Bill Hall Trail to Thunder River, Upper Tapeats, Deer Creek Overlook

Key for all trip logs

Participants: George Aumann, Eric Benson, Rich Benson, Craig Cheetham, Tom Chester, Tim Conrow, Cynthia Kiser, Linda Fullmer, Gene Kopan and Tadas Sesplaukis.
Dates: 3-6 September 1996

(Click on pictures for a larger version.)

The entire group sans the photographer Tadas Sesplaukis

This trip to the Canyon was unique for me - normally the problem is the heat, but this time I and others were quite worried about dying of hypothermia! In addition, this was the first Grand Canyon hike that I didn't really prepare for. I hadn't done any long hikes since my last Grand Canyon hike on 1 June 1996, and I never put my backpack on to get used to it. As a result, I reached physical fitness nirvana on this trip - every part of my body was sore, almost equally!

As usual for August/early September in the Canyon, it rained a bit every day. For a four-day trip near 1 September, one expects 0.25" of rain in the Inner Canyon, with a low temperature of only 72° F. Because the usual situation is to get just a few sprinkles per storm in the inner Canyon, we were rooting for rain so that it wouldn't be so hot. Especially because Arizona had been averaging 10° F. above normal, which was so bad that the Canyon was actually closed to hikers for part of the summer. It was advertised at the North Rim that hiking restrictions were still in effect when we left, requiring that hikers leave the Trailhead before 7 am. We got our wish for clouds and/or rain every day except on the way down, where it was quite hot (97° F.) descending through the Redwall into Surprise Valley.

The problem occurred when we were camped on the Esplanade at 5300'. Although the sky was filled with beautiful stars and only a bit of clouds when we went to sleep, about 1:30 am we were awakened by fierce gusts of winds. I had a mosquito tent around my head, which I managed to hang onto even though I was pretty groggy. The wind was accompanied by tremendous lightning, thunder and rain. We were under a ledge, but that made no difference as the rain was coming nearly horizontally at times. For about a half hour or so, we got pelted.

Normally I love lightning storms, but this was a different matter. It's no fun being inside one, especially when the temperature is below 60° F.

The thunderstorm eventually passed, but we had another problem. It rained for another 2 hours or so. And we were cold - I shivered with my entire body inside my sleeping bag for about a half hour until I finally warmed up. Tadas wrapped himself up in his emergency blanket and made a cocoon to try to get warm. Craig was sitting in a small space under the ledge, with every part inside his sleeping bag except his feet, since he still had his boots on after moving his stuff under the ledge during the windstorm. Gene and Linda were inside a tube tent away from the ledge, and spent the entire time holding each end of their tent closed.

The three hours total of rain gave us plenty of time to wonder how we got ourselves into this fine pickle, and why we were here instead of in a nice warm bed! And how were we going to pack up and get out if it continued to rain? The continued rain puzzled us, since we were used to thunderstorms that raged and then subsided. I had also noticed the clouds drifting to the northeast instead of the usual northwest, and was worried that a tropical storm had made its way into our area from Baja California. This would imply that it may never stop raining on our way out!

Fortunately, the rain finally stopped about 5 am, and we got up to assess the situation. Although there were plenty of menacing clouds around, they soon evaporated, the sun shone clearly, and the only reminders of our stormy night were the rain pockets on the Esplanade, our heavier packs and the memories we carried with us.

Several people in our party commented about how the trail had been improved over our previous trip 9 years ago. The first descent down to the Esplanade had been rerouted and vastly improved, and the Redwall descent showed evidence of recent trail work, improving it. I do remember that it used to be tricker to go down the landslide, and it is a piece of cake now. Thanks to the people who made our trip easier!

Detailed trip description

3 September 1996 - Tuesday

Bill Hall Trailhead to Upper Tapeats Campsite

The Trailhead looked much different than it did 9 years ago, due to the Thunder River fire earlier this summer. The burned area starts just before the Bill Hall Trailhead, and continues for the Rim part of the Trail.

Eric and Rich Benson, Craig Cheetham and I got to Bill Hall Trailhead at about 8:30 and were ready to hike at 8:50. The others had left about 7:00, after camping at the trailhead the previous night. Our plan was to go to Deer Creek, spend one night there, then move to Upper Tapeats for the next night, and leave late the next day to camp on the Esplanade.

The pack was awful - I was carrying my sleeping bag, due to the plan of sleeping on the Esplanade on the way back up, and I was carrying too much food. Fortunately, I had dumped about 1/3 of the food the previous night.

Nonetheless, there was no real problem for some time, although the descent was so steep at the top that my legs started to cramp, and my left knee had a few twinges, but both symptoms went away quickly.

