Overview: Tapeats Rapids via Bill Hall and Thunder River Trail.
Hike: This is an excellent trip with some incredible vistas, interesting & challenging switchbacks, and dicey trails on the descent to Upper Tapeats Campground (a loaded pack makes it harder) and along the West high route to Lower Tapeats Camp/River. We did this as a 5day/4 night trip -- which made it rather comfortable. I love waking up in the canyon so I enjoyed every bit of it.....
We (Ed, Terri, Matt & Ambika) had a late start on Wed (Stayed at Lees Ferry Lodge in Marble Canyon -- Great rooms, cheap & awesome food/ambiance. Make sure to stay there if you need a stop along the way to N. Rim). The drive up to the Bill Hall Trail was beautiful - crisp air & fall color punctuated the mountains and the glittering leaves in morning light were enchanting. The parking lot was a surprise - over 15 vehicles were parked there and we were wondering about how all these people could be down there based on our understanding of the permit system. We hoisted our packs about noon and headed out for our rendezvous with Thunder River with a delightful stroll through the burnt trees until we reached the cairned start of the 1st of the Bill Hall descents through the through the Kaibab and the Toroweap layers (about 1/4 mile or so) bring you down to a saddle between Monument point & Bridger's Knoll. Complete a 3/4 mile traverse heading northwest over a saddle by Bridger's Knoll , passing through numerous rock falls from the Kaibab & Toroweap layers and soon you get to a bunch of switchbacks that seem to have strategically placed juniper trees to provide fleeting respite from the sun. (This is in full shade for an early morning descent/ascent).
After having done the whole trail down to Lower Tapeats, I think this is the easiest descent/ascent (of this trip) in spite of its reputation for a difficult trail. It's short & is over with quick. (I have not done Thunder River but I just cannot see myself adding 5 more miles to get down to the Esplanade). It does have some steep descents right at the start and one 15 ft climb down/up over an outcropping. We were all able to negotiate it quite easily - a helping hand with the pack is all that was needed here. If you are going solo; make sure you are playing safe here.. It's just not worth becoming another statistic. As will almost all Grand Canyon trails; watch out for the exposure and unstable trails. Soon (~ 3/4 miles later) you are at the intersection of the Bill Hall Trail & Thunder River Trail and on the Esplanade.
The traverse through the Esplanade was pleasant and we were treated to interesting rock formations - reminiscent of Canyonlands I am told! The trail is pretty flat except for a few minor drainage crossings. Follow the cairns across the slick-rock and try to minimize the impact to the fragile crypto-biotic soil that seems to be everywhere on the Esplanade. You begin to wind your way around 3 drainages of Deer Creek. Junipers, yucca and prickly pear cactus dot the area beautiful offset against the red rocks. You reach a series of rock caves (some have been improved upon with rock walls and cleared floors) about 30 mins from the intersection. This seems to be a good cache spot and you do have views out west across the Esplanade. We picked up our cache of water for dry camp on the Esplanade at the edge of the next descent. The trail turns westwards as it heads towards the break in the Redwall where it descends into Surprise Valley. Pitched camp right along the edge and we were treated to a great sunset (the only beautiful sunset for this trip). Spirits were high; company was great & blisters were a few days away and it was all perfect.
We departed early; making the descent through the Redwall into Surprise Valley in morning shade. This is a rather long descent along a fault /slump in the Redwall, well constructed switchbacks make it reasonably easy. You make your way along Surprise Valley and soon are at the intersection of the Thunder River & Deer Creek trails (not signed but marked by cairns). Keeping left we continued along winding our way by Cogswell Butte and a few other buttes (?); climbing as we headed to the head of Thunder River drop off. We could hear the roar as we descended the trail making us eager for our 1st glimpse - it was beautiful indeed with the ribbon of greenery winding downstream with a small spray catching the morning sun bursting into millions of crystals as it fell downwards to join the band of greenery. This was just the angle that I stopped and the perfect morning sun angle - I never did see that again. As you make your way down this moderate descent Thunder River quickly reveals itself; gushing out of the sheer cliffs. You descend through Muav Limestone and Bright Angel shale (grey-green). You reach a greenish small flat area and a spur heads of towards the river. We dropped out packs and headed to view Thunder River - What a magnificent sight - watering pouring out of the wall and heading downhill in a series of waterfalls each different and unique and absolutely beautiful. (Especially after a sweltering hike through Surprise valley -- Surprise Valley traverse seemed short but then again it was at 8:00 am). The water is ice cold and the falls are lined with beautiful clumps of scarlet monkey flowers, ferns, watercress and moss. The fine spray was a welcome relief -- we played around for quite a while. An interesting juxtaposition of the harsh desert environment and the riparian belt of lushness that follows the water set amid the towering cliffs that is Grand Canyon indeed.
Reluctantly, we came back out to the trail and once again hoisted our packs to head down to Upper Tapeats campground. We had wonderful visions of campsites by the stream with trees overhead. The trail gets harder here as it makes its way through crumbling layers of Bright Angle Shale with 200+ ft drops on one side and towering cliffs on the other. There are some sections where the trail moves away from Thunder River and flattens a bit, finally plunging down to the Tapeats Creek level with a series of fairly steep switchbacks. You are treated to plunging waterfalls as Thunder River races down to join Tapeats Creek in less than 1/2 mile.
