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What's in a name?

When John Muir looked out over Grand Canyon in 1902, he said, “As yet, few of the promontories or throng of mountain buildings in the canyon are named. Nor among such exuberance of forms are names to be thought of by the bewildered, hurried tourist. He would be as likely to think of names for waves in a storm.”
Collage of three images: A Native woman and child stand outside a hut, a wide view of the canyon with the Colorado River below, John Muir standing on the rim of Grand Canyon
Left: Historic photo of a Havasupai woman, with a child on her back, outside a hut, Middle: Colorado River cutting through Grand Canyon, Right: John Muir standing on the rim of Grand Canyon, NPS Photos
Today, nearly every point, peak, creek and canyon stretching away from the Colorado River below has been named and renamed. People have lived in and around Grand Canyon for 12,000 years, and some of the first names have been lost to time, but others have been passed down in the oral history of the tribes. As European Americans arrived, they quickly began labeling places in their native tongue, and these are the names that populated the maps, and were often given by the map makers themselves.

Clarence Dutton is known as Grand Canyon’s ‘poet geologist’ as he had a similar flair with the English language as Muir. However, his appreciation of language did not extend to the local dialects; he preferred to project names from world literature and religion on the terrain. His associate, Fredrick Dellenbaugh, disagreed, “I had several arguments with him on the subject as I object violently to Oriental and Egyptian nomenclature.” Still others feel the canyon is a natural wonder of the world so names from around the world are more fitting than local folk names.

In the end, the stories behind the location names help tell the story of Grand Canyon National Park. Here are some pictures of popular points, with some of their names. What would you call them?
Looking down at the switchbacks on Bright Angel Trail
Looking down at some switchbacks on Bright Angel Trail
Photo by Greg Rasanen
Bright Angel Trail: Named for the fault/canyon it follows, which stretches across to the north rim. It was named by Powell on his first expedition down the Colorado. At first, he was simply going to call it Silver Stream, but they had named a muddy, acrid stream up river Dirty Devil, and a hymn lyric came to his mind: “Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel’s feet have trod.” So, this clear creek fed by springs was named Bright Angel Creek, the canyon, fault, trail, and lodge follow suit. However, the Havasupai called it Gthatv He’e which means ‘Coyote Tail.’ In this picture, the trail starts out narrow, but grows bushy as the switchbacks climb up the steeper sections, which end with a white tip at the Coconino Sandstone and Kaibab Limestone at the top.
Layers of rock slanted at an angle that makes them look like they are sinking into the canyon, the Grand Canyon is in the back ground
Sinking Ship, NPS Photo
Sinking Ship: This is a folk name given by Park Superintendent Tillotson in the 1930s, as the rocks look a bit like a sinking ship. It had also been called Three Castles. While most of the canyon’s layers are typically horizontal, this section of Kaibab Limestone has been shifted though faults and a monocline, which makes it look as if it is ‘sinking’ into the canyon below.
Article by Greg Rasanen

Last updated: July 8, 2020