Editor’s note- This is part 3 of a three part series on the wonders of hiking the Grand Canyon.

 Day 3, first light

Before beginning our third day of hiking, we often read a quote from John Wesley Powell’s journal from his exploration of the Grand Canyon. Powell was a true, American adventurer, a veteran of the Civil War who had lost his right arm in the Battle of Shiloh. Before Powell’s expeditions, the Grand Canyon was a large gray area on maps of the west. No one knew what was there, or whether it was possible to navigate the Colorado through it. Powell accepted this daunting challenge and faced the raging river in wooden-hulled boats, long before the idea of light camping equipment!

August 13, 1869 – “We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown. We have but a month’s rations remaining. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. With some eagerness and some anxiety and some misgiving, we enter the canyon below and are carried along by the swift water.”

This usually inspires a moment of listening to the river, as it rushes past us through 135 Mile Rapid. I imagine each person is considering the level of bravery and daring required by Powell’s drive to explore the unknown. We all hope we have a bit of that in us. This morning’s trail lifts us above the river and along the edge of the Granite Narrows where the two billion year old, metamorphic walls of the inner canyon display twisted strands of black Vishnu Schist and pink Zoroaster Granite. We pass the narrowest point of the river, just 76 feet across, as the water becomes very still. Beneath the still water, the river descends to a depth of over 80 feet.

This morning, the trail gives our group a small taste of what’s in store for them tomorrow. We climb upward slowly, angling away from the river, over a pass in the folds of the side drainages and landslides.

Huffing, sweating and sometimes cursing, arise among the group. Our reward is that the steep incline is relatively brief and soon drops us into one of the most loved spots in the canyon, the Deer Creek Patio. Great slabs of flat rock provide an area popular with river rafters who hike the short mile from the river to lounge in the shade by the creek. This is a favorite part of the trip not only because of the natural beauty around us but also because we get to drop our packs for most of the day.

The patio is divided by the water of Deer Creek, which excises a groove through the slabs of rock creating a series of beautiful, small waterfalls before passing deeper into a section of narrows as the creek approaches the river. Here we offer a second, optional, adventure for anyone who can brave a short but surprisingly frightening down climb. The fright comes from a single step down which thrusts your body away from the wall by a jut of rock, which blocks sight of your feet.

Tom goes first. From below, he not only guides people’s feet to the unseen footholds, he’s also equipped with strong legs which people use as steps to lower themselves to the creek running through the narrows. We make our way carefully beneath a gap of blue sky through the smooth, undulated walls, which have been expertly molded over ages of time by Deer Creek and its flash floods.

At one point, the creek falls between two boulders a distance of about 20 feet, which is as far as we can explore. We retrace our steps, climb the bit that is less scary going up, and return to the Patio.

After lunch, we hike along a narrow path atop the narrows, until the trail descends dramatically again to the river. We point out places on the rock walls where handprints of the Hopi Indians remain outlined in drops of turquoise ink that the ancestral Puebloans blew through reeds.

The narrows abandon Deer Creek high above the river dropping its water 100 feet and creating the spectacular Deer Creek Falls. By this time in the trip, people sometimes can’t believe that there is still more to see – that after everything they’ve seen, there is still … this. Smiles come much easier by this time in the trip. A good-natured giddiness has emerged, and we’re no longer a group of hikers. We’re now a group of friends.

Around mid-afternoon, we load our packs onto our backs and hike only 45 minutes - only 45 minutes of sweat and strain, reaching to pull ourselves up sets of rock steps that rise faster than a New York City walkup.

The prize, this time, is Deer Spring, another crack in the limestone, similar to Thunder Spring but on a much smaller scale. The bonus here is that you can sit, dry, behind the falls absorbing the now familiar and gorgeous canyon views. Sun streaked water falls from above to a pool below. Adjacent to the spring is the Throne Room, a shaded recess in the cliff wall where, over time, people have built approximately a dozen “thrones” from fallen slabs of rock.

We prepare our last supper of vegetarian burritos. Everyone enjoys the meal and conversation from their own, individual thrones, kings and queens (or jesters) of this wonderful place. But then, what we’ve warned must come, arrives. We load up one more time after dinner to knock off a mile and a half of the hike out of the canyon before bedtime. The sun has passed behind the cliff wall. We take advantage of the shade and arrive at camp just before darkness descends. We’ve almost completed the journey around Cogswell Butte. We watch one last gorgeous evening fade into night over Surprise Valley. In the morning, we’ll rejoin the first day’s trail heading now in a new direction, upward.

Day 4, 5 a.m.

Our last day begins early and fast. We begin hiking by 6 a.m. and launch ourselves back up the Red Wall. I teach everyone how to breathe properly, as that is one of the most useful strategies for coaxing our muscles to lift us back to the trailhead. We stop every few minutes to give our legs a break and to look back to where we started the day – confirming that we are indeed making progress. We know when everyone has had enough time to catch their breath. Conversation begins.

I notice that the conversation now is easy, unforced. The formal introductions of the first day have given way to the laughs and unfiltered banter of people who are truly relaxed and who appreciate each other and this experience that is coming to a close. We pass back along the path of our first day now, back across the Esplanade, taking a long break. Some challenge each other with a pull-up contest, fingers grasping a ledge of rock on the side of a mushroom of rock under whose shade we rest.

At times on the hike out, the conversation stops, and the group grows quiet – each person lost in thought or simply enjoying these moments, peaceful, content, hiking forward and still … upward! We’ve reached the 50 switchbacks again, and uphill reveals a very different experience than our trip down them on the first day. One by one, we count them off, and the switchbacks fall away below us. We could push to the top at this point, but we stop for a leisurely lunch in an alcove high over the Esplanade, with a view of the receding walls of the canyon disappearing towards the west.

Less than an hour later, we find ourselves back at the trailhead and our vehicles. Tom and I offer the group one last surprise, not a geological feature this time, but cold drinks and brownies. We exchange e-mail addresses, collect the camping equipment, and linger a few more moments to talk, laugh and remember, the experience we’ve just shared. People promise to hike together again. They thank Tom and I, saying they want to come on other trips we guide. Hugs and handshakes go around the circle, and, then it’s done. We’ve completed another trip in this wondrous place, even though we’ve only seen a small portion of what it contains. We sometimes get asked at the beginning of the trip whether we get tired of hiking the Canyon so many times each year. No one asks that question by the end of the trip. They understand. They have hiked to the river and back and know that you never fully comprehend or see all that the Grand Canyon holds. Its mysteries and wonders remain to be discovered, bit by bit, little by little, changing enough each time, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, to create a new experience each time we venture below the rim.