Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — The Grand Canyon has become a fixture of what many people think when they dwell on the American Southwest. In 2017, more people enjoyed the vast grandeur that is Grand Canyon National Park than any other national park in the West.
Zion National Park in southern Utah was right behind. This year, outdoor enthusiasts will be able to celebrate the centennials for both parks, starting with the Grand Canyon.
President Woodrow Wilson signed Grand Canyon's national park designation on Feb. 26, 1919. The designation was a mere blip in many of Utah’s newspapers at the time. It happened about the same time Wilson pushed for his League of Nations dream, which highlighted much of the national headlines at the time.
The designation helped preserve what is described by many as one of the seven natural wonders of the world and opened the door for many more parks in the American Southwest, including Zion in November 1919 and Bryce Canyon nearly a decade later.
The path to becoming a national park
Scientists believe the gorge formed by the Colorado River cutting through the layers of rocks about five or six million years ago, according to History.com. The National Park Service states the oldest human artifacts found on the land date back nearly 12,000 years to the Paleo-Indian period.
It’s been home to the Havasu Baaja — now the Havasupai — tribe for more than 1,000 years. The tribe grew corn, squash and beans with the help of the water flowing through the canyon, according to the Havasupai Indian Reservation. In September 1540, a group of explorers led by conquistador Francisco Coronado came across the canyon during a search for cities of gold. They became the first Europeans to view the Grand Canyon, NPS noted.
The Havasupai people, however, wouldn’t encounter European explorers until Spanish priest Francisco Garcés traveled to the area in 1776, according to a history compiled by Arizona State University.
The U.S. gained ownership of the canyon a little more than 300 years after Europeans came across the land. The canyon and millions of acres of more land was turned over to the U.S. as a part of the 1848 Mexican Cession. Ten years later, American explorer and botanist Joseph Ives led a group that mapped the canyon. Explorer John Wesley Powell completed a more detailed map about a decade after that, History.com reported.
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself,” Powell wrote about his venture. "The resources of the graphic art are beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration must fail."
In 1882, future president Benjamin Harrison proposed the Grand Canyon be designated a national park. At that point, only Yellowstone had received that designation. It wasn’t successful. Two other proposals in 1883 and 1886 weren’t successful either, according to the U.S. Library of Congress. By the time he became president, Harrison established the Grand Canyon Forest Reserve in 1893.
President Theodore Roosevelt took it a step further during his presidency. In 1906, he created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. Two years later, he named the area a national monument.
Two other attempts to turn the Grand Canyon a national park were unsuccessful between 1908 and 1919. Finally, Congress passed an act to establish Grand Canyon National Park on Feb. 26, 1919.
Growth in popularity
The Grand Canyon's popularity has grown steadily over time.
In 1919, 37,745 people visited the park. The Grand Canyon drew in more than 100,000 visitors for the first time in 1923 and 1 million for the first time in 1956.
The NPS reported that 6.2 million people had visited the park in 2017 (the most recently-released overall numbers), which was second to Smoky Mountains National Park in overall park attendance.
In all, more than 330 million people visited national parks across the country in 2017.
It's safe to say people will continue to enjoy Grand Canyon National Park for the next century to come.