After several hikes on the corridor trails, I decided it was time to expand our family's Grand Canyon experience to the backcountry!
Reading the triplogs of others and viewing the breathtaking photos, it was an easy choice to put the Thunder River-Deer Creek loop at the top of the list. So, with my wife and three of our kids (16, 13, and 12), we tackled our first "primitive" trail in the GC.
What a fantastic place!
I put in a permit application for 6 on the first of June for an October permit, with the idea of going over fall break in my kids' school schedule. The NPS website says that all request received by 5 pm on the first of the month are eligible for "earliest consideration" and are randomly ordered for processing. I know October is a popular month for this hike, so perhaps not surprisingly, I didn't get my first (or second) choice on dates or camp locations.
But, with the help and advice of the HAZ forum, I was able to work out an itinerary that turned out to be great.
Day 1 (Thursday)--travel and camp on the rim near the Bill Hall TH
We traveled up from Phoenix on Thursday with the intent of camping on the rim near the trailhead and getting an early start on Friday morning. The drive up was uneventful. We stopped for cookies at Jacob Lake, then headed down Hwy 67 towards the rim. There are several ways to access the trailhead, some more direct than others. Ultimately, we decided to take the NPS recommended route (FSR22 to FSR425 to FSR292, then 292A), even though it's one of the less direct routes (about 30 miles from Hwy 67). Despite the fact that it had rained for several days earlier in the week, the roads were in great condition. With the exception of a a couple of mud puddles near the very end of the trail, the bulk of the off-road ride is sedan-capable.
We arrived at Crazy Jug Point just in time to watch the sunset over the western horizon on the Canyon.
The main camping spot at the point was occupied (and, in any event, was not really in an ideal location, in my opinion [surrounded by trees w/ no direct view over the canyon]), so we continued down the road toward the TH until we found a fantastic camping spot with an established fire ring, right on the edge of the the Canyon. There were at least 2 or 3 other, similar campsites along the last mile of the road to the trailhead.
We set up camp, enjoyed some dinner and conversation around the fire, and then hit the hay. Despite the rainy weather earlier in the week, the forecast for our trip was nothing but sunny and clear days and moonless (i.e., star-filled) nights. The Milky Way was in full-view overhead, punctuated by frequent shooting stars.
Day 2 (Friday)--Hike from Bill Hall TH to camp at Upper Tapeats Campground (11.0 mi.)
After breakfast in the morning, we reorganized our packs a bit and took the short drive to the trailhead. The parking area was rather full (approx. 25 cars).
We shouldered our packs and had our first discovery of the trip--water is heavy!
Each of us carried an extra gallon that we planned to cache along the route, which we did in three places: (1) 2 gallons near the Thunder River Trail junction (2.6 mi. in, at the bottom of the first descent); 1 gallon at the southern edge of the Esplanade just before the redwall break down to Surprise Valley (5.4 mi. in); and 2 gallons about halfway down the western fork in Surprise Valley (on the way to Deer Creek, where we planned to spend our final night).
The initial descent from Monument Point was our first introduction to "primitive" trails. I wasn't too surprised, but my 12-year-old daughter was not a fan.
She was tentative at first, but gained confidence as we went and overall did great on the hike. All of us on the trip had done the one-day rim-to-rim at least once (my two youngest finished our most recent crossing with me just a couple of weeks before this trip), and my kids all run cross-country, so I knew they were in good shape. The other thing that helped was hiking poles. I'm not usually a fan of hiking poles, but they proved invaluable in this steep, rocky, and uneven terrain, particularly with the added balance issues of carrying a loaded backpack along the sometimes exposed ledges.
We were prepared for the somewhat tricky downclimb at 1.5 mi., and nearly all managed to downclimb with packs on. No ropes needed in my view. At worst, remove the pack and hand it down to someone standing below.
After the 49-switchbacks and joint-grinding, steep descent to the Thunder River Trail junction, we were glad to reach the flat reprieve of the Esplanade. The Sedona-like sandstone formations were very cool, and we had the benefit of seeing the area after some good rain. Many of the "potholes" in the rock were filled with water, and made for nice pools to dip our feet in and cool down before our descent into Surprise Valley.
