What's Out There?
Honoring Native Land
Archaeological evidence suggests that the first Native inhabitation of the greater Gates of the Grand Canyon region began over 11,500 years ago. These earliest peoples were believed to be associated with hunting the remnants of Pleistocene megafauna in conditions that were slightly cooler and wetter than the climate we know today. Gypsum Cave, adjacent to Las Vegas, has tantalizing evidence for extinct ground sloths, which became extinct 11,060 to 11,490 years BP (Before Present). A solid date of 9,280 years BP was found on a rare, early basketry fragment found within the cave, placing early human use at least to this date. Tule springs also offers evidence for dates of human use of the region dating back to 11,000 years BP. Regardless of the exact age of the first human use and habitation, the archeological record shows a continuity of use of the area as cultures and affiliations shifted over countless generations. Although the Gates of the Grand Canyon today is affiliated as traditional lands for two primary peoples, the Southern Paiute and the Hualapai, Tribal groups ranging as far as Utah and New Mexico consider the area as historically significant because of their links with the Virgin River Ancestral Puebloan period, which was associated with the structures and cultivation of maize and other crops adjacent to the Gates of the Grand Canyon in the Virgin and Moapa valleys.
The Hualapai people conceptualize the Colorado River as a giant lizard, running along the edge of their territory. They call the mid-stream of Colorado River “Haitat,” which roughly translates as the backbone of the lizard. The Gates of the Grand Canyon are infused with objects and locations of cultural significance for Native Americans. Please respect all artifacts and inscriptions within the area.
Historic use of southern Nevada began in 1826 with blazing of the Old Spanish Trail by American and Mexican explorers. The Gates of the Grand Canyon were ignored by these explorers because the area was too rugged for travel combined with the ultimate need to confront crossing the unpredictable Colorado River, perhaps multiple times, as it snaked through it's maze of inaccessible canyons. In 1865, Mormons established a permanent community called St. Thomas immediately across from the Gates of the Grand Canyon along the Virgin River for the explicit purpose of growing cotton in the Moapa Valley. Further exploration of the Gates of the Grand Canyon were limited to sporadic prospecting thoughout the 19th century, including Daniel Bonelli's discovery of mica in the area in 1873. Scanlon established his ferry across the Colorado River in 1881 to serve the needs of early settlers and ranchers in moving goods and livestock from the lower Colorado River up into the Arizona Strip. From the the north, access to the ferry was originally via Grand Wash. Scanlon created the precarious Scanlon Dugway road from the north side of the Colorado River up into the Gold Butte region sometime before 1893. Although John Wesley Powell's expedition through the Grand Canyon was in 1869, his descriptions and discoveries would not enter into the American imagination until he revised and reissued his report in 1895 and retitled it: The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.
After the discovery of gold in Gold Butte in 1905, prospectors and teamsters began pouring across the Gates of the Grand Canyon utilizing the existing ferries and roads, and creating new paths. The mining boom wound down by 1910 and the town was abandoned, returning the Gates of the Grand Canyon to a sleepy backwater. By the time Hoover Dam filled in 1941, the entirety of the Colorado River within the entirety of the Gates of the Grand Canyon had been flooded with Lake Mead waters. The creation of Lake Mead created a new and convenient form of water recreation access to the Gates of the Grand Canyon. With the Global Warming induced climate change and increased demands for the waters of Lake Mead began in the early 21 century, the level of Lake Mead began to drop. The decline of the lake level accelerated in the second decade of the 21st century and, if it continues, the entirety of the Gates of the Grand Canyon may be standing proudly above the Colorado River, once again, by the mid century.
The geological history of the Gates of the Grand Canyon is simultaneously very young (geological speaking) and very, very old. The landscape we see today was formed within the last 6 million years as the waters of the Colorado Plateau consolidated into the Colorado River. When the Sea of Cortez opened nearly to the western edge of the Colorado Plateau about 6 million years ago, the Colorado River rapidly cut into the plateau until it had captured and become the drain of all the major rivers of the Colorado Plateau. The increased precipitation of the Pleistocene hastened the down-cutting of the Colorado River over the last 2.6 million years, forming the labyrinth of the Grand Canyon we know today. The eastern-most portion of the Gates of the Grand Canyon contain sections to the Colorado Plateau Paleozoic rocks that have been folded and deformed by the uplift and faulting associated with the formation of the Great Basin about 15 million years ago. The rocks that were shoved up adjacent to the Colorado Plateau by the Great Basin mountain building were created from metamorphosis of even older rock about 1.7 billion years ago by granitic intrusions. Throughout the majority of the Gates of the Grand Canyon, these ancient metamorphic and granitic rocks have been shoved up to elevations thousands of feet higher than the Colorado Plateau rocks found along the Colorado River on the eastern portion of the area. In places, volcanic rocks associate with Basin and Range mountain building (15 million years ago) lie on top of and cut through these ancient metamorphic and igneous rock. The vast alluvial formations of the western portion of the Gates of the Grand Canyon have been created by the erosion and subsequent deposition of the ancient building blocks of the area. The Gates of the Grand Canyon not only present the geographically important terminus of the Grand Canyon, but also display and describe the boundary and collision between the diverse tectonic forces that created the Colorado Plateau and the Basin and Range.
The Gates of the Grand Canyon provides habitat for a diversity reptiles including lizards (including the chuckwalla), snakes, and the threatened desert tortoise. Bird species include Gambel's quail, raven, desert sparrow, roadrunner, horned lark, and cactus and rock wrens. Raptors, although not common, can be sighted within the area. From small to large, the mammals of the region include bats, rodents, black-tail jackrabbits, desert cotton-tail, kit fox, coyote, badger, and perhaps even an occasional bobcat. At the highest elevation, a transient desert bighorn sheep may be observed.
Nearly the entirety of the Nevada portion of the Gates of the Grand Canyon is characterized by the creosote bush plant community. The community generally dominates the landscape below 3,500 feet, but climbs much higher in arid areas of south-facing slopes, which describes most of the Nevada portion of the Gates of the Grand Canyon. This area presents overall sparse vegetation with creosote bush and burro bush as the primary species. Additional species include Mohave yucca, bur-sage, desert holly, Mormon tea, barrel cactus, prickly pear cactus, cholla cactus, indigo bush, saltbush, brittlebush, ratany, buckwheat , and numerous sunflowers, mustards, and legumes. Rare areas in the endangered bearpoppy can also be found within the Gates of the Grand Canyon. After fortuitous precipitation the creosote bush desert community can bloom with stunning displays of plants such as wild heliotrope, globe mallow, plantain, monkey flower, desert marigold, sunray, fiddleneck, poppy, purple aster, and primroses. Many of these plants hide dormant in the soils for years waiting for the right combination of season and precipitation to flower and bloom. the northern most portions of the Scanlon Wash and Hell's Kitchen units rise to elevations where the Joshua tree/blackbrush plant community has established. Similar to the creosote community, this community includes the iconic Joshua tree along with a wider diversity of cholla, beavertail cactus, agave and a substantial increase in grasses. The density, mix, and growth habit of these plant communities shift with changes in soils, slope steepness, the directional aspect of slopes, and the proximity of the communities to the increased potential of water adjacent to dry washes.