by Guest Blogger, Kate Dernocoeur
As fun as it is to run rivers, it’s also great to look beyond the water. Rivers often serve as wonderful access points for beautiful hiking terrain. In April 2014 during our 225-mile journey through Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, we often set off in our hiking boots to see what else we could see. The side canyons are surprisingly varied, each stunning in its own way.
Side canyons provide a completely different perspective of the river. Our trip is sponsored by the Grand Canyon Field Institute (see https://www.grandcanyon.org/learn/grand-canyon-field-institute), so each day includes excellent lessons in a classroom that surrounds us.
We are lured into the side canyons by the guides, most of whom are advanced-degree experts in everything from archaeology, ethnography, botany, geology, entomology, water rights, and more. We are also joined by a member of the Hopi nation, who speaks eloquently of his people’s presence here now and historically.
Seeing the river from a few hundred feet up is far different from the riverside view. Of course, the famous hues and layering of Grand Canyon elicit frequent expressions of delight. In our first side canyon, we see a sweet, quiet waterfall and smooth walls that seem like something Georgia O’Keefe might paint. We hike to Elve’s Chasm, with its cardinal monkeyflower and orchids. We see the cave named after Robert Stanton, whose 1889 journey ended at this point (he later returned and completed a survey of this great canyon).
On one side canyon hike that takes us eight miles “up and over” from Tapeats Creek, across Surprise Valley, and down Deer Creek, we are perhaps three miles inland from the Colorado River when we encounter Thunder River. It is a huge waterfall that runs in underground sluices and then shoots out suddenly halfway up the sheer canyon wall. The resulting greenery contrasts mightily with the arid surroundings. When we reach Deer Creek, our rafts are tiny yellow points far below, awaiting our return, 400 feet down to the river. When we arrive, I attempt to stand under the thundering pulse of 100-foot Deer Creek Falls, but the force of it pushes me so hard that I cannot stand up.
We are not alone in the canyon. Birds are everywhere—great blue herons (who seem tiny here), condors (yes!), osprey, ravens at every camp, waterfowl, and the lovely canyon wren whose call elicits a smile to remember. Lizards (chuckwallas, desert spineys, others) abound. There are some desert bighorn and a few mule deer, and evidence of beaver and ringtail cats. The one rattlesnake we encounter is clearly more shy of us than we are of it.
A highlight of side canyon hiking is our day in Havasu Valley. We hike inland to a pretty picnic site. After lunch we float the turquoise waters of the tributary, then warm ourselves on a sloping rock.
Side canyons evolve mostly through erosion. Furious storms wash immense boulders and even whole hillsides downhill like they are nothing. It is ample evidence of the power of time, multiplied by the astonishing force of water, plus the relentless grip of gravity. Our 18 days spent witnessing the grand scale of the eons, we find, enriches us immeasurably.
Addendum: I was reminded after initial publication of the blog that the “GCFI” trip is actually a joint venture offered as a collaboration between GCFI and Canyon Explorations (aka “CanX”), the commercial outfitter who has the permit to run the trip. It’s only right to mention CanX in this blog, because one element that differentiates CanX from other outfitters is the value the company places on education and interpretation. CanX guides have impressive credentials, and make every effort to partner with organizations like GCFI with similar goals. Thanks, CanX, for doing your part!
Kate Dernocoeur prefers to be dry, but is willing to risk being drenched if it means she can be at the front of the paddle boat. One of her top-five favorite things in life is sleeping in a tent. She was really happy on this journey!