By the time we reached Surprise Valley, the sun was heating up and the valley was living up to its reputation as a natural oven
--my mini-thermometer was registering in the upper 90s. At the Deer Creek/Thunder River fork, my son and I dropped our packs and headed down the western (Deer Creek) trail in search of a decent camping spot and place to cache our final 2-gallons of water for our last night in the canyon. As expected, we didn't see any super-appealing camping spots, but didn't want to expend a lot of time/energy searching, so after about .2 mi., we settled on a spot that was do-able, cached our water, and headed back to the fork to continue our trek over the Thunder River.
The water in our camelbacks lasted us to the edge of Surprise Valley. Thankfully, by that point, we had Thunder Spring "in view" (and well prior to that, within "earshot") and the final, east-facing descent was shaded as the afternoon sun dropped towards the western horizon. A half-mile of steep down-climbing later, we were drinking from Thunder Spring and admiring the power and beauty of the shortest named river in the world (.5 mi.).
I wanted to stay longer at the spring, but my crew was ready to put their feet up at camp after a long day of hiking, so we soldiered on, passing a rattlesnake who said "hello" to us in their typical fashion, before slithering off under a nearby rock. I had intentions of heading back up in the morning, but after realizing that it was about a mile and 800-900 ft of elevation gain to go back from the campground, I contented myself with a lot of photos on the continued hike down in the pleasant early evening light.
When we arrived at Upper Tapeats (around 6 pm), the two primary campsites were occupied, with a single couple occupying the larger site. The info said there was a third site, but the only area that seemed to look like a third site was too small to accommodate our three tents. The couple at the large site graciously offered to move to the smaller site, as they were planning to get up at 4 a.m. for a long hike out in the morning. We were grateful!
Mountain House dinner never tasted so good, and we followed it up with an evening dip in Tapeats Creek to cool off our trail-weary feet.
With our food all secured in Outsaks for the night, we managed to escape unscathed by the marauding mice.
Once again, the moonless night allowed expansive views of the nighttime skies as we tried to get some shut-eye. I never sleep very well while camping, but it was particularly challenging on this trip, as every night felt like Christmas Eve, packed with anticipation of the gifts of Mother Nature that I was going to be experiencing the next day!
Day 3 (Saturday)--Hike from Upper Tapeats to dispersed camp on a sandy beach of the Colorado at 135-mi. rapids
Saturday was our short day--about 4 miles of hiking. We were in no hurry to get out of the shady canyon of Tapeats Creek and into the hot sun along the Colorado River, so we took our time getting ready in the morning and then made a "field trip" back up to the confluence of Thunder River and Tapeats Creek, where we enjoyed some cool, jacuzzi baths and waterfall massages, before packing up camp an heading downstream.
We chose the NPS-recommended route along the east side of the creek, and found both creek crossings very manageable. Likewise, the two potentially tricky (but short) downclimbs along the east side were not much to get concerned about, and again, we generally managed to navigate them with packs on.
Just upstream from the crossing back to the west of the trail, we stopped at an overlook of the falls, which some call the "Niagara of Tapeats Creek," due to its horseshoe shape. At the creek crossing itself was a nice, shaded rock overhang where we stopped to have lunch. Being in no hurry, we threw on the water shoes and hiked right up the creek, back to the falls and enjoyed playing in, around--and even behind--the falls.
After lunch, we crossed the creek for good and enjoyed the somewhat exposed hike along west wall of the Tapeats drainage, as the narrows plunged farther and farther below. The steep scramble down to Lower Tapeats Campground was interesting and a little slow-going. At the confluence, the Colorado was still flowing "chocolate" from the recent rains, though the clear skies and direct sunlight had temps well into the 90's. A couple who we had met at Upper Tapeats and who were spending the night at Lower Tapeats and had arrived earlier invited us to join them in the the shade of one of the only trees in the area capable of providing much shade. We gratefully obliged, and then headed over to the creek to do some filtering in preparation for our dry camp another 1.5 miles down river.
We timed our filtering job just right, so that as we were shouldering our packs for the final trek of the day, the canyon shadows began to fall on the north bank of the river, protecting us from the afternoon sun.
