On October 17, 1999, our fearless group of Grand Canyon Field Institute hikers converged upon Jacob Lake Lodge near the North Rim of Grand Canyon. We ate some lunch in the restaurant, bought some homemade cookies and muffins from the bakery (yummy!), and headed out to Monument Point.
With plenty of sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures in the mid-70s, we set up camp near the Bill Hall Trailhead. We went through the equipment and food and got rid of what we could, decided on what we absolutely had to have, adjusted stays in some of the packs, and made any adjustments that were needed.
Knowing that it would be well below freezing that night, we had prepared carefully by bringing along a lot of extra clothing and blankets for that first night. Because the cold settled in as soon as the sun set, everybody made their way to bed very early. Some of us listened as the New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox in the run for the World Series. Others read their books, but it got too cold to even keep your hands out of the sleeping bag! The temperatures dipped so low that night; some of the water bottles left outside had frozen solid by morning. Brrrr!
We stayed pretty comfortable until our alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. Oh! Was it difficult getting out of bed and preparing in the dark! Whose idea was this anyway? Mine? Oh yeah! Well, it’s time to saddle up, folks.
With our first camp at Upper Tapeats an extremely tough, ten-mile hike away, we knew we had to get on the trail at first light. With freezing fingers that wouldn’t cooperate very well, we packed our gear, ate a quick bite, and loaded up to go.
Our packs were filled with enough gear and food for a six-day-long trip. That, with an extra gallon of water to leave on the Esplanade for our final night’s dry camp, tipped all of our packs well beyond the one-third of your bodyweight guideline. We all groaned as we put on our packs and made the final adjustments. It was time to go.
We had started out with our jackets, long pants, and gloves on, but within a half hour, we were all stripping down to shorts. The day was shaping up to be a warm one.
Our first major descent took us down to the beautiful red sandstone layer known as the Esplanade, one of the layers in the Supai Group. We chose what would be our final campsite on our way out at the end of the week and found a perfect place to stash our extra gallon each of water. How wonderful to get rid of those eight pounds! It was funny though; the packs were still awfully heavy!
After a mid-morning snack break, we strapped our packs on again and wove our way around the sinuous sandstone formations. It was pretty easy going, and the views were incredible, but all good things must come to an end. And the Esplanade does so abruptly! The trail looks like it stops at the very edge of the cliff and there simply cannot be a way off of it. And when you finally see the trail, it’s still hard to believe! The trail snakes it’s way off of the ledge in very steep, rocky switchbacks. Even looking up from Surprise Valley, it’s difficult to find the route on the immense cliff face.
By this time, everybody was getting very hot and tired. We would stop whenever there was shade, but those times were few and far between. And we still had quite a distance to go. I think a few in the group were ready to mutiny, but we finally came to a huge rock that supplied enough shade for the entire group. That, and wetting ourselves down with extra water, revived us all.
But the nicest surprise was just ahead. A few more steps and we could hear the roar of Thunder Spring. As we hiked down into the drainage, shade covered the tired hikers, cooling everyone down. Our legs were getting shaky, but at least it was getting cooler.
After leaving Thunder Spring, everybody’s mind was on just taking off their pack and crashing for the night. Unfortunately there were still some unnerving areas of the precipitous trail to cover. For anyone who has hiked in the Canyon through the shale layers knows what I’m talking about. The trail follows a loose, steep talus slope that makes you feel that you could plunge to your death at any moment. By this time, most everybody’s legs were quivering from exhaustion. The walking sticks came in very handy through this section!
By the dim light of dusk, we finally drug ourselves into camp. As exhausted as we were, our spirits soared at having made it to our destination safe and sound. We filtered water, ate dinner, and all headed to bed early. Our toughest day was behind us. Ahhhhh, and tomorrow was a layover day! We could sleep in and take it easy.
The group awoke to a beautiful morning…and we didn’t have to pack up our camp and take off! After a relaxed breakfast and reorganizing our camp, we all packed up some food and water and headed down canyon with the Colorado River as our destination.
Following the trail downstream, we noticed how much damage the prolific summer monsoon storms had had on the streambed. In many places, the sides of the creeks had steep, freshly exposed walls. Tapeats Creek wasn’t exactly trickling by either!
As we were hiking, I kept looking for the creek crossing. We just kept walking and walking and never saw one. I wasn’t too concerned since the trail obviously continued on the west side of the creek. But because we knew it was supposed to cross over, we continually kept an eye out for a decent crossing. The trail became more faint and started following along the edges of a steep shale slope. Some in the group started getting very uncomfortable with the exposure, and the pace slowed to a crawl.
Finally we all decided that we had to turn around and try to find a way across the creek. On the way back towards camp, we found where the trail used to cross. It was easy to see how we had missed it; it was now completely washed out and only a steep bank remained where the trail had once dropped to the creek. But it didn’t matter, the creek was flowing so hard, it would be extremely difficult to cross.
After a group discussion, we all decided that since we would go to the Colorado River while camped at Deer Creek, we would forego that pleasure until then. It was already heating up, everyone was tired from the day before, and the idea of playing in beautiful Tapeats Creek and lying around sounded heavenly!
