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Thunder River / Deer Creek Loop, AZ
mini location map2015-10-28
15 by photographer avatarautumnstars
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Thunder River / Deer Creek Loop, AZ 
Thunder River / Deer Creek Loop, AZ
Backpack avatar Oct 28 2015
Backpack26.10 Miles 7,736 AEG
Backpack26.10 Miles5 Days         
7,736 ft AEG
 no routes
1st trip
Day 0 (Oct 27)
Today was a leisurely drive out to the north rim to camp the night before starting our hike. Lucky for us, from Vegas, it's about the same driving to the north or south rim. We stopped in the FS office in Fredonia to inquire about road conditions. It didn't seem like they get a lot of visitors this time of year, but were very nice and we picked up a recently-updated, very detailed (and free!) map of all the FS roads plus some good info about mountain biking routes for future use. We drove out via FDR 22 from just outside Fredonia, and all the roads were in good shape. There were a few small puddles here and there, but nothing a car couldn't handle as long as you weave around the potholes. Soon, we were checking out the views from Crazy Jug Point in peace. Our solitude was short-lived, however, as we were invaded by 3 large pickups filled with 15+ children. Local residents out collecting winter firewood. Quiet night after they left, so we ate, and camped right there after enjoying the sunset.

Day 1 (Oct 28)
We began the day with the short drive over to the Bill Hall trailhead, where there were several pickups/SUVs and one RV. One of the pickups had a HAZ sticker, and now I know that was Barrett's. Shouldered our abnormally-heavy packs, took some obligatory trailhead photos, and headed down. Or rather, headed up, because that's what the Bill Hall Trail does first :? . After a short amble along the rim, the descent began in earnest - down tall rock ledges and along steep switchbacks. This is what we were prepared for, and we made rapid progress to the infamous downclimb. From what we had read, we expected to remove our packs, but there were ample handholds and good footing, so no need for that. Somehow, we managed to have a traffic jam here. Three 20s-ish men were headed up - possibly the ill-prepared group Barrett had seen at Deer Creek? We also let a couple pass coming down (from the RV, it turned out), as they were moving quickly while we were stopping frequently to take pictures. Down some more, then leveling out to contour along the Esplanade. The Esplanade is an amazing place of red hoodoos and slickrock, and I would hike down this trail just to hang out here exploring.

We cached our extra water near the Bill Hall / Thunder River junction, happy to be rid of the weight. We would be spending our last night on the Esplanade, and figured it best not to count on potholes. Shortly thereafter, we meet 3 older men headed up, one mentioned being ill (probably the same group Barrett had met the day before). After discussing the pros and cons of different messaging devices with them, the non-ill two got everyone moving again. I noticed those 2 were carrying quite a bit lashed to the outside of their packs, but just thought they were inefficient packers at the time, not realizing they were carrying almost the entire contents of the 3rd man's pack. Shortly after this, we meet a park ranger hiking up the trail. This was turning out to be exactly the opposite of the trip I had imagined - almost 10 people in less than one day! He checked our permit, we chatted for awhile, and he wished us well with a comment that he hoped to hike the river route between Tapeats and Deer Creeks someday.

Finally, silence! No more people until we reached Upper Tapeats campsite. The stroll across Surprise Valley was mellow and uneventful after the steep descent off the Esplanade. The subsequent descent from Surprise Valley to Thunder River was just as brutally steep as we had imagined it to be, but that does mean it was over quickly! The view of Thunder Spring gets better and better as the trail drops, until the trail finally levels out along Thunder River and trees hide the spring from view. Along the river toward the camp site, there are "cliffs" of beautiful river rocks stuck together with mud 10-15 feet high - amazing! Nice camp, although the deer mice were fairly aggressive and pooped all over my pack even though it contained not a crumb of food. :x

Day 2 (Oct 29)
We had scheduled this as an off day, with potential plans for a day hike if we felt like it. It rained on-and-off most of the day, making that idea sound much less fun. Instead, we explored the area nearby and mostly spent the day hanging out and taking in the wonderful surroundings of Tapeats Creek and Thunder River. The people from the RV were also staying here a 2nd night, and we talked with them a bit. They had an interesting idea of what makes suitable backpacking food, but to each his own, I guess.
The deer mice joined us again for dinner, but at least they left my pack alone this time and satisfied themselves with jumping all over our feet. :lol:

