Step into the past at Grand Canyon Historic District

There’s no way that words or even the best photos in the world can capture Grand Canyon. Seeing it takes your breath away. Its fierce and stunning beauty, the rock formations, the ever-changing light, the sky, the sheer depth and breadth of it all has to be experienced. Everyone knows about the spellbinding majesty of this natural formation created by millennia of erosion made by the Colorado River and the uplift of the Colorado Plateau. It’s rightfully one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Grand Canyon view photo Billie Frank

Grand Canyon view, photo Billie Frank

What you might not know is there’s a lot of human history here. It started thousands of years ago with indigenous peoples roaming the area. Then the Europeans came and finally the Anglos came. It was inevitable when the Southwest opened to tourism that Grand Canyon was going to be front and center. Starting in the late 19th century tourists started flocking to the canyon and they needed hotels and services to meet this sudden traffic. Some of the historical buildings on the South Rim remain. Take some time to tour Grand Canyon Historic District when you visit Grand Canyon National Park.

Touring the Grand Canyon South Rim Historic District

In the late 1800s tourists began to come to the area via stagecoach. The 1901 opening of the Grand Canyon Railway gave tourism in the area a big boost. While there were rough boarding houses and tent camps the area was attracting well-heeled visitors who sought sumptuous accommodations in the wild. It was time for a luxury hotel; El Tovar was born. Start your Historic District tour at this historic hotel just a stone’s throw from the South Rim.

El Tovar

View of the back of El Tovar Grand Canyon shot from the west,

View of the back of El Tovar shot from the west, photo/Billie Frank

Fred Harvey’s son Ford who ran the company after Fred’s death worked with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to build the luxurious El Tovar. The elegantly rustic log and stone structure with 125 guest rooms was called “one of the fanciest hotels west of the Mississippi” when it opened in 1905. The best thing about it is arguably its proximity to the rim of Grand Canyon. It is just steps away. Today, rooms at this historic hotel are hard to come by. Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time,  which is probably the definitive book on Fred Harvey, calls it “The most in-demand hotel in the world.” He notes that the hotel books up about a year in advance. The reservation books open the first of the month for the same month the following year. While prime times fill up quickly but people may cancel so it’s worth a call closer to the time you plan to be at Grand Canyon. Fried says that some people plan trips around availability at this fabled hotel that has hosted many famous people including presidents including Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft as well as Hollywood notables including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

El Tovar historic Dining Room, photo/courtesy Xanterra

El Tovar historic Dining Room, photo/courtesy Xanterra

If you can’t get a room at El Tovar, at least go check out the lobby and other public areas. Perhaps have a meal or drinks in the historic El Tovar Dining Room. If you can, opt for the small dining room to the west of the main room. It has spectacular views of the canyon during the day. If you want to be sure of a table with a view, go when the restaurant first opens for breakfast or be willing to wait. It’s worth it! While you wait, walk to the rim for views or check out Hopi House directly across from the hotel. We had both lunch and dinner in the El Tovar dining room; from all reports, breakfast is a special meal as well.

Hopi House

Hopi House designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter for the Fred Harvey Company is a showcase for Native American artisans photo Steve Collins

Navajo rugs on display at Hopi House, photo/Steve Collins

Also opened in 1905, Hopi House designed by the iconic (at least to Fred Harvey aficionados also known as “Fred-heads”) Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter who worked for Fred Harvey from 1902 to 1948. Colter, a stickler for detail, replicated an 800 year old Hopi pueblo building on Hopi Mesa. The three-story exterior is local Coconino sandstone and ceilings have peeled log beams and are made from saplings and twigs. Traditional mud plaster covers the walls. There are kiva (corner) fireplaces and nichos in the walls as there were in ancestral pueblo buildings. Colter was a stickler for detail. If she felt something was not authentic she would insist that the workmen rip it out and rebuild it. The building was conceived as a place for local Indians to sell their handcrafts, perform traditional dances and even live. Today it is a well-curated shop offering American Indian handcrafts. The second floor gallery exhibits museum-quality work.

