2004 THUNDER RIVER - DEER CREEK HIKE
Betty and I arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon early on the morning of Tuesday, the 28th of September, 2004. We went directly to the backcountry reservation office to adjust our hiking permit for the next day. I had been given Upper Tapeats campsite for the next night, and Lower Tapeats for the second night. We wanted to spend both nights at Upper Tapeats. Luckily for us, it was no problem and the ranger reissued the permit. The ranger also adjusted our permit for only two hikers, not the six I had originally requested. The loss of four hikers resulted in forfeited fees, but I received a ďhiker creditĒ that can be applied to any permit applied for in the next year.
The next stop for Betty and me was the camper store to pick up breakfast items for the next morning, then the gift shop for post cards. We filled out the post cards as we ate lunch in the rim deli, mailed them at the post office after lunch and headed out to the trailhead.
The Bill Hall trail takes off the north rim from Monument point. Monument point is about thirty miles down gravel Forest Service roads. It took about an hour to reach the trailhead and find a nice campsite. Betty is a river guide friend of mine. She does a lot of hiking and backcountry skiing in the winter and has actually skied to the North Rim and hiked across the Canyon. We have done several river trips together, but this is to be our first backpacking trip. I try and do at least one Canyon backpack trip per year.
At the trailhead, we start to organize our packs. We will carry six liters of water to start. We will each stash two liters of water, along with the last nightís dinner and morningís breakfast on the Esplanade. Our last night in the Canyon will be on the dry Esplanade. As I am organizing my pack the first glitch in our plan becomes apparent. My pack is missing a screw that holds the shoulder straps to the frame. One screw is still attached, but this is a potentially trip ending problem. Betty and I tear my tool kit apart looking for the right sized screw to fix my pack. Finding none, we start to remove various screws from the truck, all to no avail. We find none that will work.
Not wanting the two hour round trip drive back to the developed rim to look for the right sized screw, I try to fix my pack with a piece of bailing wire. I try to thread the wire through the screw hole but have no success. In frustration I look up and see the license plate of the truck. Big aha moment! I get my trusty screw driver, remove a screw from the license and voila, it fits! Just like it was made for the pack! The packs are organized just as a storm moves across our rim position. We hunker down in the back of the pickup, under the topper shell. Lightening flashes are quite frequent and thunder crashes around us. When the storm passes, we crawl out of the truck to find a plume of smoke rising from a ridge down in the canyon in front of us. Lightening has obviously struck a tree there.
Unsure what we should do, Betty gets out her cell phone and walks around looking for a signal. I am reminded of the commercial, ďCan you hear me now?Ē Oddly enough, she finds a signal and gets through to a 911 operator and reports the fire. We heat up our home made turkey soup for dinner while watching the smoke plume. We finish dinner just as another storm moves through. When the rain lets up, the smoke plume is gone. The storm is just getting going however. We settle into the back of the pickup. Lightening flashes, thunder crashes and rain pours hard all night long. We both toss and turn, not getting any sleep to prepare us for a ten mile hike to the bottom of the Canyon in the morning.
Finally the alarm on my wristwatch sounds six am. It is still raining, although the lightning and thunder have moved on. We wanted to be on the trail at first light, but canít make ourselves move out into the cold, dark, wet morning. Sunrise is seven-twenty on our daylight savings time watches. I sit in my sleeping bag drinking hot coffee from my thermos. As the sky starts to lighten, the rain finally stops. We get out of our bags and into our hiking boots. We smear cream cheese on sun dried tomato bagels and drink our orange juice. We break our camp and drive the short distance to the trailhead. We don our packs understanding how the mules on the Bright Angel and Kaibab trails must feel, and set off at eight am.
The Bill Hall trail wanders along the rim over to the actual Monument point. There it drops off into the abyss. It is steep with loose rocks making footing treacherous. I hate going down, always feeling like Iím going to slide, nonstop to the bottom. A short while later we have arrived at a fifteen foot drop in the trail. We knew about this section of trail and get the rope out to lower our packs. Unencumbered by packs, the climb down is not too difficult. Bill Hall drops two and a half miles down a drainage to the Esplanade. We meet the Thunder River trail junction around ten am. As we meander along the Esplanade we look for a good place to spend our last night in the Canyon and to stash our extra food and water. A suitable place is found near a red rock overhang. Our packs are lightened of four pounds of water and extra food. We rest, eat some gorp, and drink some water. Energized by our rest and snack we continue on, looking for the place the trail descends through the red wall limestone.
