Trail Description : Thunder RIver Trail
The Thunder River Trail was originally constructed in 1876 when rumors of a gold find along the Colorado River required some type of access route to the Deer Creek area. The current trail which goes down to Thunder River and Tapeats creek was not constructed until 1926. Thunder River is the world's shortest and probably steepest river. It runs only ½ mile from Thunder Cave to its confluence with Tapeats Creek and over this short course it drops some 1200 feet.
Mileages are as follows (one-way):
The trailhead for the Thunder River Trail is located at Indian Hollow. To get to Indian Hollow you can basically use the same directions for getting to the Bill Hall Trail at Monument Point. Just remember to keep following the signs for Thunder River signs and take the right turn around mile 29.5.
I have not done the top 5 miles of this trail myself so I cannot attest to its difficulty. During my hike in May, 1995 I did get the chance to talk to some people who had come down this trail and they claimed that it was not difficult. Most people will tell you to use the Thunder River Trail as opposed to the Bill Hall Trail if you are planning a hike in this area because it is much easier. I prefer to be careful and take the shorter and steeper route which is involves some 5 miles less hiking.
From the trailhead at Indian Hollow the trail contours almost due west along the rim for a little more than a ½ mile to spot called Little Saddle. Here it makes a quick descent through the Kaibab, Toroweap and Coconino formations via numerous switchbacks. These level out somewhat as the trail descends through the Hermit Shale on down to the Esplanade. Once it reaches the Esplanade it begins to work its way eastward without much in the way of elevation gain or loss for the 4 miles until it joins up with the Bill Hall trail. Before reaching the Bill Hall trail it will take you on a little side trip around the Deer Creek drainage which is just north of the Bill Hall trail junction. Regardless of which way you have come in, Thunder River or Bill Hall, this is a good place to cache water for your final assault on the hike out.
After joining up with the Bill Hall trail the Thunder River trail begins to meander across the Esplanade and works its way slowly south and a little westward towards the break in the Redwall that will bring you down into Surprise Valley. The trail is not very difficult to follow across this section as long as you keep an eye out for the cairns. One problem is that there is lots of scattered rock in the area and sometimes it can be difficult to tell two rocks that just happen to be sitting with one atop the other from a true cairn. I only took a wrong turn once on the way out at a spot where the trail crossed a small drainage. I looked to the right, heading into the drainage, which looked like the logical direction for the trail to go and thought I saw a cairn. When I got to the "cairn" I didn't see any others nor did I see any sign of trail. It was easy enough to walk back to where the trail crossed the drainage and pick up another cairn heading the correct way.
Be careful to try to stay on the trail as it crosses the Esplanade as there is a lot of cryptobiotic or cryptogamic soil in the area that can be very easily damaged by your walking on it. If you do walk on it your footprints may be there for a hundred years or more. I didn't know what this soil was until I did this hike but is fairly obvious to recognize when you do see it. I looks sort of like a fine scattering of crushed charcoal for the most part. My American Heritage dictionary defines cryptogam as "Any of the flowerless or seedless plants that reproduce by spores, such as fungi, algae, mosses, and ferns." It didn't look like any of these, it looked like crushed charcoal.
When you start to approach the rim of the Esplanade the trail begins to head downward a little. This begins to be noticeable when you are still about a ½ mile from the rim and at this point you are actually crossing the Supai Formation. The trail swings toward the west for maybe a ½ mile and then heads south again. I don't remember seeing a cairn that marks the actual start of the descent but there were some odd looking palm type plants (which I cannot seem to locate the name of) growing right on the rim. The trail starts its descent immediately to the west of these and starts switchbacking right away first through the bottom layers of the Supai Formation and then the Redwall Limestone. The Redwall break along the Thunder River trail is one of the easiest to negotiate of any that I have so far seen in the Canyon. After ½ mile you are below the Redwall and trail starts to level out as it heads south into the heart of Surprise Valley.
After another ¼ mile or so you will come to the junction of the Deer Creek trail which leads off to the southwest. Keep to the southeast to continue on to Thunder River and Tapeats Creek. After another ¼ mile you will pass a fairly large cairn that marks a spur trail that will also take you over to Deer Creek. Again, keep left for the Thunder River area. This whole section of the trail is very easy and reminds me a lot of the Tonto trail on the south rim. It crosses over and around some of the rolling hills that are scattered throughout Surprise Valley. The trail heads almost due east and begins to rise a little as it approaches the descent to Thunder River. When you finally cross over the top of this rise the view of Tapeats Amphitheatre to the east is spectacular.
