Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop
By Michael Lanza
The heat presses in from all sides as we hike down the Bill Hall Trail off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The overhead sun feels as if it has expanded to a supernova threatening to engulf the planet. The rocks radiate waves of heat up at us; I wonder if they might actually reach egg-frying temperature today. Even the air seems to be rising to a boil like a vast kettle on a stove. We hike cautiously over broken stones that slide underfoot, leaning out onto our trekking poles for the two- and three-foot ledge drops on this path—which appears better suited to bighorn sheep than to bipedal primates hauling backpacks weighed down with gear, food, and a surplus of a rare element out here: water.
It’s not even 9 a.m. at around 7,000 feet in the second week of May, and the forecast for the bottom of the canyon—where we are headed—calls for highs in the 90s over the coming days. In other words, we must remind ourselves that these are the coolest hours of the day, and we should try to enjoy them because this respite from the heat—however much it may not feel like a respite—won’t last long.
Three friends—Todd Arndt, Chip Roser, and Jeff Wilhelm—and I have set out on a four-day backpacking trip on the 25-mile Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop off the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. We’ve come in mid-May hoping to get lucky with the temperatures during one of the two brief seasonal windows for taking this trip. And it turns out we did get lucky in that the trailhead access road only became free of snow and passable days ago; had we planned dates much earlier, we might have been shut out. (Autumn often has a slightly longer ideal window for backpacking this loop. See my trip-planning tips in the Take This Trip section at the bottom of this story.)
When reserving a backcountry permit months in advance, it’s a roll of the dice to guess which dates in spring will reward you with snow-free roads and lower-than-supernova temps. While the recent heat wave melted away the last snow and dried out the roads on the North Rim, it unfortunately also transformed the inner canyon into the inferno it normally becomes from late May well into September—when this environment shows its true face as a place hospitable to lizards, snakes, and scorpions, but not so much to humans.
The Grand Canyon doesn’t just get hot, it gets really hot.
But our circumstances can certainly be viewed as a water bladder half full rather than half-empty. While the higher stretches of the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop pass through parched, waterless desert—the reason we are each hauling three liters or more of water now—the lower sections that form the roundish part of this lollipop loop we’re hiking have an unusual abundance of water in fast-moving, perennial streams.
In fact, the two creeks and one river (in addition to the Colorado River) that we will hike along pour over some of the Big Ditch’s prettiest waterfalls, course through spectacular narrows, and nurture oases of trees and vegetation. That’s why the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop has become a prized destination for in-the-know backpackers and river rats. Plus, even though the upper parts of the loop are dry, the vistas are the biggest of the hike, revealing the Grand Canyon’s majestic breadth and depth.
And while most of the route’s mileage offers no more shade than you can find under a prickly-pear cactus, there are pockets of shelter from the sun beneath trees along the creeks. We can hunker down like native desert fauna through the incinerating heat of the middle hours of each day, while hiking in the cooler early mornings and evenings.
We came here with a clear-eyed understanding that this hike from the North Rim down a vertical mile to the Colorado and back up again, on often-rugged trails, in heat that pushes the edges of human tolerance, will be really tough. But in compensation for that suffering, we’ll explore one of the more unique corners of the Grand Canyon.
All we have to do is survive it.
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After hours of perspiring copiously while hiking downhill, the incongruous sight of the Thunder River can make your stewed brain suspect it’s a mirage.
By early that first afternoon, we’ve dropped nearly 4,000 feet from the Monument Point-Bill Hall Trailhead. We traversed the Esplanade—a broad plateau of slickrock, massive boulders, and sand at around 5,000 feet, with long views of the canyon—and descended off that plateau on a double-black-diamond-steep portion of the Thunder River Trail, occasionally surfing the smashed dinner-plate stones that comprise it. Then we crossed the starkly barren and absolutely-devoid-of-shade Surprise Valley in skull-baking heat. Only the wind, ash-hot but mercifully strong, makes the steadily rising temperature barely tolerable.
