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Thunder River - Deer Creek Hike

Thunder River - Deer Creek Hike
October 9-13, 1997
Pat Jones, Harry Jones, Carol Boliek, Jack Obrzut


This trip came about when Carol and I were having lunch one day and the talk turned to hiking in the Grand Canyon. I mentioned that I had always wanted to hike the Thunder River trail, but my husband, Harry, and I were a little bit concerned about biting off more than we could chew, and wished we could do it with someone else. Carol enthusiastically replied that she and her husband, Jack, had always wanted to hike it, too, so we began making plans. I have to say that planning for the trip was half the fun, since it gave us a chance to get together for more lunches.

Carol signs on as a cook with Grand Canyon Dories in the summer, so she has lots of experience in the Canyon; I figured that if nothing else, her good sense would keep us from getting ourselves into trouble. Besides, she's good company.

Anyway, the trip worked out very well, and we all had a good time.

Here's who we are:

Harry and Pat Jones: We're in our mid-fifties; hiking enthusiasts, and especially Grand Canyon enthusiasts. We love living in Arizona, because we get such wonderful opportunities to hike all year. Harry is a solar physicist (astronomer), who is employed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and stationed at National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Tucson. He observes at Kitt Peak National Observatory just outside of Tucson. I'm a statistical consultant at the University of Arizona; I work for the Center for Computing and Information Technology.

Carol Boliek and Jack Obrzut: I won't disclose Carol and Jack's ages, but they're younger. Carol likes rafting (has her own raft) and hiking; Jack likes tennis and handball. Carol works as a research scientist for the Center for Neurogenic Communication Disorders, and we consult on her research data periodically. Jack is a professor in the Special Education/Rehabilitation Department in the College of Education. They're also great hiking companions, as we found out.

Thursday, October 9, 1997 (Day 1):

We decided to stay at the Kaibab Lodge, since that's the closest location to the Thunder River and Bill Hall Trailheads. I had been concerned about attempting the Bill Hall Trail, since web trip reports from Bob Ribokas and Bob Groves suggested that the trail was challenging. Bob Groves responded to my nervous email message and reassured me that we would probably not encounter major problems since we had prior hiking and backpacking experience in the Canyon (the Corridor, Hermit, Grandview, Tonto, and Clear Creek Trails). He compared the Bill Hall Trail to the Hermit Trail, so this helped eliminate some of my worries. Since we had two couples, we decided to hike down the Thunder River Trail and back up the Bill Hall Trail, giving us the experience of doing both trails. Since they are some distance apart, this requires a car at each trailhead.

In any case, we checked out the breakfast time at the Lodge the evening before departure, and were told that they opened at 6:00, which was also the time posted on the door. Wrong. So we stood around and waited for them to open at 7. Next time we'll bring our own breakfast, but I was less than enthusiastic about starting out with trail food, which tastes good on the trail for a day or so, but begins to pall after that. After we ate, we headed out for the trailhead, using the detailed instructions in John Annerino's book. We managed to get lost briefly at a 3-way intersection which is described as 2-way in the book. Once we got that straightened out, we left Carol and Jack's Land Cruiser at the Thunder River Trailhead. Then we all headed over for the Bill Hall Trail in our Land Cruiser (these are 1980's models, dating from a pre-yuppified era). Four-wheel drive really isn't necessary for getting to either trailhead unless the weather is bad, though there is one rough spot on the road to Indian Hollow, where the Thunder River Trail begins. We finally got on the trail by 10:15 (well, we weren't in a big hurry, in any case).

Our plans were to spend the first night on the Esplanade, hike to Upper Tapeats the second, spend the third at Deer Creek, and then return to the Esplanade the fourth night. I wasn't enthusiastic about the Esplanade, since I don't like camping where there isn't water, and I pictured it more or less like the Tonto Plateau on the Clear Creek hike (nice scenery, but not much of a place to camp). I was wrong, and I'll get to that shortly. Anyway, we were carrying extra water (lots of extra water, thanks to Carol and Harry who seem to be paranoid about these things) and planned to cache a liter each at the junction of the Bill Hall and Thunder River trails. The Thunder River trail starts out about 800 feet lower than the Bill Hall trail, but it's fairly steep and rough at the beginning, too. It's like the top of the Hermit Trail-- rocky and rough, but nothing really difficult. The trail stays level for a long way after the initial descent.