Lookout Studio

Lookout Studio part of Grand Canyon Historic District appears to hand over the canyon. Great views from the back terrace. photo Steve Collins

Lookout Studio part of Grand Canyon Historic District , photo/Steve Collins

Lookout Studio, another Colter design, is perched at the edge of the canyon’s rim. It was built just west of El Tovar as a photo studio to catch visitors before they got to the older and renowned Kolb Brother’s Studio at the head of Bright Angel Trail. Opened in 1914, the multi-level building, fashioned of native stone, was designed to blend with the canyon walls. The rooflines and stone chimneys echo the shapes of the surrounding bedrock helping the structure to blend into the landscape. Windows overlook the canyon. Today, it’s a shop offering souvenirs, photography as well as books related to the Grand Canyon.

Bright Angel Lodge

Bucky O’Neill's Cabin at Bright Angel Lodge, a Harvey House Hotel at Grand Canyon in the Historic District photo Billie Frank

Bucky O’Neill’s Cabin at Bright Angel Lodge, a Harvey House Hotel at Grand Canyon in the Historic District photo Billie Frank

The original Bright Angel Hotel was built in 1896 at the head of Bright Angel Trail which descends into the canyon. Bucky O’Neill, a newspaperman, Arizona sheriff and Rough Rider built a cabin next door. The current Bright Angel Lodge, designed by Colter and built in 1935, encompassed O’Neil’s’ cabin and the historic Red Horse Station, a former post office, which was moved to the site. These are the two oldest structures in the park. In addition to the two historic cabins there’s a lodge as well as cabins added under Colter’s supervision built with hand-hewn and peeled logs, board and batten, and adobe. Don’t miss the “geologic” fireplace Colter designed for the lobby built from the bottom up with the same stones found in the canyon’s rock layers from river rock at the bottom to those found on the rim at the top. The lodge is also home to the Bright Angel History Room which tells the story of the Harvey Girls, Indian Detours (the Fred Harvey tour company) and houses some historic Grand Canyon artifacts as well. Bright Angel also has a soda fountain/coffee bar, the casual Bright Angel Restaurant, serving three meals a day. It also holds the more upscale Arizona Room which specializes in aged, hand-cut steaks, as well as ribs, fish, and chicken

Kolb Brothers’ Studio

Kolb Studio sits on the canyon's rim in the Grand Canyon Historic District photo Billie Frank,

Kolb Studio sits on the canyon’s rim, photo/Billie Frank

The Kolb Brothers, Ellsworth and Emory, came set up a makeshift photograph studio at the head of Bright Angel Trail in 1902. As people began their descent into the canyon on the backs of mules, the brothers would capture a photo which would be ready by the time they came back up the trail. People bought these photos as they wanted a reminder of their time at this magic place. The business thrived. By 1904 they had built parts of the multi-storied home and studio that stands today Over the years the building, which hangs over the canyon, underwent several major expansions. Ellsworth left the business in 1915 but Emory stayed, raised his family at the canyon and kept the business going until his death in 1976. Today the site is run by the Grand Canyon Association. Visitors are can visit the small gift shop and the small museum one story below. The living quarters and studio below are off-limits most of the year but can be toured between December and the end of February. Call a the shop at (928) 638-2771 afew days before you plan to visit the park to schedule your tour.

Beyond the Grand Canyon Historic District

There are two Mary Colter buildings outside the Grand Canyon Historic District that we recommend putting on your itinerary: Hermit’s Rest and Desert View Watchtower

Hermit’s Rest

Arch at the entrance to Hermit's Rest the stone building designed by Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter for the Fred Harvey Company sits in the Grand Canyon Historic District on the South Rim photo Steve Collins

Arch at the entrance to Hermit’s Rest, photo/Steve Collins

While you can drive to Hermit’s Rest from December 1st through the end of February, the rest of the year it’s accessible only via shuttle bus. The Grand Canyon’s bus system is free and works well. The building, constructed in 1914, was meant to be a rest stop for visitors arriving at the Hermit Trail from El Tovar in horse-drawn carriages. Colter set the rustic stone building is set into a man-made mound so it would blend in with the landscape. She also created a back-story for Hermit’s Rest; it was home to an solitary mountain man of European descent. She made the interior look lived-in, including putting soot on the stones of the building’s massive fireplace. Visitors, who enter the site through a stone arch, will find a small gift shop and snacks awaiting them in the rustic building.

