Sputtering into the Bill Hall Trail parking area with my brakes all but shot, I felt as if I had landed on the moon. Blackened tree trunks and barren ground were all that remained in the wake of the Bridger’s Knoll fire that swept across this ridge in July. The smoke rolling from beneath my ’79 LeMans was a drop in the ocean compared to the inferno that had charred over 50,000 acres. This windswept ridge would serve as the launching point of my Thunder River/Deer Creek backpack and rendezvous with a GCFI class in progress. Bill Austin, president of GCA’s board of directors, happened to be coming off his own annual outing to the area and he gave me the scoop on water availability and the unseasonably warm temperatures. A glance at his sweat-drenched party made it clear that I was getting a late start, so I quickly assembled my gear, drew a sigh at my misbehaving vehicle, and hit the trail.
The Bill Hall Trail instantly confronts one with sweeping views of the western Grand Canyon as it drops precipitously from Monument Point. My attention was glued instead to my size 11s and the challenge before them. I found my own brakes overheating as the route plummeted through the upper tiers of the North Rim. A few hours later, my surroundings leveled off at the junction of the Thunder River Trail and the broad pothole-peppered Esplanade. This intriguing terrain was starkly beautiful, and changed with each contour around countless dry, fingerlike drainages that deepened, widened, and then twisted out of view. My heart rate leveled off as well, and I felt the stress of the frantic morning’s journey from the South Rim dissipate into the vastness that encircled me. The remainder of the day was mine to find a patch of shade beneath one of the curvaceous sandstone boulders, read a good book, and watch the October sun slowly concede to a canopy of stars.
After a good night’s sleep I found that a pocket mouse with an earlobe fetish succeeded where my wristwatch alarm had failed. I rose as the morning sun bathed either rim and began its own descent of sorts. Despite the early morning shivers (courtesy of the crisp fall air), I knew that the race was on to beat the sun and its triple-digit heat to the canyon’s depths. I made quick work of the jagged Redwall cliff and ever-toasty Surprise Valley with my sights set on Thunder River—a sparkling waterfall tumbling from deep within the canyon walls. The sound of Thunder River’s cool promise replacing the shrill call of the desert cicada is one of the subtle milestones that mark a hike such as this. Soon I had crystal-clear water lapping at my ankles, canyon wrens serenading from a towering cottonwood tree, and cold Spam crawling down my gullet (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).
Rejuvenated, I wasted no time skirting the “world’s shortest river” to its junction with Tapeats Creek, and then headed on to the Colorado River and instructor Ken Walters’ class. Ken’s focus on this trip was orienteering, practical geology, and wilderness self-sufficiency. The group had followed my route days earlier, spent a few days off trail exploring Stone Creek, and then returned to Tapeats Creek and the sandy beach we would call home for the night. Participants ranged in age from seventeen to seventy, with a few familiar faces (LaVonne Barker and her stuffed bears Yuc & Yucca). We relaxed on the banks of the Colorado most of the day, chatting with one another and a rafting party who had endured the requisite ten-year wait for a private permit to run the river. The evening’s events included a geology “pop quiz,” basic knot-tying exercises, and food-hanging tips which thwarted the late night snacking plans of at least one ringtail. The hypnotic pulse of Tapeats Rapids drifting across our sandy camp ensured a good night’s rest.
The next day we hiked along the river to Deer Creek, stopping briefly to examine the evidence of the old river channel that was blocked long ago by huge sections of Redwall Limestone that slid into the canyon. Once in Deer Creek Canyon, we roped down into the narrows—a deep sinuous crevasse with a series of pools and falls that eventually gives birth to Deer Creek Falls. Although it was high noon, our chamber (slightly more than arms-length across) was dusk-dark, and echoed with the sound of the cascading, knee-deep water. Ken roped down a creepy waterfall that marked the end of the line for mere mortals. Deer Creek Falls was equally refreshing with its tumbling, hundred-foot high veil feeding a pool near the river’s edge. LaVonne (sans bears) waded out to the crashing pillar of water. The noise was deafening and accompanied by a constant rush of air that blew her about as if she were in a wind tunnel.
Back at the head of the narrows, a member of a park service resource trip tipped us off to a series of petroglyphs on the rocks directly above our lunch spot. The chiseled handprints were but one example of the numerous remains left by the early inhabitants of this paradise hundreds of years earlier.
We were blessed with another night watching the constellations chase each other across the moonless sky, only to disappear behind the ominous dark walls that enveloped us—walls that we would be scaling in a few short hours.
The hike out was slow and arduous as we ascended one layer of sedimentary rock after another. Our micro-goal of beating the sun to the top of the Redwall cliff kept everyone focused. We passed two large groups of backpackers on their way in. The Germans looked ill-equipped and out of shape. The boy scouts were scattered about and unconcerned with their potentially dangerous late start. I mustered the energy to share a few helpful hints about the tough road ahead—certain that my experience (not to mention my heavy panting) would lend me some credibility. They seemed uninterested, if not insulted, and strolled on towards the waiting furnace.
Our group was on their third wind by now, and making respectable time as Monument Point and our last few miles of terrain grew ever closer. Ken took advantage of the frequent breathers to test the group on map and compass skills, demonstrate the proper use of a tarp for shelter, and recap a week of practical geology.
I chose to skip Ken’s wrap-up session back at the trailhead in hopes of getting my car as close to civilization as possible in order to expedite a likely tow. The aspens had shed their golden leaves in the few days since my drive in, and the squirrels and deer seemed to have a greater sense of urgency with impending snow a few days closer. I wrestled with letting go of autumn and its near-perfect hiking conditions during the tenuous drive to the gas station at Jacob Lake. By the time I rattled into the chilly truck stop, I had accepted the inevitable change of seasons—as readily as I had accepted the $100 from a waitress for my wheezing Pontiac. C’est la vie.
Park Trail Description
- Thunder River/Deer Creek Trail Description (PDF – 37kb)