Grand Canyon National Park celebrates opening of the Trail of Time

Grand Canyon National Park celebrates opening of the Trail of Time

The world’s largest geoscience exhibition opens at the world’s grandest geologic landscape

Spectacular in its depth and breadth of beauty and unequaled in inspirational power, the Grand Canyon is a natural masterpiece. Acting upon the canyon’s potential for public geoscience education, scientists coordinated the construction of the world’s largest geoscience interpretative exhibit: the Trail of Time. This interpretative walking timeline trail focuses on the Grand Canyon’s vistas and rocks and aims to guide visitors toward a better understanding of time.

After 15 years of work and all the accompanying trials and tribulations of putting together a major partnership most people would be happy with simply snipping a ribbon to signal the project’s completion. The official opening of the Trail of Time, however, went far beyond a basic dedication ceremony; project organizers brought together an impressive gathering of high-profile geoscientists, informal geoscience education researchers and science interpreters for a three-day symposium. Speakers discussed at length how people understand complex topics such as geologic time from several angles, including the academic side, education side and psychology side.

“We decided that not only is it a celebration of a great exhibit but this opening might be a chance to bring together people from all over with different expertise to talk about how we effectively communicate geosciences to the public,” explains Karl Karlstrom of the University of New Mexico.

Karlstrom, along with Laura Crossey also of the University of New Mexico, and Steve Semken of Arizona State University worked as the three principal investigators. Michael Williams of University of Massachusetts was a close collaborator; UNM graduate student Ryan Crow was an integral member of the team, and Judy Bryan, chief of interpretation at Grand Canyon National Park, was the primary collaborator between the team and the National Park Service.

Telling (geologic) time
It took a lengthy 6 million years to carve the world-renowned steep-sided chasm, but the canyon is actually considered a very young feature geologically. What is often overlooked by the millions of visitors each year is the fact that the rocks exposed in it are about 2 billion years old. The age of the canyon pales in comparison to the age of the rocks within it.

But in our instantaneous society where we expect immediate email responses and depend on fast-food meals, how do you make ‘millions of years’ have any meaning? To us, 1 million seems unimaginably long. Time is easily comprehended when it is measured in increments of years. While this unit is adequate when looking back on recent human records, it is insufficient for discussing geologic time, which spans 4.6 billion years. Conceptualizing and comprehending time when it spans anything more than a few centuries is a challenge for many people.

A grasp of the magnitude of geologic time is the foundational knowledge needed to construct an understanding of many aspects of our planet and the universe, yet it is something that most people rarely engage with or are even taught.

“Our hope is that Trail of Time visitors will walk away with a better understanding of how human time scales relate to geologic time scales,” explains Semken, associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Geologic time is one of the most significant ideas that science has ever come up with. It accurately accounts for humanity’s place in the universe and it also shows us how profound and how old and how vast the universe is in terms of time. It’s something that you have to learn in order to really understand other key scientific concepts, such as biological evolution.”

National parks are the premiere locations in the world in terms of informal science education and they are sometimes the only place where people go to learn science, especially earth science. These parks play an enormous role in educating broad cross sections of the public about earth science, the principles of earth science, and earth science processes.

Trail blazing
The Grand Canyon’s magnificence and its recognition as one of the most famous geological landscapes in the world sets it apart from other natural features, but its extensive exposure of geological time is also unique. Karlstrom, Crossey and Michael Williams of the University of Massachusetts, all Grand Canyon geological researchers for decades, first envisioned turning a Grand Canyon hiking trail into a walking timeline that would represent the magnitude of geologic time. Semken joined the team several years later to help realize the potential of the project for research on how people learn about geologic time.

The layout of the trail was based upon simple math. Since the oldest rocks at the Grand Canyon are 1.8 billion years old (1,800 million years), this means 1,800 meters of trail (almost 2 kilometers) is needed to represent the history of the Grand Canyon. At every meter of its length, the trail is marked with inset bronze disks, each meter symbolizing 1 million years of Earth’s history.

Imagine that one long stride represents a million years, and you have to take 2,000 of those strides just to get to the age of the oldest rock in the Grand Canyon, which is less than half the age of the Earth. By walking this timeline trail, visitors get a physical as well as intellectual sense of how long geologic time is.

Funded by the NSF Informal Science Education Program, this was the first time that any National Park Service site has participated in a project of this type. Many other types of exhibits and curricula have been created to address geologic time, but there is nothing comparable in scale or scope to the Trail of Time, according to Semken.

Future implementation
For Rebecca Frus, a SESE graduate student focusing on earth science educational research, the Trail of Time is now officially part of Grand Canyon National Park, but that doesn’t mean the project is complete.

“Most people here would agree that it’s not done. Some people still have to work on the trail, and other people like me are still finishing research,” explains Frus, who is writing her thesis under Semken’s supervision on how visitors understand the relationship between the horizontal timeline and the vertical strata represented in the walls of the Grand Canyon. “The opening is definitely a significant milestone and it’s nice to say the ribbon has been cut and it’s now officially part of the park but it doesn’t feel done.”

Nearly 50 park service employees from across the country attended, with several expressing interest in exporting the Trail of Time idea to other national parks and incorporating the concept in the local landscape.

“The hope is that this workshop ¬will lead to new ideas which we can give to the park,” says Karlstrom. “This group of experts has recommendations and they are: geosciences education is needed, we need to do it better, and here are some specific ways to do it. The Trail of Time is one example, but many other good ideas are emerging already from the workshop.”

Work also remains to be done on the web-based Virtual Trail of Time, which will be a resource available to learners who cannot visit Grand Canyon in person, and will also enhance the learning experience for those who do hike the Trail.


(Nikki Staab Cassis)

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