Almost as soon as you start the descent you begin to hear the roar of Thunder River and shortly after you first hear it you get to see it from a wonderful profile angel as it gushes out of Thunder Cave on on down towards Tapeats Creek. This section of trail was one of the most difficult. The upper sections are steep and rocky and the lower sections not quite as steep but littered with lots of rubble. The middle stretches are a pleasant relief and follow contours for the most part with the occasional switchback to bring you up or down to the next level. I would estimate the descent at being about ¾ miles. You know you are nearing the bottom when the trail finally reaches Thunder River itself. There is a rough little spot right next to the river that you have to climb down to continue on. The trail continues right on down to the river and provides a handy rest spot. From this point on you follow Thunder River for another ¼ mile to its confluence with Tapeats Creek and the Upper Tapeats camping area a little further beyond that. Camping is not permitted along Thunder River itself.
If you are staying at Upper Tapeats you are lucky, you're there. If you're not so lucky you've got another 2-3 miles to the Lower Tapeats camping area and the Colorado River. The distance to the Colorado is variable depending on the time of year and whether you can stay on the low water route and cross Tapeats Creek as needed to stay on the trail or whether you have to stay on the west side of the creek and climb around the cliffs and other obstructions. I don't know if this really adds an extra mile, it might be less than that, but it sure felt like a mile to me. I have never done the low water route but did see a number of places where the trail crosses the creek and at many times could also spot sections of the trail on the other side. The high water route is a pain in the butt, especially if you have hiked all the way down from the rim and all you want to do is get to camp at Lower Tapeats.
On the west side of the creek the trail climbs away and then descends back to the creek 4 times on it's way to the river. The first few of these are not too bad but the last two and especially the very last descent to the beach at the river is brutal. On the way to the river the climbs are gradual, more like upward sloping contours, and the descents are steep. On the way back it's the reverse of course, which I happen to find much easier.
Shortly after you leave the camping area you come to the first problem area (yes, there's a trail there), which is not really a problem assuming you know about it and are paying attention. If you end up on a section of trail that is composed of crumbled shale, is only about a foot (or less) wide and has a very steep slope on the east side leading straight down to Tapeats Creek, then you have taken a wrong turn. We ended up on this and were half way across it before the people I was with started to get scared. At this point, in my opinion, it was easier to continue forward than to go back and seek out the higher route but if you know about it ahead of time it would be wise to look for the higher route. If you and no one in your party has a fear of heights than the lower route may be OK but there is no room for error here and a slip could be fatal. I know there is an upper route because I plainly saw the cairns leading to it on the other (southern) side.
Once past this area the trail comes back down to a nice level area next to the creek where there is a huge cactus garden. There is also access to the creek again in this section and the trail continues along it for about ¼ mile.
Directly below this section there is a small cliff that can be a little tricky. The first time down the trail, in 1995, I tried getting down with my pack on and it got stuck between the cliff itself and a big rock that is wedged in the crack that you must descend through. I had to climb out of it and person-handle it around to the front and then dropped it. The second time, in 2003, I took off my pack first and had no problem climbing down and then pulling my pack down after me.
Below the cliff there is a place where the trail gets wedged between the edge of the creek and some cliffs for a very short distance before opening up again on the other side. This is not really a problem but there is some growth along the creek bank that you need to watch out for.
On the other side of this is another nice flat area for appoximately another ¼ mile before the trail starts its second climb away from the creek. Below this there is another flat section and then the trail climbs away again. The third descent is steeper than the first two and there are also some sections of loose rock where you should be careful. When you finally get back to creek level it will be the last before you reach the Colorado River, which at that point is less than ¾ mile away. There is a beautiful little waterfall at the bottom of this descent, lots of shade from some huge cottonwoods and access to water from the creek.
Below this section the trail climbs away from Tapeats Creek rather gradually as the creek itself begins to quickly descend through a narrow gorge which it has cut over the eons. Over a short distance of hiking the creek will fall away rather quickly as you go up and it goes down and the view from the top, of Tapeats Creek and the gorge it has cut, is incredible. The climb away from the creek lasts for a little less than ½ mile before you come to the final descent to the river.
The final descent to the beach and the Colorado River is less than ¼ mile and is via a steep, narrow draw that is very close to the mouth of Tapeats Creek. You'll have to watch for it because the trail does not end there and I have no idea where it goes. If you end up getting to the Colorado River and start heading west along it then you have gone too far, go back and look for the draw and the descent down through it. The descent is clearly marked and not easy to miss if you are paying attention to the trail.
In the top portion of this draw some rather large steps have been constructed which make it a little easier to descend. Below these there are several sections of loose rock that can be rather treacherous if your legs are tired, and they probably will be. The steepness of it all becomes less and less pronounced as you approach the beach area and the trail moves out of the draw and onto the slopes that lead down to the beach itself.
The trail that continues on along the river will take you over to the Deer Creek area. It is not technically a real trail but rather a route, the Granite Narrows Route, which is something like the Escalante Route on the south rim. I personally found it a lot easier to follow than the Escalante Route.
When you finally get down to the beach, the Lower Tapeats camping area is actually located on the other side of Tapeats Creek. If Tapeats Creek is flooded, as it was both times I have been there, you will not be able to cross and will have to camp on the west side of the creek.
[ last updated May, 2003 ]