ALL HIKERS

THUNDER RIVER - DEER CREEK
May, 2009
Jonathan Upchurch

Pete White was Jon’s roommate at Northern Arizona University in the summer of 1967.  Pete was from Rockton, Illinois.  They had actually met earlier, in February, 1967, when their respective Boy Scout Councils selected each of them as Eagle Scouts to participate in a Report to the State event in Springfield, IL during Boy Scout Week.

Pete and Jon became reacquainted in 2007 when Pete as here at the Grand Canyon for a Grand Canyon Field Institute workshop and learned that Jon was living here.

Pete was scheduled to participate in a Field Institute trip to Supai on May 11 to 15, but that trip was suddenly cancelled because the Havasupai’s closed their village for the month of May due to the “swine flu” epidemic.  Jon quickly arranged a backcountry permit for the two of them to go to Deer Creek and Thunder River.

Sunday, May 10 – Jon departs Grand Canyon Village at 1:00 p.m. and arrives in Fredonia at 5:15 after stops in Cameron, Navajo Bridge and Jacob Lake (to buy two cookies for tonight’s desert).  After buying gas, Jon discovers he has a voice-mail message from Pete.  Pete has missed his turnoff from I-15 in Utah (driving from the Las Vegas airport).  Jon is able to connect with Pete at about 5:40; Pete is then in Hurricane, UT, about one hour’s drive away. 

Pete arrives at 6:40.  We agree to proceed to the trailhead, a distance of about 43 miles, more than half of it on gravel roads.  We realize it will be quite dark when we arrive.  We are leaving Fredonia at 6:50 and sunset is about 7:25. 

It is getting darker and darker as we drive deeper and deeper into Kaibab National Forest.  We have to stop a few times at intersections to make sure we don’t miss a turn.  About five miles from the trailhead, Jon suggests camping at a flat spot along the road.  Pete wants to keep going. 

Jon has been told by the Backcountry Office that there are some camping spots on the rim east of the trailhead.  We drive past two or three of them, all occupied.  We then find a smaller one (remember, it is pretty dark and hard to see) that is a little hard to drive into.  At 8:25 we pick that spot to camp at tonight. 

Pete has brought Heater Meals (the civilian equivalent of MREs – Meal Ready to Eat – used by the military).  To save time at this late hour, Jon eats one of these.  We each have a cookie from Jacob Lake.  We agree to get up at 4:30 a.m. (so as to hike as far as we can during a cooler part of the day) and go to bed at 9:30 p.m.  The mostly full moon rises about 9:30 and it is bright outside during the night.

Jon checked the NOAA weather forecast on Sunday morning.  It was to be extremely consistent, and hot, for the next four days.  At Grand Canyon Village the predicted high for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday was the same each day – 80 degrees – and a forecast of Sunny.  Phantom Ranch had a forecast high of 99 or 100 degrees each day with overnight lows of 54 degrees.

Monday, May 11 – Up at 4:30 a.m.  47 degrees.  It is beginning to get light (sunrise is at 5:25).  While we are preparing to go, a small pickup comes down the road.  Jon says hello to two fellows (about our age) who are heading down the Bill Hall Trail.  They say they have already been down the trail on a dayhike to cache food and water (we later learn they are on an 11 day trip).  One is from Flagstaff, one is from Boise.  The fellow from Flagstaff (Rob Jones) presented at the Second Hiking Symposium (October 20, 2007) on a hike down Snake Gulch and Kanab Creek (not in the National Park).  His website is www.wildernessvagabond.com.

We drive down to the Bill Hall Trailhead to leave Pete’s rental car there.  Sixteen cars (including one NPS law enforcement vehicle) are parked there – lots of folks in the Canyon!  We then drive Jon’s car to Indian Hollow and the Thunder River Trail trailhead.  There is a 24 inch diameter tree fallen across the road to Indian Hollow, but other cars have found a way to drive around it.  We arrive at Indian Hollow, park the car (one of only three cars here), and start our trip at 7:15.

The trail descends a very short distance from the rim and then contours west for a long distance.  The views of the (relatively) flat Esplanade are very different from the Canyon at Grand Canyon Village.  We can see Fishtail Mesa, Mount Sinyalla, Great Thumb Point, and Powell Plateau.  The trail finally descends through the Coconino Sandstone and down to the Esplanade, where we arrive at 8:30.

