Gearing Up For A Grand Adventure!

Earlier this year, Kat and I decided to learn about the geology of Arizona. We would visit various sites of geological interest and culminate our lesson with a trip to the Grand Canyon! This trip came to us a lot sooner than we had expected, however when a friend presented us with a golden opportunity. Her uncle is an astronomer who was going to be attending the annual Grand Canyon star party. She was going camping with him for the weekend and invited us to join them!

In the week leading up to our fantastic camping trip, I wanted to learn a bit more about our destination. Since this was going to be Kat’s first camping trip, I also wanted to instill some survival skills and wildlife observing habits. So, we had a week filled with Grand Canyon activities and lessons, as well as some survival games to prepare us for our camping adventure!

First, we needed to learn about the Grand Canyon itself. As one of the seven wonders of the world, people come from all over the world to revel in the beauty of the Grand Canyon. We wanted to know, how was it formed?

The actual rocks that lay the foundation of the Grand Canyon have been forming throughout Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. While the continents were moving about on tectonic plates, they have been subjected to mountain forming, erosion, the formation of rivers, lakes, and shallow seas, and volcanism. Throughout the last several hundred million years, the southwestern part of the North American plate has been covered by shallow seas. Each time an ocean would move over the land, new layers of sediments would be laid down on the ground. Bones, shells, and other matter from deceased organisms formed limestone layers. When the oceans receded, mudstone and shale were left behind.

This happened several times over the course of the Earth’s history, as is evidenced by the several layers of sandstone, limestone, and mudstones. These sediments have formed the sedimentary strata that is so familiar to us today. The lowest layers contain the oldest rocks, which consist of stronger, volcanic deposits. These lava layers cooled into basalt and schist. Throughout time, further heat and pressure would cause veins of metamorphic rock to intrude within the strata.

Layers of the Grand Canyon CC: National Park Services, US Dept of Interior

Now we knew how the rocks of the Grand Canyon formed, but how did it come to exist as we know it today? How is it that we have some of the oldest rocks on Earth, visible to us at the lower levels of the Grand Canyon? How did the Colorado River cut through the ground to form the deep chasm that we can see today? The answer to this question can be found in the acronym DUDE, as explained by National Park Ranger Joseph Felgenhauer in this extraordinarily fun Ranger Minute:

So we have the processes of Deposition, Uplift, Down Cutting, and Erosion to thank for the formation of the Grand Canyon as we see it today. We’re going to put these processes to work to see if we can form our own miniature version of the Grand Canyon at home!


Materials Needed:

White/Tan Sand
Food Coloring
Sandwich bags
Long food storage container (preferably see-through)


1. Divide your sand into the 5 sandwich bags. Each bag will provide a layer of sedimentary rock. You can create more realistic looking strata by making some bags that contain more sand than others.

2. Add several drops of food coloring into each bag. Shake the bag for approximately one minute to allow the food coloring to evenly coat the sand.

3. Layer your sand! As you pour the sand from the plastic bags, sweep it over the Tupperware container, creating a smooth and even layer. Repeat with each bag,

4. Once all of your layers are formed, take a look at the side of the container. What do you see? If your container is see through, you should see what is called strata. This is a layering of different types of sediments over time. Using deposition (the depositing of sediments), you’ve created your very own strata in your home!

Fill one of your sandwich bags with water. Cut a small hole on one corner and pour it over your sand. As you’re pouring, lift the container so that a river can form within the sand. As the water flows down, pay attention to how the water cuts its own path through the sediments. This is exactly the same down cutting process that the Colorado River used to form the Grand Canyon!

6. Keep adding water to your bag to continue the flow of your river. Make sure that your flow source is always in the same spot so that the water running over the sediments can keep cutting into it. You will need to periodically dump the excess water from your container to maintain the flowing river.

Once your canyon is formed, take a look at the strata along the inner canyon walls. How does it compare with the strata along the outside? Are there any weak spots? If so, how do you think they occurred?

7. Take your bag and fill it one last time. Now you’re going to make it rain along the upper rim of the canyon. As you do this, pay attention to the movement of sediments. In some cases, you’ll see the sediments and water carving a path down to the canyon. You may also see some significant erosion along the rim of your canyon. This weathering and erosion is one of the most significant forces to have actually formed the width of the canyon itself.

Now you have your very own miniature Grand Canyon! The nice thing about this project is that not only can you demonstrate the processes of Deposition, Down Cutting, and Erosion, but you may find yourself demonstrating other geological processes as well! With our Grand Canyon, we experienced the pooling of sediments at the end of the river, landslides, even sinkholes!

There is another way in which weathering and erosion contributed to the formation of the Grand Canyon. When it rains at the Grand Canyon, the sedimentary rocks absorb some of the water. The extreme variations in temperatures of this desert climate can bring freezing overnight temperatures. When the water within the rocks freezes, it expands, causing cracks to form in the rocks. As this happens over time, the rocks can break apart and fall down toward the canyon. As these rocks fall toward the canyon, they can occasionally hit other rocks, causing a landslide that changes the face of the canyon walls within minutes!


Materials Needed:

Rock Samples! (We used igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary samples to test the effects on different types of rock.)
A plastic container


1. Turn on the faucet, have your kids get their fingers wet, and make it rain all over the rocks! Make sure the rocks are completely saturated. You’ll want enough water so that the rocks are sitting in a small puddle.

