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The Grand Canyon’s fantastic landscape turns a train trip into a fascinating geology lesson

Posted by: Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel on December 26, 2018

To the rhythm of the steady and hypnotizing click-clack of the historic train, the dramatic landscape becomes one of the most mesmerizing sights in America.

As you board the Grand Canyon Railway and roll out of the historic town of Williams, Ariz., you’ll be traveling across the bottom of what was once a prehistoric sea. You’ll also be traveling across the peak of a huge mountain.

All at the same time.

The shallow sea that once covered Arizona dried up at the end of the Pre-Cambrian Era billions of years ago, but the soft curves of the seabed are still distinct atop the 1,152-square-mile Kaibab Plateau, which is a only a fraction of the 130,000-square-mile Colorado Plateau it rests upon. To the rhythm of the steady and hypnotizing click-clack of the historic train, the dramatic landscape becomes one of the most mesmerizing sights in America. It will command your attention throughout the 65-mile journey to the Grand Canyon Village where even more spectacular wonders await.

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For now, on a trip that lasts just over two hours, you can look outside your window and peek into the past as you witness billions of years of geological evolution caused by erosion, volcanoes, weathering, and tectonic uplifts. The show begins as you depart the depot in Williams and travel across the deposits of dozens of now-extinct volcanic cones that erupted from roughly 15 million to just a few thousand years ago. It is the accumulated ash, cinders, and hardened lava thrown across the ground that created the land on which you travel.

Not long into the northbound trip, look to the right and you’ll see the largest volcano of all in the range of the San Francisco Peaks, outlined on the broad plain roughly 30 miles east of the tracks. Like Washington’s Mount St. Helens, the summit here — estimated to once have exceeded 15,000 feet — was reduced to 12,633 feet after a high-pressure eruption blasted the peak from the top of the now-extinct volcano.

While the scenery is already larger than life, the grandeur of this world is magnified when viewed from the comfort of the Grand Canyon Railway’s parlor cars, observation cars, and historic Pullman coaches. Incredibly, the magnificent drama of the Colorado and Kaibab plateaus heightens when you roll into the station at the Grand Canyon Village. As volcanoes were creating new land, rivers were washing it away to create one of the Natural Wonders of the World.

Inner Colorado River

Geologists are still fine-tuning theories as to exactly how the once-untamed Colorado River managed to create the Grand Canyon, but the simplified consensus is that the void was made as the land came up, the river cut down, and the sides fell in. This didn’t occur as a cataclysmic event, but as a steady process of erosion and fractures occurring over six million years — which continues to this day at a slow and steady pace.

One factor that delights visitors is the surprisingly rich variety of tones, colors, and hues within the canyon. Over the course of its creation, the river removed the top layer of earth that, naturally, was the most recent. As each successive strata of earth was washed away or collapsed as ice and vegetation weakened the sidewalls of the canyon, ancient layers of varying shades and colors began to reveal themselves. Geologists and rangers on hand to share information about the canyon’s incredible history commit to memory a mnemonic device to remind them of the descending order of layers at the Grand Canyon. If you can remember “Know the Canyon’s History — Study Rocks Made by Time,” you’re well on your way to earning your junior geologist badge.

Each capital letter stands for the layers of rock, from most recent to most ancient with the surface-level Kaibab Formation primarily comprised of limestone, sandstone, and siltstone, which is the same composition of the older Toroweap Formation, one layer below. Going back in time, the Coconino Sandstone contains the petrified remnants of ancient sand dunes that sit atop the Hermit Formation (or shale), which gives the Grand Canyon its reddish hue as the rusty red color stains the lower layers of rock. (Know the Canyon’s History.)

Time travels backward as you reach the four layers of sandstone and limestone in the Supai Group, a level from the Paleozoic Era that includes many of the canyon’s cliffs. Supporting Supai is Redwall Limestone that’s as high as 70 stories and is the most prominent layer of the canyon. Easily visible from the rim, its red tint (courtesy of Hermit Shale) makes it even more noticeable to those hiking the canyon trail.

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Below that, Muav Limestone is a thin gray layer deposited around 530 million years ago and which was once the bottom of a shallow sea. It’s slightly younger than its attractive downstairs neighbor, Bright Angel Shale, which contains the fossils of marine animals from 540 million years ago. Colorful and intriguing, its hues range from browns and tans to greens and purples. The lowest level is the dark brown Tapeats Sandstone whose upper layer includes ripple marks formed by ocean waves of an early Cambrian sea and marine fossils from creatures that lived in the waters of what had been a coastline. (Study Rocks Made by Time.)

After that, you’ll go to the bottom of it with two layers that include Zoraster Granite, a pinkish rock that mixed in as a liquid among the “basement rocks” — better known as Vishnu Schist. They were the foundation of a massive mountain range scientists believe may have been as high as the Rocky Mountains before being washed away and leveled by advancing and retreating seas. Estimated to be between 1.7 million and 2 billion years old, the canyon floor is roughly half as old as the planet itself! Now that’s something worth contemplating as the train finally pulls into the Grand Canyon Village.

How to Explore

There’s no better way to make a grand trip grander than on the historic train to Grand Canyon. Travel over 120 round-trip miles through beautiful northern Arizona while being entertained by historical cowboy characters and strolling musicians. The Grand Canyon Railway has been departing daily from Williams, Ariz., since 1901. Spend a night in Williams next door to the train depot at the AAA Three Diamond Grand Canyon Railway Hotel. Just walking distance from quaint downtown Williams and Route 66, the modern hotel has a grand lobby, indoor pool and hot tub as well as Spenser’s Pub with its handcrafted 19th-century bar. Packages with train travel and overnight stays in Grand Canyon National Park and Williams are available. Visit TheTrain.com for more information.

For more travel experiences to Beautiful Places on Earth™ available from Xanterra Travel Collection and its affiliated properties, visit xanterra.com/explore.


Written by: Gary McKechnie

The author of the best-selling Great American Motorcycle Tours, Gary McKechnie also wrote National Geographic’s USA 101 and Ten Best of Everything: National Parks. He lectures on American travel and history aboard the ships of the Cunard, Seabourn, and Silversea lines.


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