At 10:00 there is still some ice in one of Jon’s one-liter water bottles (he had frozen the entire bottle in the freezer before leaving home and then kept the bottles in an ice chest while en-route).  The hike on the Esplanade is relatively level.  Occasionally shade is offered by a house-size boulder or a Pinyon or Juniper tree.  The cryptobiotic soil on the Esplanade is amazing.  It takes about five hours to reach the junction with the Bill Hall Trail (at 12:15), causing Jon to wonder if this section of trail is really only five miles long.  There is a slight breeze to help keep us cool.  It is 82 degrees.

Near the trail junction, we search for a water source that Jack Pennington told Jon about.  We find the seep, some puddles, and the tadpole basin.  We now know that there is a source of water for the hike out, should we need water.  We also decide that we will not cache any of the water that we have carried down with us. 

Parts of the Esplanade easily remind Jon of slickrock country in Southeastern Utah – like some locations in the Needles District of Canyonlands.  There is a little breeze, which is very welcome, given the temperature.  We meet a group hiking out, who suggest that we might want to wait for cooler temperatures before hiking down into the oven of Surprise Valley.  After walking to the rim above Surprise Valley and taking a look at the landscape at 3:20, we decide to heed their advice and relax and nap until 5:00. 

Surprise Valley was created by a gigantic landslide, four miles long, that slid toward the Colorado River.  The landslide actually blocked the river, and forced the river to create a new channel.  That new channel, through igneous rock, is so young that the river is only 75 feet across (the river hasn’t had time to cut a wider channel). 

It is toasty in Surprise Valley, we are tired, and we must walk into a stiffer headwind to get to the west end of the Valley.  At 6:15 we cross over the saddle in the west end of Surprise Valley.  There are no good campsites in this “at-large” camping zone at this end of the Valley, but we want to be not too far from a water source.  At 6:40 we eventually find a flat spot large enough for both of us to camp and with some protection from the wind.  We cook dinner, and decide that it would be too long a walk (600 feet down and 600 feet back up) to fetch water at Deer Spring tonight.  We each have only about one cup of water remaining at bedtime.  Jon drank three and one-half liters of water on the trail today, plus three-fourths of a liter for dinner.

Before turning in for the night, we consider changing our itinerary for the next two days to backpack along the river between Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek.  Our original plan was to camp in Surprise Valley on the first and second nights and to do dayhikes to the Colorado River through Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek on days two and three.

Tuesday, May 12 – Up at 5:30 a.m.  68 degrees.  As we are packing our gear, a group comes hiking up from Deer Creek.  They had taken the route along the river and shared some of their experience with us, such as how to find this route where it leaves Deer Creek.  They mention that there is both an upper route and a lower route.  After talking to them, we feel more comfortable about taking the route along the river.

We are eager to reach Deer Spring because we have very little water. In fact, Jon runs out of water before we get there.  At 6:45 we start following the trail down the drainage.  The trail then makes its way down a steeper section before we arrive at Deer Spring at 7:30.  The water shoots out of a hole in the Muav Limestone above the contact between the Muav and the Bright Angel Shale and creates a free-fall waterfall about 50 feet high.  The flow is about two cubic feet per second.  In the alcove to the South, visitors have arranged slabs of rock in a variety of designs, including the “Throne Chair”.  We get water, have breakfast, look at the waterfall, and are able to do all of this before the sun rises above the rim above us.  Before we depart Deer Spring at 10:00, a group of about 10 dayhikers from a river trip arrives.

The trail continues to descend to the main north-south drainage of Deer Creek.  Here we cross a second branch of the stream that has about the same amount of flow as Deer Spring and which originates somewhere upstream.  It is then a short walk south to the Deer Creek campsites.  While we are sitting at a campsite, five of the dayhikers return from Deer Spring.  We visit with them and learn that they are from Russia.  At the campsite, we leave most of our gear, taking food and water with us for a dayhike to the Deer Creek narrows, Deer Creek Falls, and the Colorado River.

