DEER CREEK / THUNDER RIVER BACKPACK – OCTOBER, 2013
Jon first hiked these trails in May, 2009 with Pete White. Betty did not go on the May, 2009 hike so we decided to take this hike so that she could see Deer Creek and Thunder River.
The theme of this trail journal is mice.
Sunday, October 20: Originally, we had planned to drive to the Bill Hall trailhead at Monument Point and camp overnight, rising early to get an early start down the trail. Sunrise would be at about 7:45 a.m. and sunset about 6:45 p.m. The weather forecast was for a low of about 30 degrees at the trailhead. The low temperature and the late sunrise persuaded us to stay at a motel in Kanab, get up early, and drive to the trailhead on Monday morning.
The weather forecast for the week was good; no precipitation was predicted. Skies were to be sunny every day (except Thursday, which was to be mostly sunny). Highs and lows were to be about 80 degrees and 50 degrees at the bottom of the Canyon and 60 degrees and 30 degrees on the rim. These temperatures are much better than those in May, 2009 – highs of about 100 at the bottom of the Canyon and 80 degrees on the rim.
Monday, October 21: Up at 5:00 and leave Kanab at 5:55. The 55 mile drive to the trailhead took until 7:37 (more than half the distance is on unpaved Forest Service roads). Most of the drive is in the dark. There were eight vehicles parked at the trailhead, including a National Park Service SUV. It wasn’t long until backcountry ranger Francis appeared. Having lived in Grand Canyon National Park for six years, we had a nice conversation with him. He briefed us on trail conditions and we asked him about the now ended government shutdown.
At 8:11 we started on the Bill Hall Trail. The trail actually begins by going slightly uphill to Monument Point. Then the trail begins to descend. At one point Betty discovered she had lost her water bottle. Jon walked back about seven minutes along the trail to find it at a point where she had sat down to get down a big step. From the upper parts of the trail we can see Fishtail Mesa, Great Thumb Point, Powell Plateau, Muav Saddle and Steamboat Mountain. During the first few hours we met a group of four from San Francisco and two hikers from Houston, all hiking out of the Canyon.
At 11:10 we reached the trail junction with the Thunder River Trail (coming from the rim at Indian Hollow). This point is 3.4 miles from the trailhead. In May, 2009 it took Jon and Pete five hours to hike from Indian Hollow to this point. From the May, 2009 trip Jon knew there was a good chance we could find a water pocket in a nearby drainage. There is no flowing water for the first nine to ten miles down the trail and we preferred not to carry water up the trail on our way out. So, we found the water source and placed two liters of water in a container to be cached near the trail to pick up on our return. While at the trail junction, four more backpackers came down the trail and one hiker was going up. After some lunch, we left the trail junction at 12:04.
The next three miles of trail are virtually flat, travelling across the Esplanade. Occasional shade is offered by a house-size boulder or a Pinyon or Juniper tree. The cryptobiotic soil on the Esplanade is amazing. Parts of the Esplanade are similar to the slickrock country in Southeastern Utah – like some locations in the Needles District of Canyonlands. At 2:04 we reach the rim of the Esplanade above Surprise Valley.
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).
From the Esplanade rim, there is another steep descent to Surprise Valley, followed by some level walking. Then another descent into the Deer Creek drainage. Part of this descent is very steep and slow going.
Late in the afternoon the trail passes Deer Creek Spring. 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 arrive here when there is only about ten minutes of direct sunlight remaining on the falling water. Jon scurries to take photos before the sunlight disappears.
We depart the spring at 6:06. There is still some more descent to the bottom of the valley and then some level walking along Deer Creek to the campsite. We arrive there at 6:40 (just before the real sunset). One other group of four hikers is camped in the campground; only two permits are issued to camp here each night.
By the time we finished dinner, it was nearly dark. It wasn’t long after that Betty saw a mouse. It’s a good thing that we had a metal mesh bag (often referred to as a “rat sack”) in which to store our food.
Tuesday, October 22: Up at 7:30. 41 degrees. Today’s plan includes a dayhike to the Deer Creek narrows, Deer Creek Falls, and the Colorado River.