Day 3 (Oct 30)
Crossed Tapeats Creek just south of the campsites to get to the east side for the better trail. The crossing wasn't bad, except for being mighty cold, and the east side really did seem to be the easier way. There were two downclimbs involved, the easy kind where you have big stable ledges as giant steps. Soon, we crossed back to the west side, and started to climb along the Bass Limestone, as Tapeats Creek dropped away below us into a dark narrow canyon. This stunning viewpoint lasted until dropping down to the confluence with the Colorado, where we watched a couple rafts run the rapids. We continued onward toward Deer Creek, enjoying the amazing vantage into Granite Gorge. The descent + downclimb at Bonita Creek was actually pretty nerve-racking on the upper part with all the small loose rocks. Mostly because of the optical illusion that a sheer drop awaits you.

After climbing back up and hiking along far above the river, we eventually dropped down into the Deer Creek drainage past some prehistoric ruins. The shade of the canyon was welcome after roasting all day in my corduroy pants! Our plan was to set up camp at the Deer Creek site, then head down canyon toward the falls. By the time we headed out from camp, we didn't have enough light left to make it all the way to the falls, but I really enjoyed the part of the Deer Creek narrows we did see. Sadly, now I'll have to come back to see the rest! :D

While eating dinner in the dark, we heard leaves rustling and saw eye shine that was definitely no deer mouse. A spotted skunk sauntered up, looked us over, did a second take, and sauntered away. Other than our little visitor, we had the Deer Creek site to ourselves this night and enjoyed a few rounds of Yahtzee before settling into our sleeping bags.

Day 4 (Oct 31)
We regretfully broke camp and headed up the trail along Deer Creek. On a future trip, I would love to stay here an extra night to explore the area. Upon reaching Deer Spring, we stocked up on water and relaxed behind the falls with a superb view. After an extended stay (and some pictures in the throne room), we headed back out into the surprisingly hot sun for the rest of the day's uphill hiking.

The section of trail immediately after Deer Spring was more like a game of find-the-cairn through a steep jumbled landslide of boulders and large rocks. I have a hard time imagining how ddgrunning hiked this section in the dark. After the initial climb was a short reprieve, then more climbing, but nothing as steep as that first section. It turns out that the trail also climbs continuously through Surprise Valley, although not steeply enough to notice when you are headed down. Soon enough, though, we reached the familiar junction with the Thunder River Trail and headed toward our last climb for the day. The climb was soon over and we returned to contouring along on the Esplanade. There were actually more pockets of water then when we had hiked down and we could have easily found enough to filter, but we didn't regret caching water because you never know. Picked up our water cache and set up camp for the night on a nice little promontory. A beautiful night with clear skies and stellar star gazing.

Day 5 (Nov 1)
With only 2.6 miles and one last climb left for today, we lazed around watching the birds and waiting for the sun to hit us. The morning started out with an autumn chill (~40 degrees), but the sun warmed things up fast and we slowly went about making breakfast and breaking camp. The hike up seemed to go by very quickly, and soon we were back to the van. My husband broke out the 2-burner campstove and made us delicious celebratory grilled cheese sandwiches before heading home.
Esplanade Sandstone
Cag Shot
foliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observationfoliage observation
Autumn Foliage Observation Isolated
Colors mostly confined to the rim. Tail end of colors. Cottonwoods were just beginning to turn in canyon, but many leaves already blown off.

dry Bonita Creek Dry Dry

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water less than max Deer Creek Medium flow Medium flow
Less than ankle-deep at fords

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water 4 out of 5 Deer Spring Gallon + per minute Gallon + per minute
Good flow. Beautiful spot behind the waterfall.

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water less than max Tapeats Creek Medium flow Medium flow
About knee-deep at fords.

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water less than max Thunder River Medium flow Medium flow

water 1 out of 5water 2 out of 5water 3 out of 5water 4 out of 5 Thunder Spring Gallon + per minute Gallon + per minute
"Let it ride / Let it roll / Let it go"

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