Unfortunately we start this descent around eleven am. The drop is steep, through hot red rocks. There are no trees for shade, just a seemingly endless stretch of steep, loose, scorched rocks going down. We are nearing the bottom of the red wall, and the start of Surprise Valley when we find a large rock situated perfectly along the trail to provide shade. The sand at the bottom of the rock is still damp from last nightís rain. We drop our packs and collapse onto the cool, shaded sand. Propping our feet up on our packs helps shaky legs return to normal. We eat our lunch and drink our Gatorade in our tiny oasis in the desert. We have been hiking for six hours and are only two thirds of the way to our goal. We have a couple of miles through Surprise Valley and a mile down past Thunder River to our campsite at Upper Tapeats Creek.
We must move onward and downward. We meander over the valley, hot again. Finally we hear the roar of Thunder River. But this is the Grand Canyon. We hear the roar of water long before we are allowed to actually feel its refreshing coolness. Down we must go. We see other hikers at Thunder Spring and wave. Finally we reach their position. I collapse, dizzy on the trail. Betty takes the water filter and goes to fill our bottles. I rest, too tired to really enjoy the miracle of Thunder Spring. We eat some jerky and drink the cool water. But we are still not home. One last, downhill mile remains to Upper Tapeats campsite. After ten hours of hiking, we arrive, exhausted. The hikers we met at Thunder Spring are camped at Upper Tapeats. We chat with them about the route to Deer Creek along the river. They hiked over yesterday along this route and recommend we try it. They are camped in the primo place but tell us a nice site is about fifty yards down the creek. We notice they have thrown gorp along the trail and we are not too excited by their camping tactics. We find the nice place along the creek and drop our packs.
We carry no tents, just sleeping pads, sleeping bags and bivy sacks. These we lay out on a tarp. Water is boiled and dinner is rehydrated in its foil package. I eat rehydrated chicken ala king, Betty has lasagna. It tastes great. We even have dessert, some raspberry chocolate crumble thing we rehydrated. It fills the hole in our stomachs. We clean up the dishes and hang food up in a tree away from gnawing little mice teeth and stretch out on our pads for a well deserved rest. Thatís when the rains come again. Too tired to do anything else, we pull the tarp over our bags and settle in. We actually stay pretty warm, dry and comfortable. The sound of raindrops on the tarp lulls us to sleep and we rest soundly.
The next day dawns dry, clear and warm. The day is ours to do as we please. We could hike back up to Thunder Spring and spend the day in its cool paradise. We could hike up Tapeats Creek to a branch we have never explored. Or we could hike down to the river to spend the day. Tomorrow we will have to hike over to Deer Creek and neither one of us is looking forward to a trip back up to Surprise Valley and over to Deer Creek. We think a new trail along the river sounds enticing but we are unsure of the route. We hope to talk to the sloppy guys who recommended the route, but they are up early and gone in the morning before we have a chance to talk with them. We claim their primo campsite, clean up their leftover trash and decide to hike to the river. If we find the river trailhead, we will hike that route tomorrow.
It is two and a half miles to the river from Upper Tapeats. Hiking in river sandals with no heavy packs makes the journey a downright delight. The trail goes through a beautiful valley full of cacti. Unfortunately in the fall, they have no blooms, but we can imagine being here in spring, the valley would be a riot of color. We arrive at the river where biodegradable soap is allowed. We clean up and cool off in the muddy Colorado River. All the rain has made it truly the ďRio Colorado,Ē it flows a chocolate brown. Cleaner and refreshed we eat our lunch and dry out in the sun. Then we head down river in search of the route to Deer Creek. We find it easily and decide to be adventurous tomorrow.
We filter water into our bottles from the creek and head back up to our camp. The rest of the afternoon is spent relaxing in the shade of camp and reading our books. I write in my journal. After dinner and dishes, we stretch out again on our sleeping pads. The night is clear and the sky is full of bright stars. Sleep comes easily. I awaken once in the night when one small cloud directly overhead drops about five raindrops on us. Itís not enough rain to crawl under the tarp.
