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Earth Notes: Dragon Map

A colorful geologic map of the Grand Canyon, mostly in blues and yellows with dark red along the length of the Colorado River
Museum of Northern Arizona, used by permission
The Dragon

The Grand Canyon is a big place and capturing it on one geologic map was a big job. A new exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff tells how that map was made, and why it’s called the Dragon Map.

In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, MNA geologists undertook the daunting task of tracing out all the rock units in the Canyon from bottom to top and presenting them on a single sheet.

It took six years and eight geologists, led by George Billingsley and Peter Huntoon, to complete the fieldwork. They walked uncounted miles, followed burro trails to water, and made many boat trips down the Colorado River.

In those pre-digital days, they perfectly pieced together eleven topographic maps from the fieldwork and etched and lettered every line and word by hand. At the time, the map covered nearly 700,000 acres, about half of what’s now Grand Canyon National Park.

The map’s predominant blues and yellows are conventional U.S. Geological Survey colors, but there was some artistic deviation too. Once assembled, it took the shape of a sinuous dragon—thus the “Dragon Map.”

The 56- by 42-inch sheet was first published in 1976. Three editions followed, and nearly 100,000 copies were sold. Out of print for 15 years, the map was recently reprinted by MNA.

Flagstaff geologist Wayne Ranney curated the museum exhibit. He sees the iconic map as a blend of science and art. And Grand Canyon fans have another chance to revel in the dazzling beauty of the dragon.

Find more information on the Museum of Northern Arizona's website.

This Earth Note was written by Rose Houk and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Rose Houk is a Flagstaff-based writer and editor, specializing in natural history and environmental topics.  Rose was a founding contributor of KNAU's Earth Notes and has written nearly 200 scripts for the series. She is also the author of many publications about national park and monuments, along with audio productions. 

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