Thundering the North Rim:
Backpacking Grand Canyon N.P.
October 22-27, 1999
By Rob Jones
(Text and Photos © copyright by Rob Jones)

the Grand Colorado at Deer Creek
Craig above the very grand Colorado River at Deer Creek
(Click the image for a full-size view (27k); Photo by Rob)

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Thundering Thunder River
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Day 1: Exhaustive Thundering: (16 plus miles, 6400' descent.) 

Commentary: The dull roar entered my wandering unconsciousness as I approached the top of the knoll. "Is it the wind?" I mused. "Not likely?", I considered, as I scanned the towering red and orange walls to the North and the vast open space fringed by equally lofty plateaus in the blue mist and haze to the South. Stepping over the apex of the knoll, the world abruptly changed, as it had done so often today, and in such a delightful manner. Here were barrel cactus, and, wait, yes, Cottonwoods, an entire mini-forest of them down below, in the direction of the roar. And, unbelievably, a small river spurting directly out from the cliff face, so much water erupted that it thundered, filling the upper canyon with the low-frequency drone. Wow! I wondered if the long hike had produced a state prone to hallucination. Then I suddenly noticed how dry my mouth and all my body parts are. It must be real. The smell of sweet water was wafting up from the trees. It's been a long, down-elevator day of desert hiking. 

Nearing the end of our massive 16-mile, 4000' descent day, the excitement of this marvel was tempered by our pure exhaustion. Down again, we lurched down the third major redwall staircase of the day. "Argh!", said my knees. Approaching Thunder River, the shortest and steepest river in the U.S., cool and misty breezes glide over us and aids our feeble trudge to Upper Tapeats CG. 

The day: It all started yesterday, as we four, Craig McCarthy, Zig Sondelski, Joe Jerkovich, and I left the city of smog and headed South. South to Escobars in Kanab (muy excellente!) and then into Arizona, dodging roadside deer along the way, to Jacob Lake where we crashed for the night. 

The first smudge of morning today found us negotiating the last of the backroads to the Thunder River TH, Indian Hollow. Wearing pants and pile, we started off the first step of the GC staircase. Huge water babies burdening our bwana packs and awkwardly propelling us, accompanied by continuous complaints from our knees. Once on the esplanade, 1000 vertical feet later, we rolled along for the rest of the 7 miles to the junction with the Bill Hall Trail, fresh from its plummet off Monument Point. Here, we thanked the desert spirits, for we cached the water babies (nearly 2 gallons for me, equating to nearly 16 pounds), ate another lunch, allowed our feet to return to their normal shape, and then continued toward the top of the Redwall Limestone, the next GC staircase step. Absent the water babies, I felt like I was carrying a big day pack. We would return to the water babies for a dry camp along the esplanade on our way out. 

Sweeping views greeted us at the Redwall launch-off, the second major staircase step. Vistas into inner space. Down from over 5000' we trudged, to near 3600' and Surprise Valley. Here we passed the y-junctions that lead to Deer Creek or Thunder River. We continued East toward Thunder River, where this entry began. It was getting quite warm, but not hot, as we strolled the rollers through Surprise Valley. 

We began the day near 6400' and dropped packs at about 2400'. This, combined with the distance made for an energy required (ER) day of between 20 and 22 miles. 

Fred, the "wild" pet turkey assigned to the Upper Tapeats CG, soon visited and helped with meal and camp preparations as the light faded from the massive walls. Later, the cool, colorless moon glow replaced the soft reds of sunset. 
Zig, Joe, Craig, and Fred the turkey at Tapeats Camp
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Day 2: Canyon Rest:  

Commentary: Sheets of frothy white water leap off the polished slickrock and over the ten foot falls of what is now Tapeats Creek. I find it curious that when Thunder River meets Tapeats Creek, Tapeats retains its name. Since when does a river take on the name of a creek? It's cold water; water with an emerald tint reminiscent of the turquoise water in glacial lakes. We're lounging and napping near the falls, where all desert sounds are obliterated by the thundering flow. 

The day: Today, we hiked a bit toward the Colorado and up Tapeats Creek, but only as a mild exploratory. We're happy we didn't camp at lower Tapeats; too far, over somewhat questionable trail, which would have added much too much mileage to our already flattened feet. (If you do go, hike on the left side going downstream. It's at least 3 more miles to the Colorado from the junction of Tapeats and Thunder River.) 

Joe commented that "Fred has gone from a novelty to a nuisance." Fred peeks over our shoulders when we're cooking or eating lunch, and starts pecking at any bag left within his reach. He allowed us some rest because he went off to roost in one of the streamside Cottonwood snags during the warmer part of the day. Magically, he arrived back in camp just in time for dinner. 
Fred the all-terrain turkey
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Day 3: Deer Drop Inn: (7 miles, up 1500' and down 1400', plus 300' more to the Colorado.) 

