August 10-12, 2009
I hiked Thunder River for the first time in 2009.
I worked at the South Rim as a breakfast cook at the El Tovar. One day a young man from the maintenance department named Charles asked if I was interested in joining him on a trip to Thunder River. His friend Dave would be going, too.
We didn’t know each other very well, but I suppose he knew I did a lot of hiking. He’d been to Thunder River about a year prior to this, and wanted to go back. I was almost 30 at the time, and he and Dave were in their early 20s.
Charles planned out the itinerary and led the hike over the course of 3 days and 2 nights. I suspect that the itinerary was based off of Charles’s first trip, but it was ingenious in consideration of the heat, water management, and limited time. We did the full lollipop loop from Monument Point down the Bill Hall Trail, first to Deer Creek and then up Tapeats Creek.
- Day 0: Drive to Monument Point
- Day 1: Monument Point to Deer Creek
- Day 2: Deer Creak to Tapeats Creek, up Thunder River to the Esplanade
- Day 3: Esplanade Rim to Monument Point, drive to South Rim
Weather-wise, August is one of worst times of the year for this hike. It’s brutally hot (and thus very dangerous) for the risk of heat stroke, hyponatremia, and so on, but we were young and dumb and strong and had some experience in the Canyon’s seasonal furnace.
The trip also took place just 3 short weeks after the tragic death of 20 year-old Bryce Gillies, in the same area. He’d presumably become disoriented due to the extreme conditions, and committed to following a dry canyon called Bonita Creek to the Colorado River to get water. Bonita Creek has a number of steep drop-offs, which are ultimately impassable.
In trying to get to the River, he downclimbed (or jumped from) some cliffs, only to be faced by an impossibly high cliff that blocked his access to the River. He found that he was unable to retrace his steps – and so was trapped – and sadly remained and died.
Approaching the Trailhead
Thunder River is an epic hike, and this trip holds a special place in my memory. It was my true first backcountry hike from the North Rim (the North Kaibab doesn’t count), my first dirt road approach to a Grand Canyon trailhead, and my first time camping at the trailhead immediately prior to Day One of the hike.
Charles drove a red truck, east out of the Park from Desert View. Turning north from Cameron, there was a large Navajo roadside shop (a bazaar, if you will) at the time called Chief Yellowhorse. I never stopped there, but the roadside stand was so eye-catching that it remains a landmark in my memory. Most of my adventures were localized to the South Rim, so a Chief Yellowhorse sighting signaled that a great trip was underway.
Full darkness fell by the time we turned onto the dirt from Highway 67. Dave sat up front with Charles, and I sat in the back. They took charge of the navigation, and I simply enjoyed the ride.
The music selections were on point, with a heavy mix of classic southern rock. Charles was from Alabama, and there was just something about riding by the glow of the truck’s headlights on a winding dirt road in the middle of nowhere to the meandering sounds of Ted Nugent’s Stranglehold, among similar tracks.
Late night at the trailhead was shockingly cold – especially for August. It took me by surprise, so upon exiting the vehicle I immediately set to work on getting in my sleeping bag in record time.
Day 1 – Monument Point to Deer Creek
Sunrise comes early in the summer, and we hit the trail at a reasonable hour.
Since we’d arrived in the darkness, the morning revealed my first glimpse of the landscape. It was unlike any part of the Canyon I’d seen before – the flat expanse of the Esplanade took me by surprise.
I’d grown accustomed to being able to mentally grasp the South Rim’s views – to understand what I was looking at. But here the Esplanade threw a wrench in all that. The River was nowhere to be seen, and I was unsure even of where exactly it hid. The sensation was similar to seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time, all over again.
We saw a huge jackrabbit in the grasses above the Esplanade – they seem to love this area.
The slickrock expanses of the Esplanade itself were unique to me, especially in Grand Canyon.
The views opened up once we reached the descent into Surprise Valley. We could see the River, and I finally began to grasp the nature of the landscape here.
Surprise Valley lived up to its reputation of notorious heat.
It was along this stretch where Charles may or may not have decided to pick and eat the bulb of a prickly pear cactus. If he did, I think it was partially out of curiosity, and partially for entertainment.
Soon the oasis of Deer Creek appeared below.
There was some exposure involved in the descent.
The so-called Deer Creek Spring was the first of many wonders to me that were embedded in this hike. I called it a waterfall. I think I heard the trickle of water before I saw it, piquing a moment of confused fascination.
We discovered it’s possible to scramble up and behind the falling water, to a place known locally as the throne room.
From here, the walk down Deer Creek was a relative riparian paradise.
Soon we arrived at the beginning of the Deer Creek Narrows, for a nice long rest. This location is popularly called “the patio,” but I didn’t know it at the time.
The shock of civilization here was immense! At least 2 dozen people were milling about, lounging in the water and splayed out on the smooth rocks. We found a spot in the shade and watched the show. A young guy even appeared to have a glass handle of liquor.
We stared out at everyone in disbelief. To grasp our surprise at seeing so many people, you must remember that we’d barely seen a soul for the last 24 hours as we drove to the trailhead, camped, and hiked all the way into the Canyon today.
These folks were all part of a river trip – likely numerous river trips. Being near to their plethora of supplies on the boats, the way they carried themselves was wholly different than the attitude of a backpacker.
