The Fragile Beauty of Glen Canyon

Magnificent Horseshoe Bend

Glen Canyon is a true paradise for nature lovers from all walks of life; there really is something for everyone. Whether you’re a geologist, a biologist, an anthropologist or just a regular visitor, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll enjoy the splendor Glen Canyon has to offer. But at this majestic site, it really pays to study rock formations, as they are the region’s true storytellers, recording the environmental changes caused by climate, weather, fires and geological processes throughout the millennia. We’ve covered Antelope Canyon before here on Environmental Graffiti; now it’s time to explore an American canyon with a very story.

The beautiful colors of Glen Canyon’s cliffs, with its river snaking through them

If you ever wanted to study how a canyon is formed, Glen Canyon is a prime example. Like any self-respecting canyon, it owes its creation to the presence of flowing water – in this case the Colorado River, which found its present course from the central Rocky Mountains into the Gulf of California about five million years ago. A long time, certainly, yet much younger than the Colorado Plateau, which started rising during the Eocene epoch, about 56 to 34 million years ago.

A spectacular reflection of the Colorado Plateau

Glen Canyon is part of the National Recreation Area (NRA), an area that also includes Lake Powell and the lower Cataract Canyon, totaling 1.2 million acres of the Colorado Plateau. Apart from breathtaking canyons and spectacular cliffs, the diverse landscape also includes interesting mesas, (or tablelands) and buttes (steep, isolated hills).


Horseshoe Bend

This eye-catching image shows Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona. Although it perhaps doesn’t do justice to the sheer scale of the place – you’d have to be there to truly appreciate that – it’s clearly an amazing shot. Janusz Leszczynski recalls the trying weather conditions he endured while taking the photo: “One of the things that it is really difficult to show [is] how windy it was,” he says. “And how insane standing inches away from the edge of the canyon with the wind blowing like a wind tunnel. Plus all the red dust – I was sandblasted.”


Just around the river bend – beautiful Glen Canyon

Standing that close to a cliff wasn’t even the worst bit about the shoot. Photographer Janusz Leszczynski continues: “The most scary part [was when] the wind suddenly died down and it did feel like someone pushed you towards the cliff. Fun place, but be careful, extending the tripod all the way ‘to see over the edge’ may not be the greatest idea…” Certainly good advice, and while we’d try not to let ourselves get carried over the cliff by a gust of wind, we’d definitely feel carried away in the presence of such breathtaking scenery!

A bend in the river

Glen Canyon has a rich cultural history, too. The area has been used by various peoples and settlements for about 11,500 years. It started with settlements of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and as settlements became semi-permanent, the area was reputedly home to Navajo, Paiute and Hopi Indians, as well as Spanish explorers in the 16th century. More recently, the canyon has seen a vast influx of miners, ranchers and adventurers.


Image: Ezzy*


Razor-sharp reflection of Lake Powell

Lake Powell is actually not a natural lake but a man-made reservoir created through the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent flooding of the Colorado River. Going by water volume, Lake Powell is the second largest man-made reservoir in the US – after Lake Mead, famously created by the Hoover Dam, just a bit downstream from Lake Powell, on the border of Arizona and Nevada.

Image: PRA

Aerial shot of Lake Powell

In case you were wondering, the white line along the shoreline is what is commonly referred to as a ‘bathtub ring’. This is no ring of dirt, though, but mineral deposits like calcium carbonate that stick to the sandstone, leaving behind a white rim whose top is the high-water mark.


Glen Canyon Dam with Glen Canyon Bridge

Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963, using a staggering 5 million cubic yards (4,000,000 m³) of concrete. Though projects like this – along with the Hoover Dam and others – were not without controversy (owing to environmental concerns and other factors) they were, for the most part, realized as growing populations meant an increase in water and energy demands that had to be fulfilled.

Rock waves near Glen Canyon Dam

Like a geological map, canyon walls are layered with the impact of wind and water erosion, freezing, expansion and other meteorological phenomena. Flash floods, for example, carry with them fine sand that carves the limestone rock into gentle waves like those seen in this image or at Antelope Canyon, roughly 45 miles (75 km) southwest of Glen Canyon.


Image: Symbiosus


Calm before the dam – Lake Powell leading to Glen Canyon Dam

The flooding of Glen Canyon drowned plants, animals and sites of archeological significance, as well as erasing the rock and sediment history that the Colorado River had carved into the Colorado Plateau at Glen Canyon. Whether the provision of water, energy and increased tourism to the area justifies the loss of wildlife and history is a very contentious issue.

Lake Powell as seen from Glen Canyon Dam

It took 17 years (until June 22, 1980, to be precise) for Lake Powell, the body of water that was created through the flooding, to fill to the high water mark; in terms of volume, that’s a staggering 24,000,000 acre feet (30 km3)! Still, 17 years is a mere blink of the eye compared to the millions of years it took to carve the canyon.


Image: Bala


A closer look at Glen Canyon Dam

The creation of the dam and Lake Powell irreversibly altered the environmental makeup of Glen Canyon. The lake also increased the area’s recreation options and thus the number of visitors to the canyon, further impacting on the ecosystem. Non-native plants and animals invaded the area too, competing with native species, upsetting the food chain, and altering nutrient cycles.

The impressive expanse of Glen Canyon Dam Bridge

Originally built so that construction materials for the Glen Canyon Dam could be transported across the Colorado River, the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge was soon integrated into the highway system and today makes up a part of U.S. Route 89. The two-lane steel bridge is 1,271 feet (387 m) long. Towering at a height of 700 feet (210 m) above the river, it was the world’s highest arch bridge at the time of its completion in 1959 and still ranks fairly well among the world’s highest bridges today, coming in at number 35.


Lake Powell and white clouds

Apart from in years of heavy runoff, the Colorado River no longer empties out into the Gulf of California because increasing water consumption, dams, diversions and evaporation have been dewatering the river’s lower course. It has consequently been running dry for most years since 1960.

Glen Canyon with dam

The fact that the Colorado River has been running dry so often means that none of the 85 to 100 million short tons of sediment or silt that it used to transport annually to the sea (an amount second only to the Mississippi) actually reaches the Gulf of California. And the sediment was important for the ecosystem as it nourished wetlands and wildlife living on or near the riverbanks.


Image: OlyaA


Detail of Horseshoe Bend

Glen Canyon and the Colorado Plateau are ecosystems that include several rare native plant and animal species, including the alcove primrose, the southwestern willow flycatcher (an endangered bird), the northern leopard frog and the razorback sucker (an endangered fish), to name but a few. Visitors to the area will be awed by the variety of flora and fauna on offer but must also be aware of just how delicate this ecosystem is, and that understanding it and its changing diversity will contribute to its continued protection.

Image: Karen S.

Scenic shot of Glen Canyon Dam

With a variety of potentially damaging human interventions (including fire management procedures and the feeding of livestock) still being practiced, what the future holds for Glen Canyon remains to be seen. Various factors like soil, sound levels, animal and vegetation populations, and the effects of the dam on fish are currently being studied at the Glen Canyon NRA to assess the impact of human activities on the site.

Glen Canyon continues to attract about 4 million visitors each year – and rightly so, given its magnificent beauty. Yet, after learning about the changes and environmental impact on the area, we can’t help but wonder how large the human footprint will ultimately be.

To read about two other great North American treasures, Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon, follow the links.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15