I was worried for a while that we were going to repeat the same mistake of 9 years earlier, but felt greatly relieved when I saw the false ridge trail and we went beyond it. I realized later that the problem was that the topo map indicated that the trail went farther down the ridge to the 6000' contour, but the trail map sold by Outdoor Adventure (?) indicated properly that the trail went off the ridge at the 6400' contour, then west level for 0.5 mile before descending to the Esplanade.

The descent to the Esplanade

We cached water just beyond the trail intersection. I carried 5 liters down and cached 1.2 liters.

The hike was fairly pleasant until we got to the redwall descent, where the temperature was 97° F. Our spirits began to flag a bit there, and since we hadn't been to Deer Creek before, we were wondering whether we would get to water before the heat did us in or we ran out of water.

When we got to the intersection of the Deer Creek trail with the Thunder River trail, we found a note that everyone else in our party had decided to go to Thunder River instead of Deer Creek! We learned later that George Aumann and Ted had decided to go there first because George calculated that they would run out of water soon. Then Tim Conrow and Cynthia decided to do that also, but Gene and Linda were resisting because they really wanted to go to Deer Creek. Finally, however, Gene capitulated just before the intersection.

We decided to go to Thunder River, too, to keep the party together. It turned out to be a very wise move, since Deer Creek water was a much longer ways away.

Smelling the end of the trail, I charged ahead, since Surprise Valley was relatively flat. The temperature of my remaining water was 105° F., which made it pretty unpleasant to drink. I had about a half-liter of water left when I got to the Spring. The four of us ended up getting to the Spring at about the same time, where we met the others in our group, who were getting ready to leave. We four stayed at the Spring for a while to recover after our other group left.

I was really dragging the rest of the way to Upper Tapeats Campground, since I was really tired of carrying my heavy pack by then. Rich and I got in just at dark.

Another group was still there (the ones that were supposed to be there!), but we fortunately found two empty campsites and we all crowded into there. We made dinner and went to sleep. Very hot gusts came up canyon during the night.

4 September 1996 - Wednesday
A day of rest at Upper Tapeats

It was a warm night, with the temperature at 82° 6:12 am, after being at 80° F. when the thermometer was pulled out of my backpack. However, that was better than the advertised low of 88° F. at Phantom Ranch the previous morning!

I woke up with a slight headache, which got worse during the morning. Most of us had a standing pulse of 100 beats / minute in the morning, except of course for Rich, who had a pulse of around 50! I also was incredibly sore, since I had committed the cardinal sin of not doing any long hikes before this hike, nor putting my backpack on at all.

I spent the entire morning until about 1 pm in the shade of a big rock at the campsite. Finally, around 2 pm my headache got better, and spent most of the afternoon right at the river. It started to sprinkle at about 4 pm, so moved pack to the main group campsite nearer Thunder River. Unfortunately, I didn't hang up my food, and rats got into each of the 4 ziplock bags of peanuts I had. I quickly realized what was going on, and then hung up my food. Rich and Eric Benson went to the Colorado River for most of the day.

Because I had nothing better to do while I had my headache, I kept track of the temperature during the day. The clouds kept the peak temperature from getting to 100° F.

There was a big gradient in temperature - next to Tapeats Creek it was about 10° cooler than at the highest campsite. The water temperature was 57° F. It again was a warm night.

5 September 1996 - Thursday

Upper Tapeats Campsite to the Esplanade, with an accidental hike to Deer Creek Overlook

The temperature at 7:07 am was still only 80° F., even though it wasn't as hot yesterday. Ted, George, Gene, Linda and I packed up by 9 am and left for the spring. The rest went to the river. Craig planned on being back to join us in going to the Esplanade, but the rest planned on spending more time at the river and camping in Surprise Valley.

I took off first for the spring, rested and hydrated, then decided to take my sleeping bag and 2 liters of water and cache them in Surprise Valley, so I wouldn't have to carry the entire weight of the pack to that point later in the afternoon.

When I got to Surprise Valley, clouds were covering the sun and it was very pleasant hiking. I was blasting along, and completely missed the first (southeast) Deer Creek/Thunder River trail intersection. By the time I noticed that I had missed it, I was pretty far along to the next intersection, so I continued on. (The trail intersection was pretty invisible - the only cairn was hidden behind a bush when one was hiking west, and the other cairn had been destroyed. The Thunder River trail was only visible for a brief distance, as it turned to the west after it took off to the north. When I came back to this intersection later in that day, I rebuilt the other cairn.)

I dropped the sleeping bag and 2 liters of water at the southwest intersection of the 2 trails, and continued on to Deer Creek, since I was already close to it and I estimated that I had enough time to do that and still get back in time for the hike out. Shortly after I decided to continue, the sun came out and it got pretty hot again. The trail was gentle after the rim of Surprise Valley, so I made good time. I could see a far ridge that I wanted to get to, and estimated that it was about a mile away, which gave me enough time to get there. When I achieved that ridge, it was clear that another 10-20 minutes would place me right at the cliff overlooking Deer Creek. I got there at 12:30, which was enough time for me to get back for the hike to the Esplanade. I estimate that I was about at the 3200' contour, since I was around 1000' above the valley. (I didn't have my altimeter with me, nor my pack, since I hadn't planned to go this far.)

