GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. (AP) — Looking over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Don Stover points out the blues, greens and other pastel colors in the landscape, and then his mind starts racing.
It's the 50-year-old Seattle resident's first trip to the Grand Canyon, and he can't stop but think about how early pioneers traveled through the area, how the river cut through the remarkable geologic feature and how the wind played a factor in forming the canyon.
"It's pretty amazing," he said.
Ninety years after it was established as the country's 17th national park, the Grand Canyon still invokes feelings of astonishment and wonder among the 4.5 million people who visit each year. Known for its immense size, beauty and rugged landscape, it has become an icon of the National Park System.
"I would think it would be something you mark off your checklist to see in your lifetime," Stover said.
Park officials on Thursday marked the 90th anniversary of the Grand Canyon National Park with a ceremony and the opening of the Verkamp's Visitor Center, named for the family that operated a gift shop out of the building for more than a century before it closed in September.
Inside the visitor center, a timeline across the wood floor marks significant dates in the history of the Grand Canyon, starting in 1872 when prospectors explored the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone was established as the first national park. The Grand Canyon received its designation on Feb. 26, 1919, though other federal protections were in place already. Back then, just more than 44,000 people visited the canyon.
President Theodore Roosevelt, who first visited the Grand Canyon in 1903, proclaimed the area a game reserve in 1906, and in 1908, he designated the Grand Canyon a national monument four years before Arizona became a state.
In one corner of the visitor center stood a white tent, a throwback to the time when tourists visited the Grand Canyon in stagecoaches and did their souvenir shopping at a tent set up by John George Verkamp.
In another corner, members of the Verkamp family, who grew up in a 2-bedroom apartment above the gift shop, gathered around a television screen and reminisced as video clips showed them dressed in Halloween costumes, strolling along the rim and playing football.
John Verkamp III, the eldest of the siblings, recalled waking up each morning to the laughter and chatter of tourists, before having to raise the flag, hang Navajo rugs in front of the store and pick up trash among the brush.
Politicians, royalty and celebrities were among those who visited the Grand Canyon, essentially the backyard of the Verkamps.
Jane Verkamp Pritchett, who now lives in Idaho, said every time she comes back to the Grand Canyon, it's with great love.
"You hear the tourists on the rim saying the same things, and that's the soundtrack of our lives," she said.
Hundreds of tourists filed out of tour buses, trains and other vehicles Thursday, destined to view the mile-deep gorge well known around the world.
"As loved and appreciated as the Grand Canyon is now, I think if you peer into the next 100 years, I think it's going to be a greater value for the United States and people of the world," park Superintendent Steve Martin said. "Having these places are going to be rarer and rarer."
For Ian and Kaye Kerr of Winnipeg, Canada, their first visit to the Grand Canyon in 2006 wasn't enough.
"You can never get over the fact that there's this thing ahead of you," said Kaye Kerr. "You have no sense of what it's like until you come right up to the edge, and it's just amazing."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.