Commentary: Craning my head back as far as my stiff, old vertebrae allow, I gaze in awe at Redwall Limestone and other sheer ramparts high enough to block the sun for much of the day this time of year. Glowing salmon, reds, tawny yellows, hints of green and slate blue accent a nearly 360 degree gawk along this trail to Deer Creek. Then, I hear a "chicka, caw." What?! It's Fred, the all terrain turkey, who has followed us for nearly 7 miles from Upper Tapeats CG. Amazing. Initially, we thought he had remained at the Tapeats camp, but he joined us as we filtered water from near the booming blow hole of Thunder River. Fred walked between Craig and I through Surprise Valley, and we thought he had turned back as we neared the drop into Deer Creek. But, as we began the boulder-cluttered drop toward Deer Spring, Fred suddenly reappeared and flew down into the Throne Room of the spring, and was waiting there when we arrived. We all paused for lunch, lounging in the giant thrones constructed by previous visitors. 

The day: Morning came too early, with Craig yelling in the dark "Rise and hike, let's go to Deer Creek!" Even with the early rising, it was nearing 8 a.m. by the time we were hiking back up to Thunder Spring to collect water for the cache we would leave on the West side of the y-junction in Surprise Valley. Here we are, already preparing for the stair-stepping out of this wondrous land. After caching the water, we continued to the decline into Deer Creek. This drop is more gradual and rubbley than the fairly nicely engineered route into Thunder River. We paused in the Throne Room for lunch, and Fred annoyed us, trying to climb into our laps for granola, etc. Then, into Deer Creek, where we camped just upstream of the narrows. 

Then, it was time for a day hike to the exuberant, chilly Colorado. The walk through the Deer Creek narrows and to the base of Deer Creek Falls was beyond outstanding. The stream had cut 50' or more into the layer cake rock where we walked. Popping out into the sunshine, we found ourselves staring into the Granite Narrows of the mighty Colorado. An immense canyon system sprawled upstream. We walked the route around and down to river level, where Deer Creek Falls spurts out from the rock wall and plummets into an azure pool. Trout lounged in the clear water. "It's like a desert swamp cooler," noted Craig, as we luxuriated in the forced-air laced with rainbows below the falls. 
Rob and the Deer Creek Falls
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Day 4: Goodbye Fred, or, Esplanade Exploring: (10 miles, up 3100'.) 

Commentary: Somewhere in the dark above, I heard Fred ruffle and rearrange his feathers, accompanied by an unenthusiastic "goggle." He sounded annoyed at our pre-dawn fumblings. Craig and I were packing and awaiting early dawn to check camp. Occasionally, we see glints of light from Zig's and Joe's headlamps as they climb the distant rubble pile near Deer Spring. The lights seem suspended in the inky black of pre-dawn. As the gray seeps in, Craig and I sneak out of camp, leaving Fred gleaning bits of oatmeal from the sand. He begins to call and fuss when he realizes we left him behind. We did not want Fred to follow us to the desiccated Esplanade. 

The day: Today, we climbed out of Deer Creek into Surprise Valley. Then, we huffed up through the redwall layer and wandered to the Esplanade, eventually getting to our water baby stash. Here, Craig and I caught up with the lounging, far-ranging Joe and Zig. Soon, we realized our mistake because we had not arrived sooner. Why? Because Zig and Joe were well-rested and urged us to continue along the Esplanade and find a more scenic place to camp, one that is also closer to the TH. 

So, here we are, once again lugging all that cached water along the Esplanade. Argh! Joe did find a glorious camping spot, and we all slept out under the stars on the wide open slickrock. 
Zig on the Esplanade
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Day 5: Magenta Morning, or, Early Out: (7 miles, up 900'.) 

Commentary: Something large shuffled around the rock peninsula, waking me from a light sleep. I was finding it difficult to sleep because of the brilliance of the full moon, and Zig's shuffling provided a reason to get up and shuffle along myself. The dawn broke deep purple, then magenta, then shards of pink protruded across the cliff faces as the colors spread in jolts along the lengthy escarpment of the distant South rim, uncloaking in the shimmering dawn. 

The day: The colors and the solar load warmed as we strolled along the Esplanade to the foot of the last climb out of this delightful, grand gorge of inner earth. Somewhere less than 1000' of vertical climbing, we reached the rim and the park boundary. We paused and reflected as our eyes roved across the grand expanse of this intimate earth. 

A short jaunt through the ponderosa forest, and we were back at the TH, where we enjoyed a brisk water bottle bath. On the road, we soon encountered a throng of Fred's cousins, all running along at 15 MPH or so, in front of Zig's van. Like the proverbial sheep on the railroad track, they raced along in front of us for half a mile before they realized, or took the opportunity, to run off to the side. Joe wondered aloud how Fred was doing. We all agreed that Fred had it figured out, and that he ruled the Thunder River/Deer Creek area. Zig added "I imagine he will wait for the next group of hikers, then eat as much of their food as allowed." Sprawled out in the van as we drop off the Kaibab, into the warm lowlands, headed toward the Vermilion step of the exceedingly Grand Staircase, we talked of thundering the Grand Canyon in style and camaraderie. 

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Don't be a turkey, be a wild activist today!
Fred says "Bye for now!" Click here for a full-size view (10k)