It is about a ten minute walk to the narrows. Once in the narrows, the trail continues on a ledge above the chasm of Deer Creek. The chasm becomes deeper and deeper. There is a roar of noise from the water sloshing through the narrows. In three places there is quite a bit of exposure on the trail and one proceeds very carefully. Betty is able to get past the first two tight places; the third place just looks too scary for her. Jon takes her back through the first two tight places and Betty heads back to “The Patio” and the campsite. Jon then proceeds back through the narrows and to the brink of the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon (at the head of Deer Creek Falls).
How different the sight looks now from what Jon saw in May, 2009. Here are some excerpts from the May, 2009 trail journal.
“The river beach is wall-to-wall with rafts! There are lots of people down there.”
There are “a lot more people because almost all river trips stop at Deer Creek Falls.”
At the river “There are lots of people. People are eating lunch. Groups are pumping and filtering large amounts of Deer Creek water for their water supply.”
At the waterfall “Jon waits patiently for 15 minutes until there will be no people in the photo – just the falls.”
Today there is not a single raft on the beach and no people in sight. This is an after-effect of the government shutdown (more on that later).
The trail from the brink of the inner gorge to the river is steep. Jon hikes down, walks along the beach, and goes to the waterfall to take photos. There is evidence in the sand, on the beach, of only one raft having been here recently.
As Jon is walking down to the river an airplane appears overhead. It is flying very low. The plane flies around in a circle three times and then makes a couple of more passes. The aircraft looks a lot like the Park airplane that Jon had a chance to take a ride in a few years ago. This part of the Canyon is in a “no-fly” zone and no aircraft should be flying below the rim (except for the Park aircraft). The behavior of the plane makes Jon think it is the Park aircraft, but he wonders what it is doing. The mystery will be solved three days later.
As Jon is walking around near Deer Creek Falls, a backpacker suddenly appears. He introduces himself as Lance Jackson, from Kanab. He and four colleagues hiked from Indian Hollow and down Cranberry Canyon to the river. Two of them then pack-rafted down to Kanab Creek to hike out. The other two were going to hike out. Lance hiked up the river from Cranberry. On the May, 2009 hike Jon talked to two backpackers who had hiked up the river from Kanab Creek to Deer Creek Falls. They said it was the hardest hiking they had ever done. Lance confirmed it is hard. He once hiked the eleven miles from Kanab Creek to Deer Creek and it took 11 hours. Lance was now on his way out to Indian Hollow via the Thunder River Trail. Lance also mentioned that his family has lived on the Arizona Strip for several generations. As he departed, Lance said he would say hello to Betty in the campground and tell her Jon was safe and sound.
There is more to the story about Lance Jackson. Betty related the following from her conversation with Lance in the campground. Betty recalled that Lance’s father (maybe grandfather) Norm Jackson had visited the Grand Canyon Library (where Betty was the Librarian) a few years ago to do some family history research.
In his conversation with Betty, Lance said that his grandfather (or maybe it was some other ancestor) had once been running cattle on the Esplanade near SB Point when he found a cave. He went inside and found two skeletons and a military pouch. He was busy running cattle for several weeks, didn’t have time to further investigate, and had to be on his way. He attempted to relocate the cave later, but was never able to find it again.
After a few more photos of the waterfall, Jon made the steep climb up to the narrows. At “The Patio” he met Tom, from Tucson. He (and a colleague following some distance behind) had hiked from Lower Tapeats this morning. Jon finds four or five negative handprints (made by native Americans, probably centuries ago) on the east side of Deer Creek. A trail guide says there are also some on the west side, but Jon and Tom don’t find them.
After lunch we begin the route that heads southeast, toward Lower Tapeats. It is about four miles from Deer Creek 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 . The entire route is easy to follow. It first ascends for a short distance to a saddle. At the saddle we meet Tom’s colleague (Larry, from Austin). Larry takes panoramic scenic photos and posts them on the Internet (gcpano.com). Betty recognizes the website and tells Larry she has seen his pictures. A couple from Colorado also come by. Everyone coming from Lower Tapeats has taken the upper route. That will be our choice also; we have read that the lower route has some exposure.
