Early European and American explorers of Grand Canyon and Colorado River were willing to go into "The Great Unknown" risking their lives to learn the canyon's secrets. They were the first to document the power of the Colorado River, understand the immense size of Grand Canyon, and share its beauty and danger with the world. Their adventures still inspire explorers today.


The Early Spanish Explorers


The first Europeans to see Grand Canyon were soldiers led by García López de Cárdenas. In 1540, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his Spanish army traveled northward from Mexico City in search of the Seven Cities of Cíbola. After traveling for six months, Coronado’s army arrived at the Hopi Mesas, east of Grand Canyon. Cárdenas, guided by the Hopi, led a small party of men to find a reported “great river.” Coronado hoped to find a navigable river that would serve as a waterway to the Gulf of California. The Hopi leaders advised their men to guide the unwelcome soldiers along an exaggerate path to the highest point above the river and to volunteer no information of value.

After a twenty-day journey, Cárdenas and his army arrived at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Approximately a mile down was the Colorado River below them. The Spaniards estimated that the opposite rim was 8 to 10 miles away and that the Colorado River was no more than 6 feet across. Cárdenas ordered three infantry men to climb their way down to the river. The men made it down to about 1,5000 feet, a third of the way down, until they saw that the Colorado River was much wider waterway than they had estimated and that there was no way to navigate ships along these intense river.

Cárdenas party spent three days looking for water and trying to reach the bottom of the river. The Hopi were able to fool the Spaniards into thinking that the area was an impenetrable wasteland and was not navigable anyway. Due to this response, Coronado dismissed further western exploration, and moved his men out east to Texas. The Grand Canyon was left unexplored for 235 years.


Joseph Christmas Ives

Grand Canyon was the last largely unexplored area of the West in 1857. Often called "The Great Unknown" it was literally a blank space on maps. It was known that the Colorado River made a significant portion of its journey through this area, so the federal government funded an expedition to explore the river and determine its usefulness as a trade route.

Print of a vintage steamboat in front of rugged terrain.
Ives' steamboat, the Explorer

Army First Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers would embark on this challenge and become the first European American known to reach the river within Grand Canyon.

Joseph Christmas Ives would navigate up river using a fifty-foot long sternwheel steamboat, the Explorer. His plan was to steam up the Colorado River from the known into the unknown. However, he crashed just below Black Canyon, not yet in Grand Canyon itself, but continued upriver for another thirty miles in a skiff. Continuing on foot, his overland journey took him down into the canyon at Diamond Creek, today part of the Hualapai Indian Reservation.

Artwork of the Grand Canyon's steep, dark cliffs with the river rapids below.
Artwork from the Ives expedition was very dark, depicting the canyon as a terrifying place.

In his Report upon the Colorado River of the West; Explored in 1857 and 1858 (Washington: GPO, 1861), Ives admires the canyon’s scenery:

"The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap. Fissures so profound that the eye cannot penetrate their depths are separated by walls whose thickness one can almost span, and slender spires that seem to be tottering upon their bases shoot up thousands of feet from the vaults below."

But he could not envision that the scenery alone would bring millions to view the wonder of the canyon. He also writes:

"The region is, of course, altogether valueless. 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."


John Wesley Powell

1869 and 1872

It wasn’t until 1869 that another explorer would take on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. John Wesley Powell was a geologist whose studies of rocks in Colorado and Wyoming sparked his interest in exploring the unknown canyon of the Colorado River. He studied reports from Ives’ expedition, gathered support and supplies from the Smithsonian Institution, railroads, educational institutions, and convinced Congress to authorize the use of rations and supplies from army posts. He designed his own boats and gathered a makeshift crew of ex-trappers, mountain men, and Civil War veterans like himself. The expedition launched four boats from Green River, Wyoming in May 24, 1869.

Starting off with ease, the river quickly gained momentum and began to bare its teeth. One boat and all its supplies were lost at Lodore Canyon in a rapid Powell named Disaster Falls.

Portrait of John Wesley Powell, including head and shoulders
John Wesley Powell, Age 35, 1869

After three summer months spent exploring the upper canyons of the Colorado River, the expedition passed the Paria River on August 4, hungry, with only musty apples, spoiled bacon, wet flour, and coffee remaining, and both physically and mentally tired, as they entered the last and greatest of the canyons. The scientific expedition had turned into a fight for their very survival.

In his published account of the river expedition, The Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and its Tributaries (Washington: GPO, 1875), Powell referred to Grand Canyon as “our granite prison” and described an almost unbroken series of rapids that the expedition ran, lined, or portaged, praying all the while for an end to the ordeal. On August 28, the canyon ended and the river became relatively quiet once again.

So many of Powell’s notes had been lost, however, that with full federal funding, Powell gathered another crew, this time of amateur scientists and educated men, and began a second expedition on May 22, 1871 from Green River, Wyoming, entering the Grand Canyon at Lee’s Ferry on August 17, 1872 after wintering in Kanab, Utah.

A black and white photo of John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell's Expedition

Learn more about John Wesley Powell's Expeditions on Arizona State University's Nature, Culture, and History at Grand Canyon website.

A black and white sketch of a steamboat.
Early Explorers History Continued

Learn more about the early explorers on Arizona State University's Nature, Culture, and History at Grand Canyon website.

A cemetery gate.

Passing through or calling the canyon home, many people have influenced the development and protection of Grand Canyon.

Last updated: September 21, 2019

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