Shortly after leaving Lower Tapeats, my youngest daughter twisted her ankle on an easy, non-descript, and relatively flat portion of the trail along the river (while successfully having just navigated well over 5,500 ft. of difficult, steep, rocky descending).
Thankfully, after a short break, an ankle wrap, and an ibuprofen, she was back in hiking mode and managed the rest of the trip with little discomfort.
The big obstacle of the day was the steep and slippery downclimb just before the mouth of the Bonita Creek drainage. Of course, we had read all of the HAZ descriptions and seen the photos of this one, so we knew what to expect. I brought a 30' piece of 8mm rope, which we tied to the tree at the top and used as support to make the downclimb. I made several trips up and back to ferry down packs and then provide support from below, as my kids and wife downclimbed using the rope. My son went down with backpack on. Once all were down, I climbed up one final time to retrieve the rope. Although a rope-less descent wasn't too bad without
my backpack on, I would consider a rope close to necessary for going down with a backpack on. 30' was sufficient length to get you down the steepest section.
As we were navigating the downclimb, a rafting group passed by on the rapids next to the cliff and provided some entertainment for us. They pulled in for camp just down stream on the south bank, and we leapfrogged them on our way to our campsite on the north-side beach, at 135-mi. rapids, just below where the trail veers away from the River and up the walls of the Granite Narrows.
Our campsite on the beach was awesome and my favorite of the trip!
Thanks to HAZ member Mazatzal for cluing me into the fact that the Surprise Valley Use Area (AM9) goes all the way down to the river! We ditched the tent for the night and slept under the stars with unobstructed views of the the heavens above (saw at least a dozen shooting stars) and were lulled to sleep by the soothing, rumbling sounds of the nearby, churning River.
Day 4 (Sunday)--Hike to Deer Creek and the falls, then up to dispersed camp in Surprise Valley
We didn't get an early enough start on Sunday morning to avoid the sun on the exposed climb away from the River and over to Deer Creek, which turned out to be a hot, sweaty grind, albeit with nice views of the River and the Canyon along its narrowest section.
Arriving at the Deer Creek patio around 11 a.m., we shed the packs and ate lunch before heading down to what I anticipated to be the trip highlight--Deer Creek Falls! The traverse along the edge of the narrows was exciting, and although the exposure is real, I found it less disconcerting in real life than I did in watching others traverse it in videos and photos. Unfortunately, our mid-day arrival made for poor lighting in the narrows for purposes of photography. Oh well.
Deer Creek falls was absolutely, as advertised. Incredible! The spray from the mist at the base of the falls was so refreshing, but also made it difficult to get some photos without having the lense first covered up with water droplets! We had the falls all to ourselves for some time. Two rafting groups were also in the vicinity, but by the time they made there way to the falls, we were more or less on our way out.
After backtracking to the patio and picking up our packs, we headed up to the camp area, where we changed out of our water shoes in preparation for the hike up to Deer Spring and Surprise Valley. While doing so, the couple who shared the shade with us in Lower Tapeats approached us and said they had room for seven on their permit for the Deer Creek campsite, but since 5 in their party had bailed, we were welcome to stay with them for the night, instead of heading up to Surprise Valley. We were grateful for the offer, and Deer Creek is a beautiful area (especially compared to Surprise Valley), but ultimately we decided we would be better off getting one of the 3 big climbs under our belt today, instead of having to do the whole enchilada in one day. So, we politely declined and pressed on towards Deer Spring, where we intended to fill up on water for another dry camp in Surprise Valley.
As we climbed toward Deer Spring in the shade of the late afternoon, I kept listening for the sound of the spring and looking for water in the drainage. By mileage and elevation, I knew we were getting close, but still no sign of water. Finally, the tell-tale crack in the canyon wall appeared but, to my surprise, no water was flowing from the spring at all.
If we had known that, we would have tanked up at Deer Creek. The thought of going back down at this point was unappealing, both in terms of elevation and time. As we got right up to the spring, there was still a residual pool of water, from which we could filter. However, it was a little tougher filtering than what we had been used to. We took turns on the filters and in the off-time, relaxed a bit in the nearby "throne room." As the time ticked by, we decided to eat our dinner at the spring and prepared to climb out to Surprise Valley in the dark.