Desert View Watchtower

Desert View Watchtower at Grand Canyon photo Steve Collins

Desert View Watchtower, photo Steve Collins

Desert View Watchtower is Colter’s crowning glory at Grand Canyon. The circular 70 foot tall stone tower, built to look like the Anasazi watchtowers found at Chaco Canyon and other sites, offers panoramic 360 degree views including the San Francisco Peaks, the Vermilion Cliffs, and 180 degree views of the canyon. It’s said to be a spectacular place to view a thunderstorm. Alongside the tower is a a circular structure inspired by kivas (Puebloan spiritual chambers). As you climb the four-story tower, you’ll see paintings by Hopi artist Fred Kaboti as well as recreated petroglyphs and other symbols. Windows on each story allow you to enjoy the canyon views. A $500,000 grant, awarded in the summer of 2015, will help preserve the murals as well foster a deeper connection with the tribes who have long inhabited the canyon and surrounding area.

Hopi artist Fred Kaboti painted the wall art at Desert View Watchtower at Grand Canyon, photo Steve Collins

Hopi artist Fred Kaboti painted the wall art at Desert View Watchtower, photo Steve Collins

Touring the Grand Canyon Historic Village is highly recommended. It’s an important part of the canyon’s more recent history and gives insight into tourist development of Grand Canyon. Desert View Watchtower was probably our favorite historic building at the park because of its stunning location and views, its pueblo-inspired architecture and the wall art within.

Have you been to the Grand Canyon Historic District?

Author’s notes:
Other historic buildings at Grand Canyon include:
El Tovar Stables (1904) which today housed mules that descend into the canyon
Verkamp’s Curio Store (1906), now Verkamp’s Visitor Center
Grand Canyon Depot (1910) where the Grand Canyon Railway arrives and departs
Grand Canyon Power House (1926)

If you want to know more about Fred Harvey in general and the Harvey buildings at Grand Canyon, we highly recommend Stephen Fried’s comprehensive book Appetite for America.

Author’s note: We went on three-day press trip to Grand Canyon last winter sponsored by Xanterra, the largest concessionaire in Grand Canyon. They were wonderful hosts. We went back for an afternoon last week. That canyon sure is grand! All opinions are our own.

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20 Responses to “Step into the past at Grand Canyon Historic District”

  1. Rachel Heller
    October 19, 2015 at 12:33 am #

    How did I manage to visit the Grand Canyon and never visit any of the buildings in the Grand Canyon Historic District? They look fascinating, especially the Desert View Watchtower!

    • Billie Frank
      October 19, 2015 at 7:27 am #

      I think people are so focused on the magnificence of the canyon they forget about everything else. While it’s easy to spot the ones right at the south rim. Hermits Rest and the Dearth Watchtower are a bit away and if you don’t know about them- you’d miss them. We were guests of Xanterra for our trip last winter and had their marketing person as our guide. We saw every nook and cranny. Now you’ll have to go back!

  2. Patricia
    October 19, 2015 at 12:37 am #

    Excellent post. I had no idea. I will return.

    • Billie Frank
      October 19, 2015 at 7:29 am #

      I didn’t either. I knew about the two hotels and Hopi House as I’m a Fred Harvey Fan but didn’t know about the rest.

  3. Anita
    October 19, 2015 at 6:22 am #

    The Historic Village of the Grand Canyon was completely new to me, thank you! It all looks interesting, but I’d be especially keen to see the Hopi House and Kolb Studio.
    Anita recently posted..Market fresh in Basel, SwitzerlandMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      October 19, 2015 at 7:29 am #

      My favorite is Desert View Tower- but I loved them all.

