Most first-time visitors to Grand Canyon wonder where the river is. It can't be seen from the most visited spots on the South Rim. The park rangers like to tell of a particular group who tried to carry a raft from the rim to the river, figuring it was a short walk. They soon discovered their folly. You can't see the river for a long time on the way down from either of the two main trails. Everyone wants to see the elusive river and for the casual observer it refuses to reveal itself.
The river is the source and magic of the canyon. It continues to scour away at the billion-year-old rocks (1.7 billion to be exact) far below. The deeper it goes the more elusive it becomes. As one hikes deep into the gorge the first sight of the river is exhilarating. It's the payoff for the commitment.
The inner gorge is steeped in mystery. The rocks are clearly different that the layer-cake sedimentary strata above them. Forged by inconceivable amounts of time, heat, and pressure, the rocks seem magnetic. They draw you down into them, as if they held some ancient secret so profound that the gravity of their existence might never release you. And at the bottom is the living, squirming beast of a river that relentlessly does its work, sculpting its way seemingly to the center of the earth.
The river has been tempered by Glen Canyon Dam which, to the east, has slowed the flow of water and removed most of the scouring sediment. The Colorado used to be, as its name suggests, colored. It was colored red with the particles of the earth it was removing all along its path in the Great West. Now its only red during monsoon season when the canyon itself contributes enough silt to tint the river. During this most recent trip we were lucky enough to see the river as it once was. But, the dam's life is a blink in the life of the canyon. Someday the river will eat through it, turn it to ruble and then resume its vigor. It is its relentlessness that impresses one the most.
Coming out of the canyon at sunrise has become our tradition. It's a way to beat the heat of the Bright Angel Trail which has no shade in midday. More importantly, it is a way to see the river at its most beautiful. Before one connects with Bright Angel Trail proper, one must hike the River Trail which, as it name suggests, hugs the river for a mile or so. Up and down, through rock and sand, the caravan of hikers pay homage to the river one last time before the serious ascent begins.
Like the river, the trail teases the hikers with its undulating ways. You think you're starting your ascent and then the river and trail pull you back down again. "Not so fast," the river whispers, "I'm not done with you yet." Finally the trail turns south and river is gone. The trail turns dusty, the sun rises, and the magic changes. Soon the nasty switchbacks appear and, with great effort, we pull ourselves out from the grip of the river and canyon. But, it's futile. We know we will return again and again. The Sorcerer of the Canyon has cast its spell. We are forever bound to it.