John Wesley Powell’s grand ambition

It was a brutally hot day on August 13, 1869, when John Wesley Powell and his nine-man crew reached what he called the foot of the Grand Canyon. At this spot where the Little Colorado River flowed into the Colorado and the towering rock walls radiated the desert sun like a convection oven, the explorers entered a world unlike anything they or any other European-Americans had ever seen.

“We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown,” Powell wrote in a journal that was later published as the popular book The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. “Our boats, tied to a common stake, chafe each other as they are tossed by the fretful river… What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not… With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving we enter the canyon below and are carried away by the swift water through walls which rise from its very edge.”

The Grand Canyon has called to artists, eccentrics, and adventurers through the years, but no single person is more identified with the exploration of the natural wonder than John Wesley Powell.

Read more from Backpacker Magazine’s Grand Canyon Journal