  4. Donna Janke
    October 19, 2015 at 6:53 am #

    I enjoyed reading this. I’ve not heard of the Grand Canyon Historic District. Everything I’ve read is about the spectacular canyons. I love exploring history in an area. In all my visits to Arizona I have not yet made it to the Grand Canyon. When I do get there, the Historic District will definitely be on my list. And the Desert View Watchtower.
    Donna Janke recently posted..30 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About SnowbirdsMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      October 19, 2015 at 7:31 am #

      Go, go go! The Grand Canyon is truly a wonder of the world. Go off-season. If was a bit insane last week. If you do go, plan in advance and book a room there for at least a night or camp out. Sunrise and sunset are spectacular and after everyone has gone home for the day or before they get there the part is much quieter.

  5. Kristin Henning
    October 19, 2015 at 9:29 am #

    Thanks for the post, Billie. We plan to return to the Grand Canyon next year and I hope to check out the historic district and its early hotels. I love to see the beginnings of our national parks!
    Kristin Henning recently posted..Oslo to Bergen and Back: Across NorwayMy Profile

  6. Janice Chung
    October 19, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    OK, guess I’m not alone in admitting I missed a lot of these sites too! Stayed at Bright Angel and it was great. Guess I’ll have to go back!
    Janice Chung recently posted..Paris Doesn’t Have To Be ExpensiveMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      October 19, 2015 at 5:28 pm #

      You were right in the middle of it Janice. Now you have any excuse to go back.

  7. The GypsyNesters
    October 19, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    We have been to the Grand Canyon a couple of times and missed all of these. We have heard of several of them but never made it to see them. Next time I guess.
    The GypsyNesters recently posted..Meeting Africa’s Mysterious Maasai Across Culture and TimeMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      October 19, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

      Not everyone who goes to Grand Canyon shares my interest in historic buildings and Fred Harvey. There’s certainly enough to do there! But if this kind of thing interests you- check it out.

  8. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    October 20, 2015 at 6:22 am #

    A visit to the Grand Canyon Historic Village looks like a must do when traveling to the Grand Canyon and I think, like you, the Desert View Watchtower would be my favorite building too. Although I know it’s impossible to compete with the Grand Canyon I love how these buildings complement and blend into their amazing surroundings. Looks like we need to put this on our list for next fall when we plan to visit the area.
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go recently posted..Back in the Land of Too Much: Round Pegs in Square HolesMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      October 20, 2015 at 7:42 am #

      I second that you add it to your list for your visit next fall. The good news is most people visit the area where most of these are at some time during their Grand Canyon visit. Desert Watchtower is a bit farther out and Hermit’s Rest necessitates a bus or bike ride most of the year.

  9. Patti
    October 20, 2015 at 7:11 am #

    I do love the El Tovar hotel at the Grand Canyon. We have not stayed there but we enjoyed a wonderful dinner in the dining room and of course took in the spectacular views. Did you ride the mules? We’ve done it twice and both times it was beyond words. We took the day trips, did not stay overnight in the canyon. Although it would be fun I cannot imagine getting on a mule again the next morning because your entire body aches – seriously aches!

    • Billie Frank
      October 20, 2015 at 7:43 am #

      We were offered a mule ride along the rim but sadly, mules make me sneeze. I did visit with them before they departed on their adventure and got within a foot or so and achoo. The people in our group who went loved it.

  10. Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    October 22, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

    Loved your tour of the Grand Canyon Historic District. I’ve added El Tovar lodge and dining room to my bucket list.

    • Billie Frank
      October 24, 2015 at 9:26 am #

      Thanks! Great bucket list items- but remember you have to plan 13 months ahead for the hotel or luck out with someone’s cancellation. I know you’ll love it. We want to stay there, too- but I’m not good at planning that far ahead.

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