The weather was sunny and warm, but not too hot. However, our packs were really heavy, and this was Jack's first encounter with a backpack. Recalling my first experience with a backpack in the Grand Canyon, I'm impressed that Jack was able to pull the hike off so well. Carol's pack must have been almost as heavy as Harry's (50-55 lb.), and she seemed to just keep plugging along. We hiked for what seemed like a very long time, encountering occasional signs for the Thunder River Trail (#23). Eventually, we started to wonder about the junction and checked our topographical map. We could see Bridgers Knoll, we thought, but we didn't see any sign for the junction. So we continued on. This continued for quite a while. We finally sat down to decide what to do since we were beginning to wear down a bit. Harry was becoming decidedly grumpy, not a usual state for him, since he usually keeps me going. I was feeling just fine, but my pack was lighter, too.

We decided that we had to be on the trail, no other trail being evident, so we would keep hiking until about 5 PM or so. If we hadn't found the junction by then, we would stop and camp. We were getting discouraged since we knew that it was 7 miles to the trail junction and we had hiked for at least five hours. We found a spot with an overhang and a nice view around 5 PM and decided to call it a day. We walked over to admire the view, since the area seemed to be close to an edge of some sort, and found ourselves looking at the Redwall-- 2.5 miles or so beyond the junction of the trails. About this time, some hikers came up the trail from below and gave us some information-- #1, that we were crazy to come down the Thunder River Trail (we were beginning to think so, too), and #2, there is no sign at the junction, just cairns.

Now that we knew where we were, we felt much better, so we set up camp, fixed dinner and sat and watched the stars. The Esplanade was absolutely beautiful-- full of fascinating rock forms, wonderful camping spots, and still fairly warm. The moon was nearly full, so we left the fly off the tent so that we got the full effect.

Friday, October 10 (Day 2):

We were up early the next morning, ate breakfast, stashed our extra water, and headed out on the trail down the Redwall. This part of the trail is steep and rough, normal Redwall trail. While caching the water had lightened the packs, they were still heavy enough to slow us down substantially. We took a break in an area on the side of a hill which was still in the shade when we got to Surprise Valley, and continued on. This part was easier. Before long, we came to the descent into the Thunder River area itself.

Thunder River emerges from several fissures in the wall, much as Roaring Springs (which supplies the water for the North and South Rims) does along the North Kaibab Trail. It's spectacular, especially so after a dry, warm hike. So we headed down the trail with our tongues hanging out; by this time our water bottles were empty. Before long, we were seated with our hiking boots and socks off, enjoying the cool water. We filled our bottles in the pool above where hikers cool off. We had no problems with water from this area or that from the pools at Upper Deer Falls, and, in fact, we never used our water filter on the trip, although we always do so elsewhere. A number of other hikers came along, mostly from a couple of river trips which happened to be in the area that day. After lunch, we hiked down to Upper Tapeats, and set up our tents.

Carol disappeared after we had things all set up and returned after 15 minutes or so, looking decidedly wet. She had stashed some beer in Upper Tapeats Creek during her summer trip and went to retrieve it. The tree she had anchored it to had washed away in a flash flood, but the beer was still there. She had to wade a bit to get it and ended up getting cooled off in the process. This was an unaccustomed luxury on a back pack-- everyone needs friends like this! The amazing thing is that the beer was roughly where she put it; the flash floods elsewhere clearly took their toll.

We had originally planned to hike down to the river after we got to Upper Tapeats, but the beer was a more attractive alternative. We'll save the hike for our river trip next year. Or, for that matter, on some subsequent backpack to Upper Tapeats. We don't worry too much about meeting some of our extra objectives on our Grand Canyon hikes-- we've tried at least four times to reach Cheyava Falls and have failed each time. Each time we get a little bit closer and we just rationalize that this gives us an excuse to plan another trip next year. (The reasons that we haven't made it are less related to the difficulty of the trip than our preparation and/or the weather. Suffice it to say that a topo map, river sandals or old shoes, compass, and an early start are necessary to reach the falls.) So, the fact that we didn't make it to the Colorado River on this trip was not a major disappointment, because we'll just come back again and try to make that objective next time.