Day four saw us getting another early start. We were going to Deer Creek via Surprise Valley rather than along the river route, so we wanted to get across before the heat became oppressive. We had quite a hike up past Thunder Spring to get to Surprise Valley. We would be retracing steps from our hike in, but at least we would be doing it in the cool of the morning.
As anybody who had hiked in a desert environment knows, there is a tremendous difference in the temperature between sunshine and shade. Hiking this section of the trail was much easier than it had been the other day. We didn’t hit any sun until we got to the top of the switchbacks overlooking Thunder Spring. And because it was still so early, the sunshine was a benign force. It was a lovely morning!
We kept a decent pace across Surprise Valley to the triangle junction of the trails heading to Deer Creek and to Monument Point. We were now covering new territory. The hiking had been pretty easy up to this point, but once we left the junction, the trail began to follow a drainage that eventually dropped into the Deer Creek drainage. It was warming up, and we utilized every spot of shade for cooling ourselves down. The going got rockier and slower as the heat started taking its toll.
Then as everyone was starting to think that they couldn’t take another step, we came to a boulder field that the trail disappeared into. Everything we had done up until this point all of a sudden looked like child’s play! Talk about trials and tribulations! We had to climb over rough boulders to get to the high, steep, and exposed slope of shale where our trail continued on. Oh goody! People who had never experienced a fear of heights before were suddenly empathizing with those who did! The thing that kept everybody going was the view of Deer Creek in the distance. So slowly, slowly, we made our way down the hot, rocky slope.
Soon we started hearing the surprising sound of water splashing nearby. It sounded like heaven’s angels singing to us. Nearly at the bottom of the steepest part of the trail was the gorgeous side drainage that Deer Spring bursts from. Water, shade, and a lovely setting of lush vegetation lured us in for the perfect lunch spot.
Upon our arrival at Deer Creek, we noticed that the damage done to Tapeats Creek was minimal compared to what we were seeing here. The entire drainage had been scoured from flash floods, leaving river rock in places that had been campsites before. Unfortunately, there was already a group in the only decent-sized campsite in the area. We found out that they would be leaving the next day, so our group could move into the site then. Until then, we did our best at finding places large enough to fit our tents. The group in the large site offered whatever space was available and turned out to be very nice and accommodating.
While visiting with the group, we had a unexpected visitor at camp—a Grand Canyon rattlesnake! Though they are wonderful to see, the campers were not very pleased to see this one. Especially since it was steadily making its way to one of their open tents! After watching it for a while, and getting a chance to count about eight rattles on the tail and take pictures, I used walking stick to gently move it to the other side of the creek. It was rather awkward picking it up by placing my walking stick under its middle with nothing to keep it from moving. It didn’t get very excited, but the snake would slowly work its way forward. When it got close to falling off, I would lower it to the ground, replace my stick towards the center of the snake’s body again, and walk a few more steps. It was a slow process, but I eventually got the rattler upstream a bit and over to the other side. Can you imagine getting into your tent a night and finding a rattlesnake waiting for you? It’s probably a good idea to keep your tent’s zippers closed, wouldn’t you agree?
After that little episode, things settled down quite a bit, and we all took it easy for the remainder of the day. It was good to relax! The moon was only a few days being full, and the night was magical. My sister, Donna, had joined me on this hike and today was her birthday. I don’t think she’ll ever forget what she did on this one! You can’t beat the Grand Canyon for memories!
Another beautiful morning, and once again we could take our time. Day five was a layover day, and the only thing we HAD to do was move our tents to the group site and follow Deer Creek down to the Colorado River! This is one of the most beautiful areas you’ll find anywhere in the Grand Canyon, and we had an entire day to explore and play in the water! Deer Creek is so special it made even those having a tough time on the hike feel that the trip was worth the effort.
After a leisurely breakfast, we strolled along at our own pace, taking photographs, looking at pictographs, and admiring the amazing scenery of canyon. Deer Creek has sliced through the Tapeats Sandstone on its way to the river, creating a beautiful slot canyon known as Deer Creek Narrows. It was literally a slice of paradise. The only complaint I have about this place is that to get here your pack is so heavy, you really can’t afford to take a good camera along. So all I had was a little disposable camera. Even so the photos came out great.
At the end of the Narrows, there is a steep, rocky climb that veers off of the creek and down to the Colorado River. Just when you think that Deer Creek can’t get any better, you get down to the river and see the beautiful 100-foot-high Deer Creek Falls. At the bottom is a pool that begs for you to get in; however, getting close to the falls you feel a strong wind being generated from the force of the falling water. The weather was gorgeous but not quite warm enough to entice you to stand for long in the spray! Besides the water was cold!
Throughout the day we saw people hiking up from river trips. Some of them were doing the Tapeats to Deer Creek loop. River companies will often drop those that want to hike off at Tapeats Creek for a day hike up to Thunder River. The ambitious ones will arrange to be picked up at Deer Creek, hiking the route across Surprise Valley that we had done the day before. We saw some pretty tired folks later in the afternoon! It had been pretty warm, and they would have gotten the brunt of the sun crossing the valley in the middle of the day. As tough as our hike had been, I was very glad we did it our way. Today was our reward.