2. Freeze the rocks!

3. Take the container out of the freezer and place it in a warm area to thaw. Look carefully at the rocks, can you see any crystallization of water on the surface of the rocks?

4. Once the rocks have thawed, let your kids drip rain water on them again. Then refreeze them. Repeat the process of raining/freezing/thawing at least four times, examining the rocks carefully during each thawing phase.

5. After your last freeze/thaw cycle, take a look at your rocks as well as the water in the container. What do you see? Can you see any changes to the rocks? Is there any difference in the surrounding area?

We were fortunate to be able to see some breaking down of our sedimentary rock. We got to see sedimentation occur as tiny particles of rock broke down from our specimen. We also got to see a large chunk of our rock break off, confirming the notion that this type of weathering and erosion can indeed cause the rocks to break apart, eroding the Grand Canyon into an even wider chasm!

Now that we had learned about how the Grand Canyon was formed and had demonstrated some of those very processes in our own home, it was time to talk about our camping trip! This was going to be Kat’s very first camping trip, and we had some ground rules to go over in regards to buddy system exploration and animal watching from a distance. Since this was our first time using a compass, I came up with a couple of games for the kids to learn how to use their compass, and practice navigating back and forth while using it.


Image Credit: Winter Campers

We used a map compass for our navigation. It was easy to use and inexpensive to obtain (ours cost only $5). If this is your first time using a map compass, watch this video tutorial, then play this compass navigation game with your kids!

Draw a map of your favorite park. Add a compass with NSWE at the top. What direction are the play areas in relation to each other?  Are the swings to the north of the slides? Where are the tennis courts or basketball courts?

Play Compass Red Light/Green Light!

Take your kids to the park! Have your kids look at their compass and find true North. Hold the compass flat in the palm of your hand and align the dial so that the red arrow on the magnetic needle is pointing at North. Have your kids face the direction of true North.

Pick a destination! If your kids want to go to the swings, in what direction will they have to travel? If the swings are to the west, have them line the red directional arrow with West on the dial. Now, as long as the compass needle is pointing to the north, they’ll be going in the right direction.

Once the kids line up their directional arrow, shout, “GO!” and have them run to their destination.

Periodically shout “STOP!” Have them read their compass and shout their direction of travel back to you. This will ingrain the habit of regularly checking the compass to make sure they don’t get lost.

Once they reach their destination, have them shout the direction they will need to travel to get back. As they run back to you, periodically shout “STOP!” along the way for them to check their compass.

We played several rounds of this game while at the park and the kids loved it! It proved to be a really fun way to instill a habit of checking the compass and knowing how to use it. When we actually went on our camping trip, it proved to be even more of a success than I had even thought possible as they became expert compass navigators!


Elk, Ring Tailed Cats, Peccaries (Javelinas), and Tufted Eared Squirrels make up just a few of the wonderful critters you can see while visiting the Grand Canyon. My daughter loves adorable animals and even though she knows not to approach them, I wanted to make sure that the awe of seeing them in real life wouldn’t override her knowledge of general wildlife safety. So we made up a game to see how different scenarios would play out in the wild.

How To Play

Print the above collage of Grand Canyon wildlife. Cut out the pictures to use as animals cards.

Have your kids take turns being an animal and being a wildlife observer. Have the child who is going to be the animal draw an animal card and pretend to be the animal she chose. Try to act like the animal in its habitat. Maybe it goes hunting for insects or preens its feathers on a rock.

Now the animal observer will walk up and spot the animal. Once the observer sees the animal, have him try to approach the animal excitedly, squealing about how cute it is, and how they just want to pick it up and cuddle it!

How will the animal react? Protective measures may include making scratching motions, baring teeth, or otherwise acting defensively.


Have everyone stop what they’re doing. Talk about what happened and why the animal reacted in the way that it did. Present possible alternatives for how the observer can watch the animal without causing these reactions.

Now have the animal observer stumble upon the animal again. This time, the observer will stand still, or crouch low, talking in a soft and low voice about how cute the animal is and how amazing it is to see in the wild.

If the animal is a large animal like an Elk, or carnivorous like a Coyote, have the observer back away slowly. If it’s safe and the observer wants to take pictures, they can do so while keeping at a distance.

This game will reinforce how you should never appraoch animals in the wild. If you do approach wild animals, you will often find that “cute, cuddly, adorable” animal has bared its teeth and claws and may very well chase after you in an aggressive manner! However, from a distance, your child can enjoy all of the animals they see, and can take as many pictures as they’d like! That way, they can cherish the memories of seeing such extraordinary wildlife, without risking injury to themselves or the animals.

By the end of the week, we were ready for our trip! We would be camping and star gazing at the Grand Canyon! We had our camping supplies, our compasses, our first aid kit, and a pool of knowledge and excitement about the sites we couldn’t wait to see! We were off on the grandest of adventures, ready for the camping trip of a lifetime!

Happy Exploring!


  1. Your trip must have been so much fun! I'm going to do the sand erosion project in a class next week-can you give me an idea how long I might expect it to take? Thanks!

  2. This is fantastic! Thanks for the informative post. We'll be heading there next spring and I'd love to try your experiment.

  3. Thank you! 🙂 We had quite the week, learning about the Grand Canyon as well as how to prepare for a camping trip! We had a great time, I'm so happy that we were able to do this!

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