Deer Creek was different than I expected. The Narrows were nowhere to be seen. Deer Creek at this overlook was a wide green valley. The descent into Deer Creek looked like it was built into the side of the cliff, but I could only see the trail for a bit as it headed northwest.

I hotfooted it back to the southwest trail intersection, picked up the sleeping bag and 2 liters of water, and headed for the third (northern) Deer Creek/Thunder River trail intersection at the north end. I ditched my stuff there, then moved hurriedly back to Thunder River spring. I probably am one of the few people to have hit all 3 Deer Creek/Thunder River trail intersections in one day and two of those intersections twice in the same day!

Craig showed up about a half hour later, and took until 4:30 to get ready to hike to the Esplanade. Everyone else left at about 3 pm.

The western part of Surprise Valley, taken from the top of the Redwall. The author and Craig Cheetham are solidly in the shadows below.

We made it about 2/3 of the way to the top of the Redwall before it got dark. We hiked the rest of the way by flashlight, which we have become expert in. I was really going slowly because my pack was killing me. We found the others at the top, made a quick dinner and went to sleep. Gene had picked out a site that had an overhang, but the only space left for me was with the overhang over my head and upper part of my chest.

6 September 1996 - Friday

The Thunderstorm, the rain that wouldn't quit, and the hike out

I was awakened at about 2 am by fierce winds from a thunderstorm that was blowing in. I held onto my mosquito netting for all I was worth, and then was pelted by rain in a tremendous lightning storm. Everything under the ledge got wet from the driving rain. My sleeping bag was zipped open about halfway, which was comfortable before the storm, but now I was freezing. The storm lasted about a half hour or so, and by that time I was worried about hypothermia. When the severe winds stopped, I dismantled the mosquito netting, and dived fully into my sleeping bag.

It took about 30 minutes before I stopped shivering. This gave me plenty of time to worry about what was going to happen when my sleeping bag got fully wet, inside and out. It was wet along the zipper area, and water was seeping in from the bottom, since it would (mostly) roll off the sleeping bag, onto the tube tent I was using as a tarp, and then under the bag. I was thinking about calculating whether my body heat would warm up the incoming water fast enough to avoid hypothermia, or whether I was a goner.

Meanwhile, Craig had jumped up at the first wind, and put all his stuff under the ledge. He sat there in his sleeping bag during the storm. I was even more worried about Ted and George, because they didn't have sleeping bags. Fortunately, Ted had a high-quality emergency blanket that he wrapped around himself, and George was wearing about 12 layers of clothing.

It then rained until 5 pm (at the Esplanade - 6 pm in Surprise Valley), which caused me a lot of grief, since it was raining on 2/3 of my sleeping bag, and it started to drip under the ledge itself on and near me. I finally managed to get my tube tent (that I was using as a ground cloth) around my sleeping bag to keep it from getting any wetter. Tadas kindly moved over a bit so I could scrunch up under the ledge so that the drips wouldn't splash in my face.

We all were wondering if we were going to die of hypothermia, and were greatly relieved when the sun came out at dawn and the threatening clouds slowly went away. I had been complaining most of the trip about taking my sleeping bag, since everyone except Craig had gone without one, but I changed my tune as soon as the storm came up. I was deeply grateful for the bag! The temperature was 60° F. in my pack at 7:25 am.

I put my stuff out on the rocks so that they could dry a bit before I left. Everyone else left before me, but I had to lighten my pack as much as possible. It was amazing how quickly (1-2 hours) the sun evaporated the water from my items.

It was murderous carrying my pack out. I had to rest every half hour on the Esplanade to get it off my back. I found my water, and caught up to Tadas and George on the landslide ascent. I fell back again when I had to stop to put moleskin on hotspots on my toes (showing once again the lack of preparation I had done for this hike).

I couldn't believe how steep the trail was as I was climbing out the final stretch. I wondered how I was able to make it down such a steep trail!

At the top, I was amazed how much warmer the burned area was than just below the rim.