150 yards beyond the saddle we come to a split in the trail where the upper and lower routes divide. For a half-mile or more we can see the lower route below us. Then we lose track of it. Even after hiking this section two times, Jon still hasn’t found where the lower route rejoins the upper route. Eventually, the upper 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. From the beach at 135 Mile Rapid, we can see the location of the old river channel in the cliff on the north side of the river.
The trail makes its way along the river through cobbles, boulders, and sand for a mile and a half to Tapeats Creek and rapid. It is slow going in this area. Along the way there is one diabase dike to scramble over. The climb is steep with very large steps, but is not too difficult. Betty takes off her pack and hands it up to Jon.
In preparation for this hike Jon looked at Google Earth to explore parts of the route. On Google Earth he noticed a small patch of beach just upstream of the dike. Sure enough, after crossing the dike there was a patch of sand, including a flat area large enough for a tent. And, at river’s edge there was a marvelous flat-topped boulder – perfect for a table. Stopped here to camp at 5:55. Nice views up and down the river. Loud, white noise all night long from the rapid.
Wednesday, October 23: Up at 6:55. 51 degrees. Start hiking at 9:04. It is only about half a mile of easy walking to Tapeats Creek. On the way, we meet the four guys who were at the Bill Hall / Thunder River trail junction on Monday. One of the group lives in Marble Canyon and works part-time for Hatch River Expeditions. He was a Jonathan Jarvis (Director of the NPS) look-alike.
We didn’t stop at Lower Tapeats campsite or at the mouth of Tapeats Creek. Instead, we went directly to the trail heading up Tapeats Creek. Tapeats Creek is entrenched in a gorge for the first mile or so upstream. For that reason, the trail ascends quickly. As we were proceeding up the hill, we saw a river raft, with one person in it, go through the rapids. Shortly thereafter we saw five people on shore, just above the rapid. Jon surmises that they have been dropped off here to do a dayhike up Tapeats Creek to Thunder River, across Surprise Valley, and down Deer Creek, to be picked up there by their raft. A short while later another raft party pulled in to the beach.
As we were climbing up the hill, the five day-hikers passed us. They had departed Lee’s Ferry on Saturday, October 12. That was the first day that any rafts were allowed to depart Lee’s Ferry since the beginning of the government shutdown. (The shutdown didn’t actually end until October 17, but the state of Arizona paid $93,000 a day to the National Park Service to allow Grand Canyon National Park to open on October 12.) That is why there had been no rafts or river-runners at Deer Creek the day before. The day-hikers from the second raft trip eventually passed us (15 of them). They had started on October 13 (it had actually originally been two groups – one with a permit to start on October 10 and the other to start on October 13. They both wound up starting on the 13th.)
After reaching the top of the hill, the trail had some mild exposure before dropping back down to Tapeats Creek. At the point where the trail again meets the creek, Jon did some scouting around. Our plan was to hike from here to Stone Creek (three miles upstream on the Colorado River). Stone Creek is at Deubendorf Rapid and is a stream where we did a dayhike on our 1976 river-rafting trip. Jon did some looking around to make sure this was the location where we wanted to cross Tapeats Creek. The creek has a lot of fast flowing water; picking a safe place to ford the stream is important.
As we had walked from the river to this point, we could see the “trail” to Stone Creek across the canyon of Tapeats Creek. It looked like it had some uncomfortable exposure. For that reason, we weren’t convinced that we really wanted to go to Stone Creek. Finally, we decided that we would cross the stream, start out on the route, but be completely prepared to abandon the route if we didn’t feel good about the drop-offs.
We crossed the stream and starting hiking the route at 11:30. In only ten minutes we decided that this route was not our cup of tea. We turned around and came back, re-crossing the stream by 12:00.
