Five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, most of them gawking, jaws dropped, from the South Rim. And yes, it is a truly inspiring vista, beyond the scope of my skills with words. There are other vistas, too, just as sweeping, from below the rim. And there are also small wonders that surprise and enchant me, and whose grandeur seems equally difficult to express with the inadequacy of language. On a recent seven-day hike in the Canyon, we moved camp every day but one. And every new camp, and the trek to it, yielded gems beyond my expectations.
I’ve been to the bottom of the Canyon many times. But before this fall’s hike, I’d only done three different routes to the river. My first was to Supai with my sister and cousins in 1992. I’ve been to Phantom Ranch / Bright Angel twice. The boulder scramble down to Soap Creek Rapids, though, has enchanted my family, and I’ve been there dozens of times, including twice with my age 11-and-under daughters.
This is my first opportunity to really travel within the canyon and to see its many faces. As we begin this adventure to Thunder River and Deer Creek from the North Rim, we drive through a lovely dense mix of pine, oak, aspen, and limestone over a seemingly never-ending dirt road to the trailhead. Embarking on the trail, we walk through scrubby oak just hinting at the changing season, up (yes, up!) and then around and down a limestone section dotted with a few tough piñons and hardly any places wide enough to remove our packs and rest.
I stop to take a break near a promontory pointing to Bridger’s Knoll, and realize, slowly, that the huge bird flying just below and beyond me is a California condor. It’s so close and so huge, and I can almost read the number tag on its wing. Before I can get my camera out, the soaring bird is some distance away, but no less awe-inspiring.
Somehow, the downhill travel is more difficult than the uphill. Every step is calculated, the quads are straining against the natural law of gravity, trying to slow this body in motion. The sliding scree is tough, more so because we are all carrying extra water to cache on the Esplanade, our first and last nights’ camp. The Esplanade is an immense expanse of relatively horizontal red sandstone with hoodoos and drainages that make it a fun place to explore. We may find rainwater in the shallow tinajas, or depressions, in the sandstone there, or maybe not. We won’t know until we get there. And if there is water, it might not last a week under the sun until our return, since animals and other thirsty hikers will also pass this way.
The first night we’re tired. We don’t yet have our canyon legs and our packs are at their heaviest. We eat, pump water from the tinajas nearby, and set up camp. As the sun sets, the alpenglow casts the Esplanade aflame with a rosy golden light. And once the light is gone, so is the heat, and we call it a night.
Sometime the next afternoon, we can hear Thunder River. We can hear it before we see it. And then, we crest a saddle in the ridge, and there it is. Water bursts directly from the wall of the canyon to our left, more a waterfall than a river. It is a lush oasis, with trees and ferns, icy-cold pools and cascades. It’s an incredible abundance of water contrasted against last night’s supply, pumped from shallow rain puddles. We soak our feet in the chilly spring water until they’re numb, dip our heads, replenish our bottles, and carry on, down to our next camp.
In the morning, we continue, soon fording Tapeats Creek, which is running higher than I’m comfortable crossing. With Dan’s help, I’m the last one – we all make it across safely. As we travel downstream, I marvel at the vegetation. It seems more like the fertile foothills desert of Tucson: mesquite thickets, fat prickly pears and hedge hog cacti, grasses, flowers. It seems opposite from the barren landscape dominated by stone and erosion that is so emblematic of the Grand Canyon. And always, as we walk, the creek rushes alongside, racing ahead of us to tonight’s destination: the Colorado.
By the time we reach the river, we’re high above it and the sun is directly overhead. It’s hot. We snake down a group of incredibly steep, rocky switch backs, ending at a sandy beach strewn with stones smoothed by water. The Colorado is a milky chocolate color today. Where the clear Tapeats water meets the sediment-laden Colorado, there is a clear delineation marking the boundary between river and creek.
As we break camp the next morning and head downriver, it seems my canyon legs have arrived. It’s easy, picking our way through the boulders scattered by ages of floods, and then up and across Cogswell Butte toward Deer Creek. My pack feels good, and for the next two nights, we won’t move camp. It’s probably that thought that encourages me to keep my pace.
From high above the Colorado, we watch for rafters, and finally we are rewarded. A couple rafts and an old-style wooden dory are traveling together. We watch them navigate through Helicopter Eddy, the dory bobbing like a cork. Later, we learn the old man in the dory is O.C., a Canyon river-running legend among the rafting set.
At Deer Creek, we pause. To the right are towering cottonwoods and a wide canyon where we’ll camp. To the left are the narrows, beginning with a room-like area called the Patio. It’s an obvious border, where we stand, and while the dark shade of the narrows tempts us, we opt to go upstream to claim our camp.
And the camp is lovely. Our site is large enough for all of our tents, shady and level, and the creek burbles just meters away. Several times during our stay, I think I hear voices, but realize it’s just the creek. I’ve often heard about babbling brooks, but this is my first experience actually listening to one.
We laze about, splash in the creek, set up camp, and decide to head for the narrows. The narrows of Deer Creek are a slot canyon. A dozen or so people sitting and reading in the Patio. A few more soak in the water flowing across the flat sandstone. We stay to the right of the creek, pass a waterfall, and walk along a narrow ledge of sculpted sandstone. The canyon walls go high above us, the water some distance below. There are places where the canyon tapers and curves beneath our ledge, and we can no longer see the water rushing downstream. We walk, single-file, our shoulders sometimes brushing the edge of the canyon wall as our feet skirt along the lip of the brink.
And then, Dan stops abruptly near an overhang, and gestures to a treasure I would have missed. Three small handprints, probably Anasazi, adorn the wall. My eleven-year-old’s hands are probably larger than these, marked on the wall with blown paint in a kind of reverse-stencil. How many centuries have people walked this path? And in the past century, how many have walked on by this artwork, too concerned with their footing to notice?
Two days later, as we begin our ascent, we stop to refill our water at Deer Spring, near the Throne Room. The Throne Room is a large area under an overhanging cliff where hikers and rafters have built sandstone thrones of many sizes, most with armrests. We try several out, and I’m surprised at how comfortable they are. A week without upholstered furniture somehow makes solid stone chairs relaxing. At the spring, we pump enough water to make it back to our water cache on the Esplanade. There, on the huge stone where we sit, I spy something that doesn’t quite seem to fit. At first, I think it’s a bundle of sticks that someone’s placed side-by-side. I pick it up, brush off a few willow leaves, and I realize it’s a split twig figurine, a fetish shaped like a deer, about the size of my palm. It’s not ancient, of course, but a lovely modern example made by a fellow traveler who passed this way, just days before me. I cradle it in my hands and marvel at the small wonders of this grand place.
That night on the Esplanade, we are again astonished by the splendor of the sun, setting beyond the countless chasms. We watch the stars come out in greater numbers than can be seen almost anywhere else in the world, and quietly point out satellites that cross the sky above us. Here in the Canyon, I've found treasures that will feed my soul until the next time I go below the rim.