Sacred Lands & Dark Skies: Discover the Grand Canyon National Park & Grand Canyon Conservancy

Standing within sight of what would have been the Marble Canyon Dam, Xplorer Maps Lead Storyteller and Grand Canyon guide Mandela van Eeden shows visitors the potential of losing such beautifully conserved land: drill holes, leftover machinery… skeletons of an alternative reality. It’s a sobering sight, one that puts in context the importance of advocating for our public lands and preserving them, educating each generation about their importance and cultural significance. The Grand Canyon Conservancy plays a key role in the latter.

This blog covers how the Grand Canyon Conservancy contributes to supporting the Grand Canyon National Park, as well as some key developments in the park that we would love visitors to be aware of.

For over ten years, Xplorer Maps and the Grand Canyon Conservancy (formerly known as the Grand Canyon Association) have shared a mutually beneficial partnership by offering our Xplorer Maps Grand Canyon map-themed products to their millions of guests and visitors. As long-time members and supporters of the Public Lands Alliance, both XM and GCC are aligned in our respective missions to educate folks about the importance of protecting our nation's Public Lands. It is with this shared perspective that we continue to emphasize the importance of helping the next generations to better understand and appreciate the amazing landscapes, geology, history, and culture of the Grand Canyon and its ancestral peoples. 

Established as a national park in 1919, the Grand Canyon National Park covers 278 miles along the Colorado River and the uplands surrounding it. It’s the ancestral homeland of 11 tribal communities, whose traditional territories now welcome visitors from around the world. However, hearing the native voices of the canyon and respecting their land has not always been a given - and the efforts made by the GCC in recent years to improve our understanding of their history and heritage are making a difference in how we relate to the territory. At the same time, the Grand Canyon National Park is home to unique and exciting ways to discover and experience nature - from the dark sky preservation efforts to inclusive storytelling, thanks to welcoming artists and scholars in residence throughout the year. Speaking to Mindy Riesenberg, Chief Communications Officer at GCC, and Andrea Osorio, Content Writer, we understood more about the funding that goes into these programs, as well as in interactive learning opportunities like the Cultural Demonstration Program. Let’s delve into it all.

Original watercolor painting by our co-founder by Chris Robitaille


Why Isn’t the Entrance Fee Enough Funding for the Grand Canyon National Park? Many people may wonder whether the entrance fee to visit the park shouldn’t be enough to support its operations. The short answer is: yes, it does support everyday things like keeping the buildings running, keeping the lights on, keeping shuttles running, supporting the rangers, and funding them to talk to visitors. But there's so much more going on that requires funding, from habitat restoration work to scientific research ongoing in the park. Additionally, cultural and interpretive programming like the important initiatives around making indigenous voices heard are all big parts of what the GCC funds.  Beginning this year, Xplorer Maps will be donating $1K annually to GCC programs, specifically targeting those aimed at enhancing the opportunities for children and those less fortunate/able to experience first-hand this amazing place.   Xplorer Maps is extremely proud of our relationship with the Grand Canyon Conservancy and as our business continues to grow together, we are excited about the future and looking forward to collaborating on future custom projects that directly benefit their programs and visitor service experiences. 

Listening to Native Voices: “We Are Grand Canyon”

Founded in 1932, the GCC underwent a few changes in name and mission, landing on its current goal to inspire generations of park champions to cherish and support the natural and cultural wonder of the Grand Canyon. A very important part of this cultural wonder is the tribal history, a history that hasn’t been told as much and which the GCC has been working to shed more light on. 

We need to remember that “this is a holy land and a spiritual place for our Indigenous partners,” as Mindy advises. When visiting the Grand Canyon, newcomers are now greeted with the film “We Are Grand Canyon” - a departure from the older, more euro-centric style of welcome videos which glossed over the importance of the tribal connection. The film was created in collaboration with the Intertribal Working Group, GCC, and the Grand Canyon National Park - reinforcing the commitment from both the park and GCC to preserving and celebrating Indigenous voices.

As you’ll notice when you watch “We Are Grand Canyon,” there are more than awe-inspiring natural wonders to see in the park. There’s a story behind every place, and more often than not it links to centuries-old stories of people and communities that were on site long before tourism began. Examples abound. What is now known as Ribbon Falls on Bright Angel Creek is considered the place of origin of the Zuni tribe. Mandela talks fondly about guiding expeditions down the Colorado River while steering clear of sacred places like the Sipapuni, the cultural origin point for Hopi ancestors just upstream from the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado Rivers. And, recently, GCC efforts to make the indigenous history more visible have included changing signage and renaming sites like the Indian Gardens to the more culturally reflective Havasupai Gardens (Ha’a Gyoh)

Original watercolor painting by our co-founder by Chris Robitaille
The Grand Canyon Conservancy is the official philanthropic and collaborative partner of Grand Canyon National Park, with a particular focus on fundraising and education. However, the park has multiple other partners who take on more advocacy-centered roles, such as the Grand Canyon Trust, the Arizona Wildlife Federation, or the Grand Canyon River Guides Association of which our own Lead Storyteller Mandela is part. You can read about Mandela’s work advocating at the White House almost exactly one year ago, focusing on the economy of rafting on site and the ecological significance of springs. 