It is about a ten minute walk to the narrows.  Here, we begin to see a lot more people because almost all river trips stop at Deer Creek Falls.  Two of the people we meet are hikers – Joel (a winter seasonal ranger from the Everglades) and Kathy Carpenter (from Baltimore).  They started at Sowats Point, hiked down to Kanab Creek to the Colorado River, hiked upstream along the river to Deer Creek, and will be hiking out the Thunder River Trail to Indian Hollow.  At that point they are planning to hike cross-country to Sowats Point.  Joel says Kanab Creek is the most spectacular scenery he has seen.  He also says the hike along the river is the toughest he has ever done. 

Near the head of the narrows we see two ropes that have been installed by one group to aid their access to the narrows.  We can hear them down in the narrows.  There is a lot of water and it is fast moving - not to mention cold – that convinces us it is not a good idea to go there on our own.

The trail continues on a ledge above the chasm.  The chasm becomes deeper and deeper.  In places there is exposure on the trail and one walks very carefully.  There is a roar of noise from the water sloshing through the narrows.  We reach the brink of the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon (at the head of Deer Creek Falls) and look down.  The river beach is wall-to-wall with rafts!  There are lots of people down there. 

Pete stopped at Deer Creek on a river trip about three years ago.  The trail from here to the river is in the sun (hot) and steep.  He is not interested in going to the river.  Jon proceeds down.  There are lots of people.  People are eating lunch.  Groups are pumping and filtering large amounts of Deer Creek water for their water supply.  One group kindly tops off Jon’s half-empty water bottle with filtered water. A photo of Deer Creek Falls is a must.  Jon waits patiently for 15 minutes until there will be no people in the photo – just the falls. 

Jon dips his shirt in the water - the first of many times on this trip - to stay cooler on the hot, sun-exposed climb back to the top of the falls.  Jon carefully negotiates the exposed sections of trail on the ledge above the narrows.  But, since he is crouched over as he walks along, he manages to bang his head on a rock sticking out from the wall. 

Pete is relaxing at the head of the narrows, perhaps reading one of the five issues of The Economist (a British weekly newsmagazine) that he has brought along.  Jon takes photos of a 12 foot high waterfall at the beginning of the narrows.  Then he looks for a negative handprint (made by native Americans, probably centuries ago) that is described in a hiking guide.  Jon locates it above someone who is sitting in the shade.  Jon and the fellow exchange introductions.  Jeff Carpenter is a river guide with Grand Canyon Expeditions.  Jon mentions that he took a raft trip in 1976.  Jeff asks who was the boatman.  Jon says Brian Dierker.  Jeff says that Brian was recently a movie star in a Sean Penn film entitled “Into the Wild”.  Brian played a 1970’s era hippy.

After learning that Jon lives in Grand Canyon Village, Jeff mentions that his brother-in-law (sitting on the other side of Deer Creek) is the next door neighbor (in Oklahoma) of a summer seasonal ranger who worked at Desert View last year.  I go talk to Joe Vaughn.  Kris Bowline is his neighbor.  Kris is working at Rocky Mountain National Park this year.  Jon talks with Joel some more.  Joel says to say hello to Pat Ramsey, a South Rim Interpretive Ranger that he worked with at The Everglades.  It’s a small world!

A group of dayhikers passes through who hiked up Tapeats Creek, past Thunder River, across Surprise Valley, and now are hiking down Deer Creek.  Their rafts will pick them up at Deer Creek Falls.

Joel demonstrates his ultraviolet light water purifier and purifies a half liter of water for Jon.  Joel says the battery has lasted for several days.

Eventually, we walk back to the campground, get a water supply, pick up our gear, and make a purposely late afternoon start on the route paralleling the river.  We find the beginning of the route at 4:30.  Jon looks down at the dusty trail.  Jon says to Pete, “What does it mean when all you can see on the trail are lizard tracks [there are lots of them] and no human footprints?”  I guess it means there are lots of lizards. 

It is about four miles from here to Tapeats Rapids at the mouth of Tapeats Creek.  For the first two and one-half miles the trail is high above the river.  It then descends to 135 Mile Rapid where we plan to spend the night.  The entire route is easy to follow.  It first ascends for a short distance to a saddle.  150 yards beyond we come to a split in the trail.  This must be the upper route and lower route that we were told about.  We choose the upper route.  For a half-mile or more we can see the lower route below us.  Then we lose track of it.  We don’t know exactly where it rejoined the upper route.  Eventually, the route makes a descent of about 600 feet to the river.

