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number six
Nankoweap Granaries
River Mile 52.4

Ancient Grains

There are some places in the world that are so mesmerizing you hardly know what to say.

I once sat at sunrise at Machu Picchu about an hour before the tourists flooded through. It was calm, beautiful, timeless. I felt something similar while perched above the Colorado River at the Nankoweap Granaries.

Puebloan ‘storage units’

The Nankoweap Granaries look like a row of square windows, which were cut into the sandstone around A.D. 1100. We get to these archaeological ruins by hiking a well-trodden, mostly vertical trail about a half mile from the beach.

Our little hike is nothing compared to the trek the original travelers to this site had to take. Nearly 1,000 years ago, ancestral Puebloans hauled their grain, including pumpkin seeds and corn, from the river delta below to these “storage units.” The granary helped keep the food dry during floods and protected it against rodents and other hungry creatures.

The ruins are fragile and, as in a museum, visitors are not allowed to touch them. But the students sit on a series of stone ledges directly beneath them, taking in one of the best views we’ve seen yet of the meandering river below.

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Habitat gets a hydraulic lift

It was a perfect place for class instructor Sarah Yarnell to discuss hydraulics. No classroom PowerPoint could possibly compare.

“What’s different about the delta we see below here?” she asks the group. “What’s different downstream?”

A woman points down at the river from high on the canyon wall
Class instructor Sarah Yarnell points out the hydrology of the meandering Colorado River from a ledge below the Nankoweap Granaries. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Big gravel bars cause the river to meander between the vertical canyon walls. Side tributaries provide sediment, which create habitat, like sandbars, for fish and other aquatic species downriver.

Sarah says that’s why we should start to see an increase in biodiversity as we move downriver.

Before Glen Canyon dam began operating in 1963, plenty of sediment flowed through a warm and murky Colorado River. But the dam changed the river drastically. It suddenly became cold, clear and sediment-starved. That’s one reason why, post-dam, the side tributaries of the Colorado River play an especially important role in helping to create habitat for wildlife that has had to adapt to the river’s changes.

Erin Satterthwaite describes how the Colorado River meanders below the Nankoweap Granaries. Credit: Erin Satterthwaite
"The dam changed the river drastically. It suddenly became cold, clear and sediment-starved"

Morning light enters the Grand Canyon as UC Davis professor Truman Young, project scientist Sarah Yarnell, and guide and junior specialist Sasha Leidman begin another day on the river. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

Becoming a rock god

After the class discussion, I, like many of the students, need to take a moment to step back and just be here.

While rafting along the river, I’ve often looked up at the canyon walls to see faces in the outlines of cliffs. I’ve imagined these faces to be ancient canyon gods keeping an eye on us during our visit. (There’s something about being here that has made even the scientists among us talk about karma and superstition.)

A raft floats down the river in front of a wall containing millions of years of sedimentary rock
UC Davis students take in the rising cliffside as they raft down the Colorado river. Photo: Joe Proudman/UC Davis

High up on the cliffs at Nankoweap, standing on a skinny ledge, I imagine myself as one of those rock faces. I press my body flat against the wall, melding my spine into the rock, like I’m a part of it. In this moment, I feel like I am.

- Kat Kerlin

grey arrow Continue the journey at Stop 7, Little Colorado

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Next Stop...Little Colorado