Anyway, feeling more mellow after the beer, we started dinner. We had a few persistent mice as guests in the process and had to keep chasing them away-- they're cute, but they really don't add much to the ambiance. We got things cleaned up and stashed away from nocturnal visitors and went to bed. Couldn't have had a nicer night.

Saturday, October 11 (Day 3):

We got up fairly early the next morning, had breakfast, and hit the trail to Surprise Valley. We replenished our water supply on the way out, taking it from the junction with Tapeats Creek, where it's clean. It was beginning to cloud over, in contrast to the clear weather the previous two days. This was welcome, since it would make the hike across Surprise Valley more pleasant. This hike went fairly well, and we stashed some extra water at the junction of the Deer Creek Trail and the trail crossing Surprise Valley from Upper Tapeats. We placed it well off the trail and figured that there should be no problem with losing the water since there were four of us to watch where we put it. We stopped for lunch before we started the descent into Deer Creek. By now it was getting cold, windy, and was quite overcast.

The descent into Deer Creek crosses some major rock slides and involves a lot of scrambling. I lost my grip on my hiking stick on the way down and Harry had to do some quick work to retrieve it before it disappeared for good. We both managed to maneuver down, but it was not a pleasant experience. Finally, we got to Upper Deer Falls. Carol and Jack showed us how to get up behind the waterfall and sit there, watching the water come down past the opening. It's a lot like going up behind Ribbon Falls on the North Kaibab; in the summer, it must be really wonderful (though I'd never cross Surprise Valley when it's hot-- in fact the trails are closed in the summer, I believe). We could look down on a little area with two "chairs" on the other side of the pool from Upper Deer Falls. We replenished our water and continued on down into Deer Creek. The trail continued over the rock slides and remained rough for quite a distance down.

Once we got down, we hiked across a creek, following our way through some reeds and into the camping area. The area has been devastated first by a fire which burned out many of the beautiful old cottonwoods in the area and then by a flash flood this summer which eliminated most of the camping sites. The only good spot was a fairly flat area which was between a couple of trees. The problem with the area was that it was very sandy, making staking the tents difficult. We decided to dump our camping equipment and then continue on down the Narrows for a way to explore a bit. This was a really interesting area which we wanted to look at further. Carol has hiked up here from the river and wanted us to continue down to the Colorado, which is fairly close. Unfortunately, it began to drizzle, so we hurried back to camp to set up our tents. A good thing we did so, too, because by the time we had them up, it was raining in earnest. We crawled into our tents and hoped that the weather would improve a bit.

It continued raining for an hour or so and we finally decided that if we were to have dinner, we had better get started. That's when the fun began. We both had new MSR Whisperlite stoves. Harry took his out of the bag (our second attempt to use it), and it fell apart. So he got out the directions and tried to put it back together in the (semi-)dark. Carol got her stove out and then tried to attach the gas line to it. It took a while (I think a course in topology might help with this), but we finally got it together and going. By the time dinner was cooked, a hot meal was welcome. Carol and Jack handled KP and we went back to our tents to get out of the rain. We were probably all aware of camping in a flash flood area which had recently undergone major flooding, but no one really wanted to say anything. It rained steadily for about an hour or so, then stopped, so we went to sleep.

We'll save Deer Creek Falls at the Colorado River for our river trip next summer, and hike back up from there sometime when it's sunny. What we saw of the Narrows were intriguing, and I want to come back, though I'd much rather camp at Upper Tapeats.

Sunday, October 12 (Day 4):

Things were damp, so we spread them out to dry. It was chilly, but the clouds were clearing away overhead, so we packed up and hit the trail for the Esplanade again. The hike up the rockfall is easier than it is coming down and we were out in good time. We passed a group on their way down for a day hike. Before long, we were back at the junction of the Deer Creek and Surprise Valley Trails and ready to retrieve our water.