The high portion of the trail is above the Granite Narrows of the river.  When the landslide occurred that created Surprise Valley, the landslide blocked the river and forced the river to erode a new channel further to the south.  The next morning, from the beach at 135 Mile Rapid, we can see the location of the old river channel.

There are lots of cobbles and boulders on the beach at the rapid.  After arriving at 6:15, we each take a bath and have dinner.  We then move to a sandy, flat area away from the river that has a little protection from the wind and a large rock on which to set our gear.  The sand here appears to have been deposited by the “high flow event” of March, 2008.  The wind dies down and it is calm overnight.  85 degrees at 8:00 p.m.  My sleeping bag, which is rated for 15 degrees, will be more than adequate tonight.

Wednesday, May 13 – Depart our campsite at 7:15 a.m..  The trail makes its way along the river through cobbles, boulders, and sand for a mile and a half to Tapeats Creek and rapid.  Along the way there is one diabase dike to scramble over.  The climb is not difficult.  As we come over the top of the dike, we see rafts coming down the river, above the rapid, and through the rapid.  We see two boats pull in to the beach below the rapid.  The people in these rafts will do a dayhike up Tapeats Creek to Thunder River, across Surprise Vally, and down Deer Creek, to be picked up there by the two rafts.

We arrive just below the rapid at about 8:15 and say hello to the raft parties.  Pete generously donates two issues of The Economist to the library for the rafts.  While Pete is doing this, Jon sees a group of four women with backpacks.  The first is wearing a Volunteer-in-the-Park shirt, the second says she works at the South Rim.  The last two are backcountry law enforcement rangers, complete with their handgun weapons. 

Backcountry rangers will talk to everyone they meet, to make sure backcountry users have no problems or injuries, or have other need for help, and also to make sure that each group has a proper backcountry permit.  Anne Peterson asks to see my backcountry permit and asks me where we stayed last night.  She looks are the permit and says we were supposed to be in Area AM9 last night and that area includes only Surprise Valley.  The maps show that AM9 comes all the way down to the river and includes 135 Mile Rapid beach.  This disagreement is resolved when the second ranger (Della Yurcik) joins us and agrees with me that we have stayed in a proper location. 

Anne and Della ask us about the route to Deer Creek.  They have heard from other hikers that there are both an upper and a lower route.  Although Della has hiked this route before, she was unaware of two routes.  We explain what we saw.  Then Della says to Anne, “should we tell them about the toilet?”  The day before, they helped to install a new backcountry toilet at the Upper Tapeats campsite (our destination for tonight).  We will have the opportunity to inaugurate it.

Pete and I stop to look at the confluence of Tapeats Creek and the river.  There is a lot of water in Tapeats Creek, most of it originating from Thunder River Spring.  Tapeats Creek is entrenched in a gorge for the first mile or so upstream.  For that reason, the trail ascends quickly.  Once at the top, there is a side trail that leads west to viewpoints both upstream and downstream.  We leave our packs at the main trail while we take the side trail.  Portions of this side trail are somewhat exposed and Jon proceeds carefully, somewhat crouched over at some locations.  Once again, he manages to bang his head on a protruding rock.  Pete asks if Jon damaged his Tilley hat.  The views are good.

The main trail descends to Tapeats Creek and we stop at a shady spot to get water.  For the next two miles or so there are trails on both the east and west sides of Tapeats Creek.  The trail on the east side follows the stream and is a gentle uphill grade.  The east side trail, however, requires two fords of the stream.  The water is knee deep, fast moving, and about 20 feet wide.  Pete says that river parties will string a rope across the ford to assist those crossing the stream.  The ford looks a bit difficult, so we decide to follow the trail on the west side.  The west side trail, unfortunately, does not stay at stream level because the cliffs come right down to the stream.  That means we go up to gain elevation, walk along the top of the cliffs, come back down, and repeat this sequence three different times.  We are in the sun the entire time and it is hot.  We made a good decision.  When we find the ford at the north end we find that the creek is narrower, and the water deeper and faster.

Finally, we arrive at Upper Tapeats campsites.  Rob and his companion (Jon talked to them early Monday morning as they drove by our rim campsite) are keeping cool in the shade at one of the campsites.  They spent two nights here at Upper Tapeats and will be moving on to Lower Tapeats later in the afternoon after it gets cooler.  They recommend this site as the one that gets shade the earliest in the afternoon (about 3:30).  We decide we will occupy this site tonight. 