In the morning we eat breakfast and pack up. Loaded down like pack mules again, we head for the river. We reach the river around nine am, just as a river trip is packing their rafts. Some of their group hikes up the trail past us, heading for Thunder River and over Surprise Valley, down Deer Creek, where their rafts will pick them up in the afternoon. We wonder who will reach Deer Creek first. We have a snack, fill up our water, and head down river towards Deer Creek. It is easy walking for a bit, when we head uphill into Bonita Creek. The uphill part isnít too bad. At the top we stop to wonder where the trail drops back down. It canít possibly be the fifty foot drop in front of us. We look in vain for an alternate route, but find none. Again the rope comes out so we can lower the packs. The climb down is better sans pack, but it is still treacherous. Betty lowers the packs from the top. I maneuver the packs from below. This means I climb up and down this section of trail several times. It probably takes us an hour to get past this trail obstacle. At the bottom we are close to the river again so we soak hats and shirts to cool off. It is hot hiking along the river where the trail follows for a mile or so.
Eventually the trail heads up a drainage and follows along a shelf above the river. The views are wonderful and we can see rafts pulled over down stream at Deer Creek Falls. It is hot, but a nice breeze is blowing and we even get a few clouds over the relentless sun. We find a nice shady spot behind a rock and take a break. Betty is hot and nearly out of water. Iím hot, but my water is holding out and I even have half a liter of Gatorade left. The trail finally turns back from the river, around a butte into the Deer Creek drainage. Again we see and hear the water long before we reach it. But reach it we do, around four pm. We change into river sandals and ford the cold water of Deer Creek. A quarter mile upstream we find the designated campsite and drop our packs. A short time later the group that hiked over from Tapeats passes us. We decide we had chosen wisely to do the river trail.
We fall into camp routine, laying out sleeping pads, setting up the kitchen area, hanging food and trash from trees. The campsite at Deer Creek is beautiful and we are blessed to be here. A fat lizard is living near the outhouse and startles us each time we visit the facilities. As the sun sets after dinner the mice come out in force. They are brave and brazen little critters, trying to get into our food right in front of us. We double check the hanging food, and make sure nothing is left lying around, and hope for the best. Betty decides to use her pack for a pillow and ends up spending the night chasing mice away from her head. She also kills a scorpion trying to get into her sleeping bag.
Saturday morning and Deer Creek is ours to explore for the day. Again we put on our river sandals, pack water bottles and lunch and head down the creek towards the river. Deer Creek enters a spectacular narrows above the falls and the trail follows along the top of sculpted sandstone. Water flows over and down the sandstone, some areas never seeing the sun. Other places cottonwood trees grow streamside. It is only a mile or so from camp to the river. The trail veers away from the creek to descend to the river, where the creek makes its final 150 foot fall that is Deer Creek Falls. A group of boys and counselors pass us on their way to the falls. They have left their packs in Surprise Valley and are just day hiking for lunch at Deer Creek Falls. They have a long day ahead of them, as they are camping at Upper Tapeats.
The next day we will hike up to the Esplanade for our last night in the Canyon. Betty is worried about the climb. Iím an oddball hiker who actually prefers hiking up as opposed to down. I reassure Betty that she can do it and caution her against psyching herself out. We do agree to get an early start in the morning to avoid hiking up the red wall in the heat of the day.
We discuss the issues of hiking in the dark and what time to leave in the morning. Betty is willing to leave at midnight. While I am willing to hike for a bit in the dark, I insist on getting some sleep. We agree to get up at four thirty am, to be hiking at six. I tell Betty that if we do this we should be on top of the red wall by ten. She is skeptical. We make dinner and organize our packs as much as we can for the morning. We try and outsmart the mice by hanging our trash and food. It is a quiet night, I am sad to be leaving. Betty is battling her own uphill hiking demons. We read, I write in my journal and we fall asleep as the stars start to decorate the night sky.
Those stars greet us when my alarm sounds four thirty. We quickly and efficiently go about the morning business. Water is boiled for coffee and oatmeal; water bottles are topped off with the filter. Sleeping bags are stuffed and pads rolled up. A last visit to the fat lizard at the toilet and we are ready to hike at our planned six am. It is still very dark and we proceed with headlamps searching out the trail. We arrive at the crossing of Deer Creek and search for the proper place to cross in the dark. Betty gets across and searches for the trail continuation. We climb up past Deer Spring in the dark, hearing its waters but seeing nothing. Finally nearing Surprise Valley, the sun comes up enough to switch off our headlights.