We should have realized that what looks like a good hiding place to one group will probably look like a good hiding place to other groups, too. The hikers we had passed on the way down had stashed their backpacks at the same spot. Our water was where we had left it, though, so we retrieved it, continuing on up the trail through Surprise Valley. We stopped for lunch before we started up the Redwall and sat and enjoyed the views which were pretty spectacular. We spent time memorizing the mnemonic sentence Carol taught us to help us recognize the rock layers: "Know The Canyon's History. Study Rocks That Be Made By Time." (Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino, Hermit, Supai, Redwall, Temple Butte, Muav, Bright Angel, Tapeats.) Any mind exercise like this helps make the trip uphill easier. Actually, the Redwall wasn't bad at all, and we were back at our first night's camping spot by mid-afternoon.

We picked up our water stash which looked pretty ample by this point. We had 18 liters among the four of us, so we figured that there was plenty to make it out, maybe even take a shower or two. I resisted saying "I told you so," since Harry always reminds me that we'd be grateful for the water if it were hot. He's right, of course, but I still hate carrying all that extra weight. We headed on up the trail and began looking for a camping spot nearer the Bill Hall Trail, or at least where we assumed that the Bill Hall Trail must be. We finally found a place just off the trail where there were two camping spots, and a long overhanging ledge in back and set up our tents.

Carol and Jack went back to explore the area and suggested that we take dinner up there, so we took the cooking stuff, went up, and started dinner in the "kitchen". We sat eating dinner watching a spectacular sunset. We watched for the "green flash", a phenomenon whose existence is debated by astronomers. We didn't see it, but we had a good dinner. My dehydrator works really well for drying green chiles, I discovered, and we had sort of a southwestern arroz con queso con chiles verdes. That done, we cleaned up, and headed back to the tents, avoiding the cryptogamic soil which seemed to be just where it was most convenient to step. Next time, we'll camp back under the ledge and get the benefit of the view all the time. By this time it was getting really chilly. Hikers coming down from the Esplanade had reported that it had snowed there the night before, and we found lots of water in potholes along the way. The snow was gone by the time we got up there, but we were glad for the warmth of our sleeping bags, nevertheless. This time, we slept well. Flash floods didn't seem too likely on the Esplanade.

Monday, October 13 (Day 5):

We got up, reluctantly packed our belongings, and headed up the trail. We knew that it was almost over and nobody really wanted to finish, although a steak dinner and a bottle of wine does have its attractions. Besides, nobody ever really likes going uphill. We watched carefully for the cairns marking the junction of the Bill Hall and Thunder River Trails. We knew that we must be in the area, since we could see other hikers heading down the trail up ahead of us. Harry was the first to spot them; and then we (especially I) felt really foolish. We had sat right at the junction of the two trails, trying to figure out where it was on the first day. How many Ph.D.'s does it take to find the trail? (answer: none-- you just need someone who opens his eyes and looks in front of him.) Someone had placed a bright red lid on the cairn, too, probably to help out those four idiots who were asking everyone about how to find the trail junction.

We started up the trail which got steep in a hurry. We took our time and before long, we got to the 15' downclimb which we had been warned about (from that direction, I guess it's an upclimb). Carol and Jack have rock climbing experience, so they rigged up some apparatus to haul the packs up. Then we just climbed up the rock. It's a bit of a stretch for me, but the surface is quite rough, so there's really not much of a problem with slipping, and I made it up and over the top safely, if not gracefully. If you want to be dignified, you don't go hiking.

We continued on, and the trail leveled off and curved around Monument Point. We sat and ate our lunch on a large flat overlook, gazing at one of the most spectacular views we have ever seen in the Canyon. Harry still talks about it. Then we put our packs on again and started up the trail... and I do mean "up". The last part is very steep-- in some cases, I was on my knees, climbing up and over rocks, dodging under tree branches. The fire in the summer of 1996 burned partway down the trail, and there are still charred trees along the path, partially blocking the trail. This part of the trail is tedious, and I wondered if it would ever come to an end. Eventually, we topped out, but saw, alas, that the car was still half a mile or so away, so we hiked on through more burned trees. This must have been a really beautiful area once, and the vegetation is staging a quick comeback, but it will be many years before there are trees of any real size in the area. Before long, we were back at the car, and removing our packs with that mixture of relief and regret which always follows any hike in the Canyon. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says, "We'll be back."

Copyright © 1997 by Pat Jones ( pjones@jemez.rc.arizona.edu )

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