Rob and his buddy were here on Tuesday when the new toilet was installed.  A helicopter flew in the new toilet and flew out the old (very full) toilet.  Rob says he has many photos of flying toilets and will be posting the photos on his website.  I’m sorry we missed the excitement and vow to look at the photos online.

It is hot this afternoon (92 degrees in the shade at 4:00) and, although we do a little exploring in the immediate vicinity, we don’t venture far.  It turns out that we are the only ones staying at Upper Tapeats tonight.

Thursday, May 14 – Jon is up at 4:10 a.m.  75 degrees and the moon is just rising over the rim of the Tapeats gorge. It is 10.4 miles to the Bill Hall Trailhead and about 4500 feet of elevation gain.  We want to get an early start to get the first two uphill sections out of the way and be out of Surprise Valley before it gets too hot.  We are on the trail at 5:20 a.m. (sunrise is 5:30).

Thunder River joins Tapeats Creek a short distance upstream of the campsites and the trail begins climbing parallel to Thunder River for an 800 foot ascent to Thunder River Spring.  We climb higher and higher and are rewarded by views of the Spring.  A short side trail leads to the Spring itself and we get water, admire the view, and take advantage of the air conditioning provided by the evaporating spray of falling water.  Thunder River spring just comes out of a hole in the rock, as did Deer Spring, but the volume of water is much larger.

At 6:55 we begin six hundred more feet of climbing to bring us to the east end of Surprise Valley.  There are a few nice campsites here.  The trail then descends slightly while we travel west and before beginning the ascent out of the Valley.  Just after we start up the trail out of the Valley we meet a group of about ten backpackers who say they are from Wyoming and are on a training exercise to serve as backcountry guides in Wyoming this summer.

By 10:05 we reach the top of the climb out of Surprise Valley.  We are now back on the Esplanade.  On the way up we have rejoined the route that we followed coming down on Monday.  We reach a shady rock overhang and find another ten backpackers.  They tell us they are from Wyoming.  It turns out they are the companion group to the first group of Wyoming hikers.  These folks will be guiding in the Wind River Range (and other locales) in Wyoming.  Jon asks them for suggestions on five to six day trips for someone who has never been to the Wind Rivers before.

At 10:45 it is time for three more miles across the Esplanade to the Bill Hall trail junction.  There some breeze, which keeps us from getting too hot.  Upon reaching the trail junction at 12:15, we take inventory of our water supply.  We decide we need to get some water from the tadpole basin.  At 1:07 we begin the ascent of the Bill Hall Trail.  It is either 2.5 or 3.4 miles to the trailhead, depending on which source of information you use.  Above the Coconino Sandstone there is a short, but easy, scramble up a steep section.  The ever higher elevation gives us ever more impressive views of the surrounding canyon.  Upon rounding to the east side of Monument Point, there are expansive views of the Tapeats Amphitheater, Muav Saddle, and the Powell Plateau.  Eventually we reach the rim and then hike to the trailhead, arriving at 3:35.  There are 15 cars here, although, from the people we have seen, we know that a couple must belong to short dayhikers.

It is time to car shuttle to the Indian Hollow Trailhead.  When at Deer Creek we volunteered to give Joel and Kathy a ride from Indian Hollow to Sowats Point if they happened to be at Indian Hollow when we returned to retrieve our vehicle.  Just before arriving at the trailhead, we meet them walking along the road.  Pete gives them a ride to Sowats Point, as he only needs to get as far as Kanab this evening.  There are only three vehicles at Indian Hollow.

We depart Indian Hollow at 4:40.  Jon arrives at Jacob Lake at 6:05 and buys another cookie.  The Forest Service campground at Jacob Lake is open, as is a commercial campground.  There are RVs doing at-large camping in the national forest.  It looks like there are lots of people “chomping at the bit” for the gate on State Route 67 to open the following morning at 7:00 a.m. after a long winter closure.  After dinner at the Cameron Trading Post, Jon is home to Grand Canyon Village at 10:25 p.m.

This was a great hike.  Jon took about 90 photographs.

30 total miles and 6500 feet of elevation gain.

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