Now, standing the edge of Surprise Valley, we’re looking down at today’s third long, knee-pounding descent through countless switchbacks over loose and rocky ground on a steep canyon slope. Hundreds of feet below us, a lushly green oasis of tall trees stands out against the landscape of cliffs and dirt in shades of ochre and brown. Immediately above this tiny but spirit-lifting soul patch of forest, a roaring, spring-fed waterfall erupts from the middle of a cliff face: the origin of the Thunder River.
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In one sense, the Thunder River isn’t much of a river: From that waterfall at its source, it only flows about a half-mile, although it drops some 1,200 feet in a continuous cascade to its confluence with Tapeats Creek. One of the shortest rivers in the country, it’s also certainly one of the few rivers that’s a tributary of a creek.
But the sheer volume of water gushing from the cliff makes it one of the most dramatic tributaries along the Colorado River’s entire 277-mile length through the Grand Canyon. Unlike most rivers that begin as trickles and streamlets coming together, it leaps from its headwaters birthplace fully formed. Naturally, it’s a great spot to escape the heat. In the shade of the trees and the mist below the waterfall, it feels about 25 degrees cooler. We lounge in the water and beside it for an hour or more. Not surprisingly, in the time we’re there, several parties of river rafters arrive, having walked a couple miles up the Tapeats Creek Trail from the Colorado River to see this waterfall.
We reach a designated campsite in the Upper Tapeats camping area on Tapeats Creek around 3 p.m., in the full-on blacksmith’s forge heat of the day—it’s probably in the mid-90s. We’ve hiked nine horizontal miles and almost a vertical mile downhill, somehow also accumulating over 800 feet of elevation gain over the course of the descent from the North Rim. Although we’ve all completed days of hiking that were three to five times that distance, the fatigue of the heat, the rugged terrain, and the equivalent of walking down well over 400 flights of stairs carrying a pack—if those stairs were intermittently built of loose stones ready to tumble with each step—has left us all feeling physically spent far beyond what we’d expect.
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The almost inevitable dehydration resulting from hard exertion in that kind of heat certainly contributes to the physiological toll: We’re all guzzling water in camp to refill our tanks. Chip and I will both go hours before peeing again.
Of the two campsites at Upper Tapeats, the one slightly upstream is larger, but the downstream one has shade sooner and plenty of space, and sits right on the creek; both are empty, so we grab the lower. While walking between them and the creek for a matter of minutes, I make the egregious error of leaving the top of my backpack not securely closed, and return to find Jeff saying he caught two ravens pulling food from my pack. I assess the damage: a bag of bars torn open, and another bag of the pita bread that was to be part of my lunch every day shredded, with its contents torn up in the dirt or gone. A little while later, as I’m still cursing them, we see one of the ravens fly overhead with a chunk of pita in its mouth.
As dusk dims toward night, bats emerge, making jet-fighter aerial maneuvers overhead, somehow throwing together a meal from the meager offerings of insects in the desert. The steady drone of Tapeats Creek gifts me with a night of coma-like sleep.
In the morning, Todd emerges from his sleeping bag after spending the night out under the stars instead of in one of the tents, and tells me he didn’t sleep well; mice and other small critters kept darting over him, startling him awake. “I may have to rethink the tent thing tonight,” he says.
Today, we have to hike only two miles from Upper Tapeats to the Lower Tapeats camping area, where the creek spills into the Colorado River. Knowing there’s no shade down there, we decide to find shade to hide out in for most of the day. After the sun hits our campsite shortly after 9 a.m.—instantly jacking the temp up about 10 degrees, from pleasant to “time to go”—we start hiking, passing through sprawling, beautiful prickly-pear cacti gardens, with flowers in bloom, on the canyon bottom before the trail climbs up the canyon wall.
While stepping carefully along that narrow goat path, with a potential hundred-foot plunge below my left elbow, I glance down to see a bighorn sheep, with a full curl to its horns, leisurely sauntering through the sparse scrubland along the creek below me.
The trail descends again, and we find a sandstone ledge beside Tapeats Creek with a four-foot wall that casts a strip of all-day shade just wide enough for all of us to lie down on pads. And there we pass the next several hours reading, talking, eating, and chugging water.