Making visitors understand the importance of these sites and the holy nature of the park also takes a more hands-on approach with the Cultural Demonstration Program run by the GCC. Established in 2015 at Desert View, it gives members of the 11 tribal communities in the park a first-person voice and encourages the public to interact with them. You can experience native crafts, ask questions, and learn more even from afar, via the History Behind the Arts YouTube playlist.

Explore the Park with our hand-drawn map

Dark Skies, Arts & Scientists

People need the sense of beauty and perspective and awe that we get from our exposure to the universe in a dark night sky. It's part of every culture, part of being human — to contemplate what's above us.”

This quote from Grand Canyon National Park Ranger Marker Marshall was shared in 2014 by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Megan Finnerty and it encapsulates the unique connection one can make with the universe when visiting the park and particularly taking advantage of the Dark Sky Preservation Program. The Grand Canyon is a sanctuary from light pollution, having been designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2019. It is also a place where artists and scientists can thrive.

The Astronomer in Residence Program and the night sky interpretive programs run by the park are some of the most immersive and unique ways to experience the world above us. With the Astronomer in Residence Program, there is an opportunity for visitors to partake in the latest research or in passion projects of astronomers living in the park for a few weeks at a time.

But that’s not all. The GCC put out calls for artists in residence, a rather broad umbrella that can include all sorts of expressive crafts. Whether you're a dancer, a painter, or a musician, there's an opportunity to live in accommodation that is set right on the edge of the Grand Canyon, a place that evokes a lot of inspiration. Ultimately, the end goal is educational, but this can be done through such unique avenues that visitors are more likely to connect with and take away learnings from. The Artist in Residence Program also includes the act of sharing their work with the public.

Keep a piece of the Grand Canyon with you by wearing an illustrated neck gaiter

Experiencing the Grand Canyon

In “We Are Grand Canyon,” Vincent Randall adeptly summarizes the importance of being present: “To really, really understand and interpret the land, you need to focus and observe and take it in, and then your thoughts and whether you call them God, Creator, whatever, [will] give you the wisdom to truly understand… that this is a blessing.

Brave the Wild River” author Melissa Sevigny says that when you visit the Grand Canyon, viewing it from just the rim is akin to when you send an email to someone you’ve been missing. Hiking down into the canyon and sitting in the middle of it is like talking to someone you love over the phone. And, when you get to the river, it’s like seeing this dear person in the flesh - a much more intimate experience. Indeed, running the river is the most authentic and complete way to visit the Grand Canyon, but experienced guides like Mandela agree that this is not a financially sustainable plan for everyone. Alternatively, you can research private trips on Facebook or hike into a meeting point and then take a paddle raft or oar boat for a few days only (rather than the full length of the expedition).

But, as with all places we’ve shared with you, simply being present and allowing your senses to take in the park is enough to really take your experience one step further. Mandela reminds us that the actual amount of time people tend to spend looking at the Grand Canyon is, on average, a fraction of the time they’ve spent traveling to get to it. So, once you’re there, just sit for a moment and allow yourself to take it all in. Trek to Desert View Watchtower in the early morning and experience the sunrise from there. Focus on all your senses - smell the smells and hear the sounds around you. 

We’ve shared some ideas here about how to understand the park’s Indigenous history and connect with the dark skies or take in artistic expressions from the many different talents that are available in the park at any one time. The GCC helps fund these initiatives with the ultimate goal to “preserve and protect” - whether that’s the dark skies, the ecosystem, or the historical heritage. For the organization, the key balancing act of every day is to offer a fruitful visitor experience that can then be maintained for the future, despite how much the world may change, so that the magic we encounter can remain the same for all others after us. 

We’ll leave you with a true “connecting people and place” quote from GCC’s Mindy, in response to the question, “What does the Grand Canyon mean to you?”:

The Grand Canyon is a place of peace. When I’m down below the rim, especially if I’m alone on a hike in a remote area, I can relax in the silence of the place. It’s probably the best stress-reduction tool I have! You really feel a sense of how small you are and how vast the world is. There’s a calm like I’ve never felt anywhere else. Call it “spirit,” call it “god,” call it “consciousness,” . . . when I’m in the canyon I feel something bigger than me wrapping its arms around me.

Learn More

  • Read about Mandela’s experience swimming the Grand Canyon with a riverboard in 2020 while the world shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Listen to the “Trail Less Traveled” podcast interview with Caity Varian, Marketing Manager of Grand Canyon Conservancy, and immerse yourself in some of the music associated with the place.
  • Climate change & the Grand Canyon - There is much to cover on this topic, as well as on the biodiversity impacts especially in the river waters. Learn about GCC initiatives here.