I got a permit to do the Tapeats/Deer Creek loop, four day trip, with campsites at Upper Tapeats, Deer Creek, and Surprise Valley. The hike was supposed to be in October, but something came up, so I called the backcountry office and was able to reschedule for Thanksgiving weekend. Our group returned safe and sound last night.
I'll post a triplog separately, but here I want to focus on a few things that went wrong. I knew this time of year, limited daylight would be a #1 enemy, not even cold weather (in fact, the weather ended up being perfect!). In the group was myself, my mom, who has some fear of heights, and my younger sister. We're all in good physical condition and do lots of hiking and backpacking. The first day, we didn't leave the hotel in Kanab soon enough, so we ended up hiking the last half hour to Upper Tapeats campsite using headlamps. Not too big a deal. Day 2 is where things went downhill. Talking to the ranger, there are two routes down Tapeats Creek, the one on the east side of the creek and the one on the west side of the creek. Everyone seems to agree the east route has less exposure, and as long as Tapeats Creek can safely be crossed, it is the preferred route. Of course, Ranger Brian I talked to doesn't have fear of heights, so when he hiked the same route a week ago, he just took the west route the whole way.
So we cross Tapeats Creek right at the large group site, and immediately find the trail on the other side. It's actually a pretty decent trail, although a few sections were washed out and a bit sketchy, but not scary or dangerous. Then after maybe a mile or so, we get to the part where the trail leaves the creek and climbs up high. Both the east and west routes are similar in this regard. So far so good, although my mom was pretty scared of "the ledges" as she called them. While there is some exposure, the trail is flat, and there's a good 10 feet before the actual cliff. Looking across to the west route, which we can see for most of the time, it seems the west route is less wide, and often the cliff is within a few feet of the trail. So far so good, then we are getting very near the Colorado, and it's time for the descent to lower Tapeats camp and the river route over to Deer Creek. We see some cairns that lead to a ~10 foot downclimb. No big deal, I climb down first, then they hand the packs down, then I help them down. We follow a "use path" a short distance more, and then find another ~10 foot downclimb. Did the same thing again. We continued on the use path a short distance more and came to some pretty serious cliffs. I looked out one way and said, "I'm pretty sure that's not how we go, but it could be done." I looked out the other way and said, "that's definitely not how we go."
So I drop my pack and go to investigate. My sister says it only took me 30-40 seconds to downclimb and get to the slope below. The "cliff" was about 50' high, and I would consider it genuine class 4 scrambling. Meaning that there was quite a bit of exposure, and any mistakes would have severe consequences. At this point, I look around and see there there's a nice trail down the rest of the slope to Tapeats Creek, so I head back up. The handholds and footholds were super secure, and I had no fear going up/down it. But I knew my mom would be terrified to attempt something like this. And even if we could get her down, getting the packs down would be another matter. I had a 50 foot small diameter rope, but neither my mom nor sister would be strong enough to be terribly helpful in lowering the packs.
At this point, I start second-guessing whether this is actually the route down. so I climb back up the two 10 foot climbs and start looking for if we missed the route. There are definitely some cairns where we went down, but there's also a trail continuing around the bend. I know time is short, but some scouting is worthwhile, especially if it means we don't have to go down the 50' sketchy section. So I take off jogging that trail and continue for 0.25 to 0.5 mile, and nothing at all is looking promising as a break in the cliffs, so I go back. Then my sister suggests I make sure once we get down the 50' sketchy section, that we can actually get all the way down without any more obstacles. So I go down again and I notice a trail heading in each direction at the bottom. First I take the trail to the right towards Tapeats Creek, and follow that down a nice sloping trail down to the creek. Then I scout the trail that goes to the left upriver. I jog on that trail till it runs out, which is at the next sandy beach area, so I'm assuming this trail is used by river rafters docking before Tapeats Creek, who hike up to Thunder falls, for instance. Nothing looks promising from the bottom side, with no breaks in the cliffs that would present an alternate route down.
After going back up, I talk it over with the family, and had to make the difficult decision to turn around and head back into Tapeats Creek. There was some discussion about maybe trying the west route, but that was an unknown also, and it was late enough in the day we wouldn't have gotten all the way to Deer Creek without doing some of the river route in the dark. So putting safety before rules and regulations, I decided to deviate from our permit and stay at Upper Tapeats a second night. Turns out there was no one there anyway. The rest of the trip continued without a hitch and we enjoyed spending time at Thunder falls and the beautiful Esplanade. So reflecting back on that second day, I'm trying to find answers to these questions:
- The east route, does it stay on the east side all the way to the Colorado River?
- Can someone who has done the east route confirm that the 50' scramble is indeed part of the route?
- When both the east and west routes climb away from the creek, are you supposed to cross back to the west side at this point?
- If the east route supposedly has less exposure, how bad is the west route?
- I had never seen any pictures of this 50' sketchy section, so that was part of the reason for second-guessing myself if it was actually the route. And of course I didn't take any pictures myself because I was too busy trying to figure out what our best course of action was. Could someone point me to some pictures of this section?