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 mostly a gentle uphill grade. The east side trail, however, requires two fords of the stream. In May, 2009 the water was knee deep, fast moving, and about 20 feet wide. The ford then looked a bit difficult and Jon and Pete decided to follow the trail on the west side. The west side trail, unfortunately, did not stay at stream level because the cliffs come right down to the stream. That means the trail goes up to gain elevation, passes along the top of the cliffs, comes back down, and repeats this sequence three different times. Pete and Jon were in the sun the entire time and it was hot. For this trip, Jon is eager to try the east side route.
Only 100 yards upstream we must cross to the east side. Jon finds a better crossing farther upstream where the water is only ankle deep. We cross and have lunch. The east side trail wasn’t exactly a piece of cake. There were two up-climbs of about 15 feet and steep. But, all in all, it was easier than the west side route. Eventually we re-crossed to the west side at another ford by the Upper Tapeats campsites. The water was more than knee deep at this location, with a fast current. We arrived at the campsites at 2:35.
We explored around a little bit. Then Jon crossed over to the east side of the creek and walked upstream about one-third of a mile (30 minutes walk, one-way). There was no real trail, although it was obvious that many others had beaten a path through the vegetation. Jon found the point where Thunder River empties into Tapeats Creek. There was also a nice stealth campsite about ten minutes up the creek.
It turned out that there was only one other party camping at Upper Tapeats this night, so there was space for us to camp. We visited with Sarah. She and her five colleagues had spent about six hours today hiking up Tapeats Creek a distance of about three miles. Just before dark, five hikers come walking through, going toward the river. They are part of the group of 15 that had passed us this morning. These five went up to Thunder River Spring and explored inside the cave from which the water flows.
This evening Betty sees a mouse after dusk. The next morning we discover that it had a chance to munch on our gorp. For the third consecutive night there is a lot of “white noise” from the stream to lull us to sleep tonight.
Thursday, October 24: Up at 7:20. 65 degrees. Some cloud cover had developed overnight, thus the warm temperature this morning. This was the day that had been forecast to be mostly sunny. Later in the day it turned out to be that way. On the trail at 8:58. This was a bit later than the 5:20 a.m. start that Pete and Jon had in May, 2009.
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. We arrive at 10:05 and we get water and admire the view. Thunder River spring just comes out of a hole in the rock, as did Deer Spring, but the volume of water is much larger. A couple from Germany arrives (headed downhill). The sun comes out while we are there. We depart at 11:10.
Jon has read two articles about the original route of the trail from Surprise Valley to Upper Tapeats. The trail likely originated as a trail created by prospectors and then was used later by cattlemen. In 1939 a portion of the original trail about one-half mile long was re-routed to pass closer to Thunder River Spring(the alignment used by hikers today). Jon is interested in trying to find the original route, now referred to as the Miners Trail.
More extensive descriptions of the Miners Trail are found in two similar (but not identical) papers by Peter Huntoon.
“The Opening of Deer Creek and History of the Thunder River Trail” in Boatman’s Quarterly.
“The Opening of Deer Creek and History of the Thunder River Trail” (Chapter 29 in the compendium for one of the Grand Canyon History Symposiums).
Jon is able to locate the upper end of the old alignment (at a saddle about 10 minutes walk up from Thunder River Spring) and he walks along it to the lower end, a walk that takes only 20 minutes. He takes some photos of the old trail to send to one of the park archeologists.
More climbing brings us to the east end of Surprise Valley. There are a few nice campsites here. There is also a huge boulder which was the site of a native American agave roasting pit (about 100 yards north of the trail and a few hundred yards west of the point where the trail drops down to Thunder River). The boulder also has some rock inscriptions from the past hundred years or so. The inscriptions include:
Royal Y Swapp Kanab, Utah Mar 16, 1938
F. M. Heaton Kanab Utah 3/16/38
Ed Laws 1924
“Walapai” Johnny Nelson was, among other things, a hunting guide for Big Saddle Camp (located on the Canyon rim a few miles east of Monument Point). [see page 143 of Mike Anderson’s Living at the Edge]
F. M. Heaton may be the Spike Heaton referred to on page 142 of Living at the Edge (Spike Heaton was another hunting guide).
