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The iconic Blue Dragon Map of the Grand Canyon is back at the Museum of Northern Arizona

An iconic map showing the intricate geology of the Grand Canyon that also reveals the sinuous body of a dragon inside is on display at the Museum of Northern Arizona. 

It’s a wildly popular map that has guided people through the Canyon for half a century. 

Depending on whom you might ask, the so-called Blue Dragon Map is the best-selling geological map in the country. I happened to ask Mary Kershaw, executive director of the Museum of Northern Arizona. 

"When I’m not talking to a geological crowd, I say it’s the best selling geological map of all time, but I don’t how high that bar is," she said.

Kershaw was hosting a preview of the Dragon Map exhibit to some of the Dragon Map’s biggest fans — museum members, geologists and river guides, and those who used to work as one like Mary Ellen Arndorfer.

"Every river guide had this map in their ammo can and we would bring it out every couple of days and we would introduce our guests to the geology of the Grand Canyon through this map," she said.

She also has a copy of the brilliantly hued in blues, yellows, oranges and reds map hanging in her home.

"It makes it come alive for people who might not understand that much about geology," she said.

A description that does not fit Wayne Ranney, the Dragon map exhibit’s curator, museum geologist and educator. 

Ranney says the Blue Dragon Map hadn’t been published in 15 years but just as it is for Arndorfer, it’s a mainstay in his gear.

"And I brought the map on every single trip that I ever backpacked through the Grand Canyon or did on the river through the Grand Canyon and I laid the map out, and I showed people where we’re at in the canyon. Show them how small of a space we covered walking 21 miles through the Grand Canyon and then when they see the size of the map and how big the Grand Canyon is, it deflates them a little bit but then they realize they walked a mile all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and they learned geology along the way," Ranney said.

Which brings us to one of two geologists who created the map.

George Billingsley didn’t intend for any of this to happen. He intended to draw out a topographic base of the Grand Canyon when the dragon revealed itself.

"Somebody come by and said that looks like a blue dragon but I don’t remember who that was and the name stuck," he said drily.

Billingsley started mapping the Grand Canyon in the 1970s. 

"They would drop me off in a place some remote place somewhere and leave me for three days and come back if they could remember where I was and pick me up," he said.

He says he was drawn to mapping the Canyon’s geology from the sheer thrill of discovery.

"I’d be standing on a sand dune and look across the Canyon and see the beach and over here, I’d see a river coming in from somewhere else," he recalled.

Charting the Grand Canyon is an ongoing process with new understandings. 

But Billingsley says he’s done drawing in what he saw over more than 40 years. The  exhibit of the map he and and his colleagues drew that was originally published by the museum in 1976 will be on display until January. 

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Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.