Detailed Trip Logs

3 September 1996 - Tuesday

Bill Hall Trailhead to Upper Tapeats Campsite

Recording numberMileageTime arrivedTime leftMy AltimeterComments
00.008:50 6950Bill Hall Trailhead. True altitude 7205.
1 1.05 9:26 9:40 6650 First shade on west side of ridge.
2 1.30 9:48  6650  
3 1.9510:10  6500 Start of landslide descent
4 2.8010:51 11:26 5450 At base of breakdown, nearly at Esplanade proper.
5 3.2511:39 12:20 5300 Just past junction with Thunder River proper Trail. Cached water and ate lunch.
6 4.25 12:35 12:40 5300 Rest stop.
7 5.05 12:57 1:27 5200 Rest stop. 87° F.
8 5.901:462:025200Rest stop. 83° F. The temperature clearly depends strongly on how good the shade is! Have been doing a gentle descent from the Esplanade.
9 6.202:10 5000 Start of the real Redwall descent.
10 6.752:35 465097° F.! An amazing temperature difference from just a half mile away.
11 7.503:043:304050 96° F. At the bottom of the Redwall descent.
12 8.05 3:45 3800 Northern Deer Creek/Thunder River Trail junction.
13 8.50 4:01 3750 Southeast Deer Creek/Thunder River Trail junction.
14 9.15 4:224:333750 At lip of Surprise Valley overlooking Thunder River. Water temperature 103° F., which borders on being undrinkable.
15 9.75 4:555:053500About halfway down to Thunder River Spring.
169.90 5:10 3350 Thunder River Spring.
1710.25  6:20 Leaving Thunder River Spring, after walking around a bit there talking to others and getting water.
18 11.60 7:09 2550Upper Tapeats Campsite.

4 September 1996 - Wednesday

A day of rest at Upper Tapeats

Temperature Versus Time for 4-5 September 1996 at Upper Tapeats Campsite
TimeTemperature (° F.) Comments
9:30 am80No sunlight at campsite yet.
9:45 am 80  
9:54 am 83 Sun just hit campsite. Temperature taken in shade of a large rock.
10:15 am87 
10:34 am 88 Light clouds in part of sky
11:02 am90  
11:38 am 93  
12:11 pm 94 Serious clouds in sky now
12:34 pm94  
2:11 pm 95 A few sprinkles
3:19 pm 94  
4:20 pm 85 Shade at campsite again, with sun setting behind canyon wall.
4:20 pm 79 temperature at river edge
4:20 pm 89 temperature at highest campsite
7:20 pm 87 temperature at highest campsite
7:20 pm 83 temperature at lowest campsite
7:20 pm 57 temperature of river
7:07 am 80 temperature at highest campsite
9:12 am 83 temperature at highest campsite

5 September 1996 - Thursday

Upper Tapeats Campsite to the Esplanade, with an accidental hike to Deer Creek Overlook

Recording numberMileageTime arrivedTime leftMy AltimeterComments
00.009:23 2450Upper Tapeats Campsite.
1 0.40 9:39  2850 Trail meets Thunder River
2 1.05 10:10  3250 Thunder River Spring
3 1.45 11:02 3450 Left Thunder River Spring
4 2.0011:23    Top of Surprise Valley sans pack, altimeter
5 3.0011:55    Southwest Deer Creek/Thunder River Trail Junction
6 5.25 12:33    Lip overlooking Deer Creek
7 8.65 2:15  3450 Thunder River Spring, via north Deer Creek/Thunder River Trail Junction
8 9.00  4:323450 Left Thunder River Spring
9 9.45 5:04 3900 Lip of Surprise Valley
10 10.35 5:31 3700 Southeast Deer Creek/Thunder River Trail Junction
11 10.75 5:47 3900 North Deer Creek/Thunder River Trail Junction. Picked up sleeping bag and 2 liters of water.
12 11.056:12 4150Going up Redwall, perhaps 1/3 of way up. Temperature 82° F.
13 11.506:56 4500 Still going up.
14 12.308:09 5100 Top of Redwall. Hiking by flashlight now and just a bit before this.
1512.658:25 5300Camp on Esplanade.

6 September 1996 - Friday

Esplanade to Bill Hall Trail Head

Recording numberMileageTime arrivedTime leftMy AltimeterComments
00.008:59 5100Camp on Esplanade.
1 1.30 9:31 9:41 5150  
2 2.30 10:05 10:18 5200 Retrieved cached water.
3 2.5510:22  5250 Trail Junction
4 3.50 11:03 11:23 5850 Going up breakdown. Put moleskin on a couple of hot spots.
5 3.9011:45 11:55 6300 Every part of my body hurts or is tired!
6 4.10 12:12  6450 Just past top of landslide ascent.
7 4.6012:31 12:46 6500  
8 4.7012:49 6500 Junction false ridge trail
9 5.051:251:306950 Top!
10 5.50 1:431:506950 almost to car
11 5.80 2:00 6850 Car!

Go To:
G. Aumann's write-up of this trip (and more pictures) | 1987 Thunder River Trip | Grand Canyon hikes
Tom's HomePage | San Gabriel Mountain hikes | Fallbrook hikes

e-mail: Tom Chester

This page last updated 6 November 1996.