a presentation on the map at the conference.

“I cannot overstate the caliber of the speakers we have put together,” Toro said.

One of the most famous maps of Grand Canyon is Harvey Butchart’s personal map, which hangs in the park’s backcountry office. Butchart was a Flagstaff math professor who hiked more of the canyon than anyone else in history, logging more than 12,000 miles and becoming the first to hike the length of the park. Peter Runge, head of special collections at Northern Arizona University, will be doing a presentation on Butchart’s map. “We have a dedicated presentation just on that,” Toro said.

Famed geologist Karl Karlstrom will give an overview of geologic mapping in the canyon.

“We have gathered rock stars from the worlds of geology, history and cartography,” Toro said. “We have Tom Patterson, who is the recently retired senior cartographer for the National Park Service. When you go to the Grand Canyon and you get your National Park maps, all those maps were made by one of our keynote speakers. … We’re going to be celebrating the centennial, the sesquicentennial, and the very ancient act of mapping.”

Matt Toro ASU examines Grand Canyon maps

Matthew Toro (right), director of maps, imagery and geospatial services at the ASU Library Map and Geospatial Hub, and Eric Friesenhahn, who completed his bachelor's degree in geographic information science in December, look at Grand Canyon maps at Arizona State University. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

The event is free and open to the public.

“A lot of this is fascinating history,” Toro said. “I think (the public) would get a real kick learning some of these stories, learning about how maps are made. Everyone takes maps for granted these days. ... No one thinks about where all that data comes from. That data helps inform our consciousness of the world and space and this giant hole in the ground carved over millions of years. ... One need not be a geographer or historian or geologist to love the Grand Canyon, and to love maps and to love history. It’s really the convergence of those various themes that we want to host this conference for.”

Free and open to all, the Feb. 28-March 1 conference promises a full two-day program of map-based storytelling, transdisciplinary analysis, state-of-the-art geospatial and cartographic demonstrations, engaging hands-on activities and open community dialogue. For more information and to register, visit the ASU Library website.

Those who can’t make it to the conference can watch it live. A recording will also be available at the ASU Library YouTube channel.

Top photo: Matthew Toro (right), director of maps, imagery and geospatial services, and recent grad Eric Friesenhahn look at maps at ASU's at the Map and Geospatial Hub. Photo by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News