I’d seen river groups on my previous hikes in the Canyon, but they were always on the water or on opposite shores. The meeting of backpackers and river runners carries an inherent clash of perspective that’s been spoken of before – we’re very similar, but operating in very different planes of existence.
Our roles were felt as we relaxed on our own, without the desire to engage the river folk. Eventually they went away, back to their rafts.
After we rested, we continued down the airy path above Deer Creek’s proper narrows, which culminate in a dramatic waterfall. A steep, stony path leads down from the top of the falls to its base at the Colorado River.
It blew my mind! I was floored that such place could exist, where exquisite narrows pour out as a beautiful waterfall that essentially falls directly into the River.
After enjoying the falls for some time, we climbed back up to the patio and explored the area. I took even more photos, and we made a concerted effort to access the bottom of the narrows, but failed. We agreed on the safest place to make an attempt and we all probed it, but none had the courage to commit. If memory serves, I don’t think we had a rope or anything for a hand line.
Little did I know that this would be my one and only opportunity to legally access Deer Creek’s narrows. It was only a year or two later when some canyoneers got their ropes stuck in the final rappel down the falls. The ropes hung as an eyesore, observed by river trips for more than a few days until a group finally got in to clean them out
The native Paiute people had always considered the narrows as sacred ground and lobbied for its closure, so this incident served as the last straw for the Park superintendent to prohibit entry into the narrows. It remains closed to this day.
There was plenty of daylight left when we made camp, so I decided to explore upstream in Deer Creek’s main canyon, beyond the spring. I found nothing of interest before my turnaround time in order to be back by sunset.
more photos from Day 1:
Day 2 – Deer Creek to Tapeats Creek to the Esplanade
We woke early on Day 2, and forded Deer Creek to traverse up the Colorado River corridor to connect with Tapeats Creek.
The early views up and down the River were fantastic.
The route from Deer Creek splits into an “upper” route and a “lower” route, which converge at the River’s edge at 135-Mile Rapid. This first segment felt reminiscent of the Tonto and Beamer Trails, but with a lot more barrel cactus!
I’ll remind you that it was August and getting very hot in the late morning. Between the rapid and the mouth of Bonita Creek I spied easy access to the River, and requested a rest stop to go get wet. I was in the rear of the group and the guys seemed momentarily put off at the prospect of backtracking to take a break, but I’m sure it was for the best. I soaked my shirt in the cold water and everyone seemed refreshed when we started again.
This connection between Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek is considered the only “off-trail” section of the entire hike, mostly because of a short scramble located here at the River. I was a little concerned about this going into the trip, but Charles had done it before and led the way, and it was no big deal at all – simple 3rd class stuff.
We made a big error in route finding at the mouth of Tapeats Creek. Rather than continuing up the trail that parallels the west side of the creek, we forged up through the water itself, in the bottom of a gorge.
I think we were overheated and subconsciously just wanted to just stay in the water. Tapeats Creek has a strong volume and flow that’s not to be taken lightly, but we had fun in trying to pick our way up the gorge before coming to the realization that we’d made a wrong turn at Albuquerque.
Progress was much easier after we backtracked and picked up the trail.
We forded the creek once, and then again to access the mouth of Thunder River.
We blew right by the confluence with Thunder River before realizing that it was our turn. I blame the heat and general distraction in the wonder of our surroundings.
The Grand Canyon is an arid desert where the water sources are few and far between, so it’s especially magical to experience such a paradise here. To do this trail in August is absolutely not recommended, but I must admit that the heat amplified the delight to be found in such an environment, and enamored me to the season.
The approach up Thunder River again blew my mind (for at least the second time of the trip!).
We took a celebratory rest at the falls.
It would be our last water source of the trip, so we took a long siesta and cooked our dinners here in the cascade’s mist. Charles drank pure untreated water straight from the source, but I took the time to filter mine out of habit.
In all of my trips to this place that followed, however, I’ve followed tradition in drinking Thunder River’s pure water.
The evening’s walk up into Surprise Valley was yet another highlight of the trip.
Not only were we refreshed after the siesta, but the heat of the day had finally retreated into a long, low, beautiful light.
And then finally, there’s something about Surprise Valley at this time of day that highlights the Grand Canyon’s utter silence. If you’ve experienced the wonderful quiet that’s to be found in the Canyon’s backcountry, well… you know what I mean. The contrast after the roar of the falls only amplified it.
We tackled the climb up out of Surprise Valley in the cool of the evening, and made camp at its summit, on the lip of the Esplanade.
more photos from Day 2:
Day 3 – The Esplanade Rim to Monument Point
We woke early on this final day of the trip and simply retraced our steps up to the rim.
I made a habit in these days of putting away my DSLR camera for the final push up and out of the Canyon, especially if I’d already documented it on the way down the trail. So there’s no photos for this final day of the hike.
I’ve been back to this region of the Canyon many times now – mostly via the River – but nothing quite compares to the wonder of this first trip.
People will often ask what’s my favorite hike in the Grand Canyon, and I always reply with Thunder River.
A more honest and long-winded answer would be to explain that’s impossible to choose a single favorite, or to go on about some obscure off-trail location of which they won’t be familiar… so it’s nice and succinct to quickly name an established trail. And it’s not a lie.