The Swapps may be the Billy Swapp and Tuffy Swapp referred to on pages 133 and 144 of Living at the Edge (Billy and Tuffy are described as hunting guides, tourist guides, and wranglers / cowboys).
Ed Laws was an NPS ranger. Page 144 of Living at the Edge has a photo of Ed Laws at the North Rim entrance station in July 1930. Page 144 describes Laws as improving the trail from Indian Hollow to Thunder River in 1925 and 1926 (also documented on page 32 of Mike Anderson’s Polishing the Jewel). Laws also stocked Tapeats Creek with trout fry (page 143). He also stocked Shinumo Creek with trout in 1930 (page 145).
From the big boulder, the trail then descends slightly while traveling west and before beginning the ascent out of the Valley via the same trail that we came down on Monday. Going up, we meet a woman from Flagstaff going down.
We reach the top of the climb out of Surprise Valley and stop for a break. A tarantula walks past while we are resting. We also look for another short trail relocation here (an old historic route). Although we find a short stretch of rock retaining wall, that is all that we find.
The trail is now back on the Esplanade. We reach a shady rock overhang (facing north, about ˝ mile from the Esplanade rim above Surprise Valley) where we made a rest stop on Monday. Jon had walked to the top of the rock on Monday to take a photograph. To his surprise, he found a large pothole (as big as a bathtub) with about three inches of water in it. We stopped to fill up with water today, glad that we had had less to carry up from Thunder River.
Two other people had stopped at this location for the night. In the course of our conversation we realize that they are Grand Canyon National Park biologists who live in Grand Canyon Village. Betty introduces herself as the former Librarian. Brandon Holton and Janice Stroud-Settles are their names.
We walk another half-mile and find a place to camp on the Esplanade before 6:00. Although it has been mostly sunny since mid-morning, there are now more clouds. We fix dinner and eat it while watching spectacular light on the rocks and a brilliant sunset.
Just before we are ready to get in the tent for the night, there are brief sprinkles, as well as a lightning show in the northwest, beyond Fishtail Mesa. After getting in bed there another windy period with some sprinkles. The same thing happens briefly during the night. Sometime before daybreak Jon hears thunder rumbling.
Friday, October 25: Up at 6:35. 49 degrees. The tent is dry this morning. On the trail at 8:07. It is about two miles across the Esplanade to the Thunder River / Bill Hall trail junction. There is a group of five camped by the twin mushroom rocks. We meet Tom from Tucson hiking out. Then there is another group of five to eight hikers camped. Just before the trail junction we meet a solitary hiker. The trail junction offers a good 16 minute break from 9:15 to 9:31 and we pick up our two liters of cached water.
Heading up the Hermit Shale slope we find one fellow camped in a tent. He had the misfortune of hitting a deer with his rental car on the way to the trailhead. Going up the slope below the Coconino Sandstone there are 49 switchbacks. At switchback number 40 Larry (from Austin) is taking a panoramic photo. Above the Coconino Sandstone there is a short, but easy, scramble up a steep section. Just below this point two young guys are practically running down the trail. They are followed by an older guy from Colorado City.
While we are at the climb up section, Brandon and and Janice come up the trail. It is only now that we learn that they were out on official business for the Park. Remember the Park aircraft that was circling Deer Creek on Tuesday morning? Brandon was in the airplane. There was a female Desert Bighorn Sheep with a radio collar. The telemetry indicated that it had not moved its location for several days and was likely dead. Brandon was in the aircraft attempting to get a better fix on the ewe’s location (thus the reason for the aircraft circling and making additional passes). Brandon and Janice then hiked in to Deer Creek and found the sheep’s body. (Among other things, they were interested in the possible cause of death. In this case, death was not caused by a mountain lion attack.) By Friday morning they were hiking out.
At 11:06 we leave the climb up / scramble. Between there and the rim we meet two more parties of two hikers each. At 12:35 we arrive at the trailhead. 17 vehicles are parked there.
We go to Crazy Jug Point to eat lunch. Then drive home.
29 total miles and 6800 feet of elevation gain. A fine hike.
We have spent the night in our tent 35 nights this year.