It is nice hiking in Surprise Valley in the cool shade of early morning. We stop for a break near the bottom of the red wall, having hiked nonstop for three hours. A snack, some water and Gatorade and we are ready for the push up to the Esplanade where we will spend the night. Most of the climb is still shaded, and it is still early enough that the areas in full sun are not too hot. We pass a hiker headed down. He is one of a group of six all spread out along the trail. I have promised Betty that if we started hiking at six, we could be on the Esplanade by ten. At ten-thirty we hit the Esplanade and take a long, early lunch break. A nice breeze is blowing on the Esplanade and the hiking is pleasant. We have a couple of miles to go to our food and water cache and eveningís camp. There are still some potholes of water from the rain four days ago. We filter another liter of water and fill another liter with water we will boil for dinner. We find our cache and overhang camp at one.
Our camp faces west in anticipation of a wonderful sunset. The afternoon sun beats down on our position though and we retreat into the shadows of a small cave formed by the overhang. We nap, read our books, I write in my journal. It is actually cool in the cave when a breeze blows through. It is a very pleasant afternoon and when we are hungry, we boil water for our last evening meal. Dehydrated peas and a foil pack of tuna enhance dehydrated tuna noodle casserole. Cheddar cheese is melted in the mess and we eat our fill. The group of boys we met at Deer Creek Falls passes us on the trail headed up. They will hike out tomorrow too. As the sun sinks lower in the west, we clean up the dishes and prepare our bedrolls. I get out my digital camera and take lots of pictures as the setting sun paints the clouds a brilliant gold fading to orange, then red, then darkness sinks into the canyon. We had figured the night on the Esplanade would be chilly, but the rock absorbed the afternoon sun and radiated its heat all night long. Sleep overcomes us and we rest well.
With only three miles and 1200 feet of elevation gain to accomplish on our last day, we decide we can wait for the sun to come up before we start our hike out. Still, it is dark when the alarm goes off at six and we fix breakfast and pack our packs for the last day. We have this procedure so figured out now, that we are ready to go long before the sun illuminates the trail. We sit and wait for the light in the cool of the pre dawn. When the stars fade and we can see the cairns on the trail, we start.
A short time up the trail and we pass the boys still in their sleeping bags. They have camped just before the Indian Hollow/Bill Hall trail junction. We pass them quietly and turn up Bill Hall. We make good time in the cool morning shade, stopping to take last pictures and enjoy the views of the sun touching distant canyon walls. We take a break to enjoy our last day here. Climbing steadily we reach the fifteen foot cliff where we lowered packs on the way down. Betty decides she will climb up with her pack. I watch her and think perhaps I will do the same. She gets hung up near the top and I change my mind. When she struggles past the top of the cliff, she throws a rope down for my pack. The climb up is relatively simple without the weight of the pack pulling me backwards. Just past the cliff, we meet two groups taking a break. We are very close to the rim now and we stop to chat for a bit, wanting to delay the inevitable end to our journey. We rim out and have the half mile to wander along the canyon edge to the trailhead. We reach our truck at ten, sad to leave the canyon behind, but happy to take off our packs.
We snack, take off hiking boots, load up the truck and head for the North Rim Lodge. We stop and make phone calls at the store on the paved road into the rim and catch up on the news from home. Then off to our cabin on the rim for hot showers and non dehydrated food. We lunch on a turkey sandwich at the deli and drink a beer in the room. Clean and refreshed we head to the sun room and patio and listen to a ranger talk about geology. We grab another beer in the bar after the talk and enjoy the views. We have dinner reservations at eight so there is plenty of time to relax and reflect on our hike. I meet up with an online acquaintance ready to start a hike day after tomorrow. The sun goes down, a thunderstorm blows through and it is finally time for dinner in the lodge. We enjoy a fine meal, a few drinks and celebrate the end of a great trip with a hot fudge sundae. In the morning we will head home to our everyday lives with another great Canyon memory to cherish.
[Editorís note - You may email comments to Marsha at: Canyonsun@aol.com ]
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