Sunday, Oct 1st, 2023, 0700-1800
Thunder \ Tapeats creek confluence to Deer Creek and the Colorado River
5.5 miles, elevation 2210′
I had an amazing view from my tent overnight. Lightning flashes for awhile and then the glow of the moon on the canyon walls. Outside the dark outline of the alcove, I could see some clouds mixed with stars in the morning. It looked like a promising start, but the canyon only allowed a very limited window on the world. What new wonders awaited us?
I was really hoping that a trail went all the way along the west shore of the creek but we were immediately forced into another crossing. Aside from getting my shoes wet again, it wasn’t a big deal. But then we had to cross one more time at the Thunder River confluence, which looked a bit intimidating the way the additional water was pouring in. We crossed just upstream of the confluence and walked through several side gushers, which looked more extreme than they actually were…made for cool photos.
Finally we could say goodbye to Tapeats and enjoy some real trail for the first time since Muav Saddle. We faced a climb of 1200′ in about a mile, but it was by far the easiest section since leaving the forest service roads on the North Rim. Going up steeply never felt so simple. Perhaps it was also because we were stopping so frequently to take pictures. The view behind us up Tapeats Canyon was stunning. So too were the green splashes of vegetation on the walls in front of us. One the greatest spectacles in all the Grand Canyon (high standards) is the Thunder River, which comes shooting out of a wall at tremendous velocity and volume. Think of the Kaibab plateau as an enormous sponge, which collects all that snow melt and monsoon rain, then shoots it out from the side of the canyon. What a trip!
I was mesmerized by this feature, even though I’d seen it in pictures and had read about it at length. It’s so hard to get the full feeling of it outside of seeing it in person. Rafters even travel far from their river sanctuary to see it, hence the well-developed trail. Often they are let off at Tapeats to hike up the creek and over the saddle back down to Deer creek, something like 9 miles. It’s considered a strenuous side hike and takes most people all day. For us, it was like having a day off. My whole body was sore from the antics of the day before, so it was nice to be able to take it easy this day
We took the short side trail to the wall where the falls glistened down the rocks. Moss and ferns grew in abundance, clinging desperately to what little foothold they could eek out. What an amazing sight!
We tore ourselves away from the spectacle and continued to the top of the bench. There we walked with the greatest of ease through the flatness of Surprise Valley. We passed the turn off to the Bill Hall trail, which is a route some had taken in the spring to get through the route to Zion. I was so glad I waited to come back in the fall and experience the full adventure of Saddle Canyon and Tapeats creek. The logistics of getting back had workout out perfectly, so too in finding a capable and compatible partner. We’d both been hiking most of the summer and were in good shape. Given the distances and difficulty of the route, starting without some base fitness might have been tough.
We began a descent towards Deer creek, meeting 2 backpackers on their way back up the Bill Hall trail. They were the only backpackers we saw inside the park on this section. At Deer creek, we stopped to go for a dip. The water was very refreshing since it had gotten pretty toasty. The rest of the way to the Colorado river was along more stunning scenery. The creek descends via a series of waterfalls into a slot canyon of the Tapeats rock layer, while the trail winds along the rim of the canyon on Tapeats ledges. It’s one of the most incredible sights in the park, but usually only seen by rafters. Negotiating the narrow ledges with a pack was fun in a couple of tight spots. A fall over the rim would have been a short-lived extreme adventure. The trail then popped out at a balcony overlooking the river… supposedly the narrowest point of the main canyon. Deer creek dropped about 100 feet from the ledge as a spectacular waterfall. It almost rivaled the power and splendor of the Thunder River.
We had been hoping to run into rafters and boy did we. There were boats on the near shore and a party camped across the river. Another group was just arriving. We hurried down to the river front to see about getting a ride for the 7 or 8 miles downriver to Kanab creek. Like the section I bypassed in the spring, there was no trail along the river. Hayduke hikers were to scramble across the rocks and thorny vegetation at 1 mph or less pace, enduring the 90 degree heat of the bottom canyon. As sore as I was from Saddle Canyon, this was very unappealing to me. I don’t know at what point hitching on a raft became a viable option, but after I’d read about a few people doing it, it’s all I wanted to do. The ride from Nanokoweap to the Little Colorado in the spring had been so much fun, it left me wanting more. Aqua blaze forever.
Poor Worn had been unable to get a ride in the spring, so he too was keen on experiencing both the thrill and relaxation of floating down the river. We said that if when we got to the river and there were no rafts, we wouldn’t wait, we would just start walking. But if there were rafts, we would try to get a ride. Now it seemed like we had plenty of options. We quickly learned that the first group was a commercial trip, so that was a no-go… understandably, they have liability concerns. The other group didn’t have room, but they did give us some granola bars. At last, the group camped across the river said they could take us…if we were willing to wait until they departed the next morning.
Being forced to take it easy next to Deer Creek all day sounded terrible, but we figured we could manage. So that’s what we did. It was only about 11 am when we arrived at the river, so we passed the time by lounging in the little shade we could find and catching fish… yes, Worm and I actually caught several of the suckers in the creek with our bare hands. They were very slow and in shallow water, so it wasn’t that incredible of a feat. We put them back unharmed, confident that if we needed extra calories, we knew where to find them. I think the suckers must not be good to eat, as plentiful as they were. I first encountered them in Nankoweap, where I almost stepped on a few while crossing the stream. I thought they must be invasive, then later a rafter told me they were the endangered Humpback chub and that we’re not supposed to touch them. I finally looked them up: definitely not a chub, but the flannelmouth sucker, native but not endangered.
Later in the day, Dave, the leader of our rafting group, oared over to invite us to dinner and to join them at their campsite. I figured the delayed invite was because he first needed to ask his group if they were all ok with adding us, which was very equitable. I think they also had to ensure that there would be enough leftovers. We didn’t expect to be fed, but it was very appreciated given that we were going to be low on food by delaying almost a day. I’d already made my dinner for the night, so I got to eat 2 dinners. Luckily I’d also carried an extra dinner, so I had enough to last me 2 more days. The group shared their chili, tamales, squash, and mint Oreos for dessert. Dave also gave us each a few beers, which was so nice. We sat around the camp circle, learning names and the stories of our new friends. There were 10 in total, with 2 Davids and 2 Lorries, Rob, Jess, Doug, Tony, Joneau, and Jo.
I was surprised when just after dark, everyone pretty quickly slipped off to bed. I thought of rafters as being somewhat rowdy but our group behaved more like thru-hikers after a 30 mile day. It was just as well, since I was still recovering from the day before. I retired to my tent, perched on an open bench above the river. Worm found a nice protected spot under an alcove higher up the hill. Both locations were pretty epic. The sky was amazing, plus the glow of the rising moon lit up the canyon walls in a display that was pretty astonishing. Jess had pulled a weather report from her Garmin that said there was a 70% chance of rain around midnight. I believed her, so rather than cowboy camping, as I’d originally hoped to, I pitched my tent. This was a good call!