Editor’s note- This is the second of a three-part series on the wonders of hiking the Grand Canyon.

Day 2, 5 a.m.

Tom and I rise a few minutes early to stuff our sleeping bags and mattress pads into their sacks and take down our tent. Then, we rouse the group and begin making breakfast. Today’s hike begins with another steep descent through the next major cliff section, the majestic Red Wall limestone. Our group marvels as we explain that the Red Wall is 700 feet of limestone, formed when this area lay at the bottom of a deep sea over 300 million years ago. The color of the limestone is really a silvery cream but has been stained red by iron oxides washed over it from the Supai layers lying just above.

We point out two landmarks. Across Surprise Valley, we see Owl Eyes, consisting of two enormous alcoves in the cliffs just below the edge of the south rim with a vertical ridge below forming a beak. Cogswell Butte lies ahead, the size of a mountain, but shrunk to a minor feature below the rim of the canyon. We’ll be completing a loop around Cogswell Butte over the next two days.

The GPS of one client informs us that we drop 1,200 feet in the first 1.3 miles of the day. The trail diverges, and we head east. Angst rises amongst our group, as the trail leads up over a ridge – yes, up! – before dropping towards the drainage of Tapeats Creek. Before we meet the creek, however, we encounter the shocking display of its mighty tributary, Thunder River. North America’s steepest and shortest river, Thunder River bursts from a crack in the Muav limestone below the Red Wall. One location boasts four features: Thunder Cave, Thunder Spring, Thunder Falls, and Thunder River, which tumble steeply through bright green vegetation and cottonwood trees, contrasted against the otherwise arid landscape.

A short side trail takes us over to the falls where we are both soothed and invigorated by the sound and cool mist that enfold us. After a long break, the group is ready to get back on the trail. We pause many times, looking back towards Thunder Falls, trying in vain to capture the magic of this place. Photos just can’t do this place justice!

A few miles further, in jest, we point out the “Toilet” sign when we arrive at Upper Tapeats Creek campsite. Most agree that digging our own holes and packing out our toilet paper (required by Park Service rules) is preferable to perching atop the open air, pit toilet in the boiling temperatures of midday in the inner canyon.

We forded Tapeats Creek several times, as we pass further down trail towards the Colorado. As we cross the stream, the force of the water presses against our legs causing some to stumble.

Some clients mistakenly think we’ve already reached the Colorado, which reveals the Canyon’s slyness in disguising its immense size. This is just a side canyon along Tapeats creek. This gorge is unique in that its walls are cut through the brightly colored and angled walls of the Grand Canyon Super Group, a set of ancient, sedimentary layers that have been completely eroded away in most parts of the canyon. Small pockets of these beautifully colorful, billion year old rock layers remain in a few places in the canyon. I try to explain how there is a billion year unconformity, a gap in the geological history between two rock layers in places where the Super Group were completely eroded away, before the current set of sedimentary layers were deposited where we see them now. I’m not sure I’ve made my point.

Another steep descent of the last 900 feet or so, and we descend to the roar of the Colorado River. With so much rain and runoff, the Colorado is once again red and warmer than its usual 48 degrees. The low temperature and often unnaturally clear water of the Colorado results from Glen Canyon Dam holding back sediment and releasing cold, dense water from the base of the Lake Powell reservoir. We get to enjoy the Colorado similar to what the first river rafter, John Wesley Powell, saw in 1869 … even if the flow of water is five to ten percent of what it was then.

After a required dunk in the river, we begin the last mile and a half of the day to 135 Mile Rapids, a grueling and hot rock hop west along the river to our campsite. I’ve officially dubbed this part of the trip a “slog.” (Definition: a grueling and hot rock hop.) However, with perseverance, we arrive just before sundown. Everyone is beginning to adopt the rhythm of the canyon. We select patches of level sand on which to pitch our tents, switch to camp shoes, and begin gathering for dinner and another night full of stars.

To be continued –

Part 3 next week