We camped at the Upper Tapeats Campground (about 200 yards from confluence) overall a disappointment- no wonderful shade or babbling water right by camp (1st large site, we did locate some slightly better campsites further downstream) but we did have a rock bench to set up kitchen and a smidgen of shade we could hide in. We set up camp, lounged about a bit and then decided to go and check out the confluence of Thunder River & Tapeats Creek. This was a beautiful place laced with ferns and monkey flowers and small babbling waterfalls. We were impressed by the flow in Tapeats Creek! We hung about there a bit. Ed was having a bit of dehydration and decided to hang back and hydrate in the shade. The rest of us decide to explore Tapeats Creek. We forded the confluence and the creek and headed up the east bank. We clambered over a few rockfalls, beat back some bushes and mostly followed a path. Soon we passed a good campsite and reached a ford in the creek. Terri elected to return to keep Ed company and Matt & I headed further upstream. Just past the ford was another great campsite. We headed on for about another 30 mins, crashing through bushes (looked like the creek had flooded not in the too distant past) and negotiated a few more rockfalls, encountered a snake that was hell bent on getting away from us (no objections here!). Soon the trail petered out & we elected to return. Think we made about a mile or so upstream. We were soon back at the camp and soon waiting for the sun to dip below the canyon to get shade on the campsite. Camp was set up quick and dinner followed. Soon Matt was battling the red ants, scorpions and mice (We did loose part of our cheesecake to the mice). He had decided to go light without a tent and I am sure he has since re-evaluated weight vs. fighting of creatures!
Next morning was our planned hike to the Lower Tapeats! This looked a bit grim as Ed was still recovering and we debated a bit and then decided Ambika & Matt would take a trip down to the river while Ed & Terri would rest up. Terri was really nice and decided to let me have her Tevas (I had flip-flops for camp slippers) for this hike. This was wonderful since it gave my toes a break from being smashed into my hiking and was ideal for the couple of creek crossings we would encounter on the way back. The shade was there so we headed out the high route on the west side making it most of the way in shade. The west route goes high following the rock layer contours dipping down to the creek about 5 times via rocky steep switchbacks. Route is fairly easy to follow but quite narrow with loose crumbling rock underfoot... a pack would make the high route a definite challenge and it is quite a risk if you even have the slightest fear of heights or exposures. The east route is way better and easier as we would find on our way back. You are high above the creek as it hurtles down through a number of waterfalls through the narrows of dark blue-black dibase as it heads towards Colorado. On the last section we ended up high above the Colorado looking down on to Lower Tapeats beach where private raft trip was just pulling in. Soon we saw the cairn that pointed the way down to the beach by way of a steep, narrow, rocky draw with about 300+ ft drop in less than 1/2 mile. We ford the creek one more time to meet up with the raft party, mooch some cookies off them and hangout with them about an hr or so.
Soon we are heading back... We explore the east route... It leads high up on the east side; we decide to head back the west route for the 1st part and then cross-over to eastside. We soon cross East and wander along the creek bottom negotiating a few rock-falls and small climbs-ups making excellent time heading back to camp. We pause by a short but beautiful waterfall where the Tapeats Creek pours over a layer of Bass Limestone. We ford back to our camp and crawl up under the rocks looking for shade. Ed thermometer registers 127 degrees in sun. We soon relocate to streamside for some cooling breezes. Late in the evening we decide to hike up out of Thunder River and camp up to at Surprise Valley. This lets us climb out in relative cool of the evening. Ed's still recovering so we make best use of the shade... we barely make it out of Thunder River in fading light after a brief stop at the falls on our way out, camping right at the head of the descent. I break a tent pole & its duct tape to the rescue. Mice run rife through camp - we were lucky not to loose pack to their sharp teeth. It is still too hot....
Morning sees Ed in much better spirits and soon we are up above Surprise Valley. Again morning shade on the Redwall ascent was great. We soon make our way across the Esplanade to the caves and hide for rest of the afternoon and feast on our cache and times hangs on us... on a cooler day with lighter backpacks we might have pushed on out. We make our way to the base of the final ascent and camp for our last night in. We soon realize we are sharing camp with a tarantula. We decide to co-exist but end up relocating the tarantula. It gets quite windy for a while but soon the still warm air descends upon us one last time. Discussion seems to center on BO... Matt fights off more mice... Sunrise and we are soon making our way out back to the Jeep. Clean clothes... long drive to Flagstaff... lunch at Weatherford Hotel... drive back to Phoenix... shower and we all will have stories tell... looking forward to the next trip... The enchantment continues!
Note: Different opinions rage on the difficulty of this trip - Be prudent and don't get in over your head. The trip turned out easier than what I was led to believe based on trail descriptions. If you are aggressive hiker, fearless of crumbly trails and sheer drop-offs, sure footed and with a light pack - you can do this in a 3 day trip but you will be moving all the while. I think we would have been fine to shorten the trip by a day. Cooler weather would be much better since you do not need to haul as much water but don't short change... you are a long way off from help even if you make it to the trail head.
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.