Back at camp, we discussed the day’s discoveries and prepared for our hike the following day. All in all, a perfect day.
It was time for another early start; we were up at 4:30 a.m. There was a substantial distance to cover, and most of it would be uphill and exposed to direct sun. It was very dark as we packed up and ate breakfast. We had organized everything the night before to make this morning go as smoothly as possible. As anybody who has packed up in the dark knows, you need to know where everything is so nothing gets left behind!
We were all ready well before daylight, so at the first hint of light we slowly made our way upstream to cross the creek and climb the rocky route up to Surprise Valley. Because of our early start, we were able to avoid direct sun for the entire distance to the valley. Everybody was doing pretty well on the rough stretch. No matter how rough the trail, it never seems as intimidating when you are heading up as it does going down. Part of it is knowing what’s in store, but you also feel more in control hiking up. When you are heading down steep terrain, one misstep can make you feel like you’ll topple all the way to the bottom. And in the case of the Grand Canyon, that’s usually hundreds or thousands of feet!
Since waking that morning, we could smell smoke in the air and knew that the park had some prescribed fires burning on the North Rim. Once we topped out on Surprise Valley, we could see how much burning they were doing. Every formation in the distance was a mere silhouette and difficult to even identify. It seemed we were looking at mountains in the mist, rather than buttes in the Grand Canyon. In all my years at the Canyon, I had never seen so much smoke below the rim. Normally there is some wind to blow it out of there, but this entire week had been unusually calm.
We were doing very well time wise, and the sun didn’t catch up with us until well into Surprise Valley. It was still very pleasant as we started making our way up the cliff face to the Esplanade. It seemed we did better time hiking up this section than we did coming down. It wasn’t as hot, and we were still pretty fresh. Even so, by the time we topped out on the Esplanade, everyone was feeling a bit tired and glad for some level ground. The smoke was responsible for some uncomfortable breathing, and it was nice to take a break in the first decent shade we could find. We stopped for at least an hour knowing that camp was not far away.
On the first day in, we had stashed our water close to where the trail intercepts the Esplanade so our hike out on the final day would be shorter. I think it was the combination of the smoke and heat, but even with the easier hiking everybody was starting to get rather fatigued. We still had a little distance to cover, but at least it was pretty level. We weren’t in a hurry since the campsite would be in full sun in the afternoon.
We finally made it to camp in late afternoon, happy to at last take our packs off for the remainder of the day. We collected our water, pleased to see that it hadn’t been disturbed at all. And because we had found a small area surrounded by rocks, the water was still cold and refreshing!
We had expected freezing temperatures for our night on the Esplanade, slightly worried that our gear wouldn’t be warm enough. The group we had met at Upper Tapeats had stayed on the Esplanade their first night into the Canyon, and they had experienced freezing conditions. However, by the time we had gotten there, a warming trend had kept the nighttime temperatures well above freezing.
After the last photos were taken and food was shared (trying to lighten up loads as much as possible!), we all made our way to our sleeping bags for our final night out on the trail. Tomorrow there would be showers, good food, and soft beds waiting for us!
Day Seven and Out
We awoke to an extremely smoky morning. Even those who had not been affected by it up to this point were starting to sniffle. It was pretty easy to get up and moving with the mild temperatures. We had organized things the night before, so we were packed and on the trail very early. We strapped on our packs and began our final ascent.
We started up the incline shortly after getting on the trail, but a week’s worth of hiking and lighter packs made the going a little easier than might have been expected. It was cool and pleasant, and the autumn colors on the way up were beautiful.
Bridgers Knoll looked completely different set against the vague, hazy background than the one we saw on the trip in. It was as if we were in another part of the world. Bridgers Knoll is named after the famous mountain man, James Bridger (1804-1881), even though it’s doubtful he ever made it to the Grand Canyon. It was still an incredible view!
We took a good snack break overlooking Bridgers Knoll to get us up the final bit, then buckled down and made tracks for the rim. The going was slow, but we still made it out by lunchtime.
We had squirreled some goodies away in the vehicles and headed straight for them. Two of the hikers were cousins who had hiked the Boucher/Hermit loop with me the year before, and they had a continuing friendly competition on who would make it out last. One of them gave up when someone else in the group mentioned that he had five beers waiting in the car! There were eight of us on the hike, and he said it was “first-come, first-served.” That did it; Chris didn’t need any more encouragement! He turned into a speed demon! But it was all right, we also had some Starbuck’s Frappucinos waiting for us!
After everybody made it out, we cleaned up just enough to be presentable to go into Jacob Lake’s restaurant. We had been dreaming about eating there for several days by then. And they didn’t disappoint us! I’m sure we cleaned them out of food! It was a wonderful way to end a superb trip. What a way to end my 1999 fall hiking season. Thanks everybody for a wonderful time!
Park Trail Descriptions
- Thunder River/Deer Creek Trail Description (PDF – 37kb)