My biggest concern was navigation. I had researched the trail to know that this section is both difficult, not only because of the steep elevation gain, but also the rocky terrain which crosses numerous small washes and other obstacles that make it very easy to lose the trail. So, with a bit of trepidation, we donned our headlamps and headed up--nearly straight up
from where the deer creek trail meets the side trail to the spring.
Finding cairns became the task at hand, as the trail was very indistinct in places, and in the absence of any sunlight (and no moon), other visual clues that normally make navigation easier (e.g., being able to see a more distinct stretch of trail further down in a particular direction, or to line up more than one set of cairns, or to seen signs of foot traffic in the dirt or worn sections of rock) were unavailable to us. Even when we were able to locate a cairn, it wasn't always obvious which direction to head from that point. We got off track more than once, but with the exception of one section (where I climbed up about a 100 ft. of particularly steep canyon wall, thinking we needed to get one band higher before wrapping around an outcropping), were able to correct ourselves without too much wasted energy. My kids, meanwhile, entertained themselves, by keeping track of how many spiders, scorpions, and stink bugs they saw as we made the 1.5 mi., 1300 ft.climb to the junction with the Surprise Valley connector trail. Ultimately, I adopted a "Flatiron" mentality, telling myself that the goal is to climb up the drainage. And even though there was no moon, the starlight allowed me to pick out the outline of Cogswell Butte against the dark sky at the southern end of Surprise Valley as a bearing point.
At length, we made it to the junction and breathed a sigh of relief, as the terrain leveled out and we knew our water cache was near by.
We veered left at the junction and headed towards the Thunder River junction and our precious water cache. Along the way, we came to what I think is probably one of two "trees" (i.e., oversized bushes) on the west side of Surprise Valley. The area surrounding it was relatively flat and clear--a better spot than we had scoped out a couple of days earlier--so we dropped our packs around 8:30 pm, and made camp there, while my son and I retrieved our water cache another .25 mi. down the trail. [Note: We passed several flat, clear campsites on the east side of Surprise Valley, closer to the Thunder River descent.]
I was tempted to sleep tent-less again, but my wife convinced me to set up the tent. That was a good call, as I think the smell of our three days on the trail attracted every mosquito for miles around.
Although we were "safe" in our tents, I could hear them all night long, just outside the tent trying to figure out a way in to the fresh meal inside ...
Day 5 (Monday)--Hike from Surprise Valley out
We woke up before dawn on Monday in an attempt to beat the sun up the Redwall to the Esplanade. We were mostly successful, though the sun caught us on the final .25 mi. of the ascent. The trek back across the Esplanade was pleasant. Most of the pools of water we had seen on the way down and dried up in the interim.
Just before we reached the Bill Hall junction, we crossed paths with a ranger who was making his way down canyon to do the loop we were just finishing. He checked our permit. We told him that that Deer Spring was not running, so he could pass that info along to others along the route.
Stopped for lunch at our cache site at the bottom of the final 2.6 mi., 1,700 ft. ascent. Ended up dumping out about 3/4 gallon of the water we cached (after filling up what we needed for the climb, and dousing our hats/shirts/bandanas, etc.).
We made steady progress to the top, and passed a handful of groups on their way down. The "tricky" area 1.5 mi. from the top was much easier to climb up. We celebrated upon topping out at Monument point, but the still had what seemed to be an inordinately long .7 mi. back down to the TH from there.
After stowing our pack and donning our "victory shoes" (sandals), we drove over to the RV campground just south of Jacob Lake and availed ourselves of much needed showers (9 quarters for 5 minutes), before hitting Jacob Lake Inn for well-deserved burgers and fries! Topped it off with a pit stop in Flagstaff for frozen custard at Freddy's.
Arrived home, pooped but supremely satisfied, at 11:30 pm.
What a trip! Going to be hard to top this one!
**Unfortunately, something in my GPS track got corrupted, so I was only able to download the track for the last day. The mileage is what shows on my GPS watch (seems a bit high, but maybe--with various side trips and backtracking at points). AEG is a best guess.