Saturday, June 8, 2013

Grand Canyon - Bill Hall Trail to Thunder River

Bridgers Knoll from the rim
Grand Canyon is always on my mind, and why not? It occupies an enormous space not only in the physical world, but in my imagination as well. It is located just up the road from me, offering nearly unlimited opportunities to "drop in and drop out", or more prosaically just get away from it all.

Maybe that's why my thoughts return time and again to the sights and sounds from one of many intimate encounters, enticing me away from more mundane activities like work and endless chores around the house.

One of the places that merit revisiting (even if it's just in my head) is Thunder River. The name itself is a tantalizing invitation to a landscape uncommon to the overall Grand Canyon ecosystem, made all the more delightful by the exuberance manifested in its existence. But to see it you have to make the journey, and that's what this post is all about.

The Bill Hall Trail

For this adventure we're going to have to go a bit farther afield than some of the easier to access trail heads found inside developed Park boundaries. In fact, we're going to need to travel almost 200 miles to the "other" side of the Canyon, aka the North Rim, then make a 30 mile trip on unpaved roads to a remote and unimproved dirt parking area known as Monument Point.

I could post turn-by turn directions including Forest Service road numbers, but if you are serious about the trip you'll just have to invest some time in finding out for yourself where you need to go. Sorry, in my opinion that's part of the fun.

Once you've arrived at the designated spot (you'll know you are there because the road ends and the Canyon begins) it's time to saddle up and hit the trail. The start of the path begins just to the west, through a sagging gate. After dropping down a short distance amidst shrubby vegetation, the trail begins to ascend moderately at first on a rubble strewn slope, heading for the promontory known as Monument Point.

The Bill Hall Trail head at Monument Point
A short distance ahead encounters a spur diverging towards the rim of the Canyon. It leads to a small stone marker and plaque commemorating the life of Park Ranger Bill Hall, whom the trail is named for.

After a moment's consideration and a good look at the majesty of the Canyon, rejoin the main path as it continues upwards. If you are like most folks, beginning the trip with a full pack on a reasonably steep and rocky trail will leave you breathless and sweating in no time. The good news as they say is once you reach the top it's all downhill from there.

Once you complete the heart pumping climb, views to the north are nearly endless thanks to a fire that cleared most of the pinyon and juniper for miles. The next .3 mile is a more or less level trek across open spaces, with a couple of minor ascents/descents through shallow gullies.

One final hill leads to a substantial pile of rocks which marks the drop in point. This is a good place to take in one last look at the scenery, as the next two miles demand total attention to the trail.

The descent into the Canyon starts at this rock cairn
One notable hallmark of the Bill Hall Trail is the rapid loss of elevation over a short distance - 2000 feet in 2 miles. Many hikers opt for the longer but more gradual Indian Hollow Trail found farther west.

I suppose it depends on personal preference, but there are many trails in the Canyon that feature very steep and loose descents, and once you get used to the idea that you must choose your footing very carefully it doesn't really make much sense to try and avoid it. I do however definitely recommend at least one trekking pole or walking stick to assist with sketchier sections.

Looking back up at the first part of the trail illustrates the challenge to hikers with heavy packs - coming and going.

The most difficult section is the steady and unrelenting passage through the Kaibab and Toroweap layers, which seems longer than it is due to the care hikers must exercise on the way down.  Eventually the trail rounds the corner to the northwest and begins a traverse into the Coconino, where the grade moderates just a bit.  The views to the west invite a break from the grueling but necessary plunge.

There is one spot in the Coconino where some may find a short rope useful to lower packs, although many people could probably pick their way down the rocky outcrop with careful placement of hands and feet. After this relatively minor obstacle the trail returns to a more acute angle, dropping swiftly through a series of switchbacks to a drainage leading to the Esplanade below.

Esplanade is a word which means "a level open stretch of paved or grassy ground". While neither paved nor grassy, it is analogous to the Tonto Platform found in the eastern and central Canyon. Like the Tonto it offers a somewhat contiguous layer that can be used as a conduit for east - west travel in an otherwise nearly vertical environment. It resides at a higher level than the Tonto, lying atop the Redwall formation at around 5400 feet instead of below it, and is characterized by broad basins of slickrock and beautiful stone hoodoos.

A great feature of the Esplanade is the potential presence of water collected in potholes after rain or snow. In what is typically an exceptionally dry place this might be the only moisture available to animals and humans, but the ephemeral nature of the source means it cannot be relied on

Pothole water on the Esplanade after rain
Where the path finally reaches the Esplanade proper, hikers will find suitable places to dry camp as well as the junction of Bill Hall with the Indian Hollow trail coming in from the west. Those planning on spending the night here would be wise to plan ahead and cache water, or take their chances and hope that recent rains may have replenished the potholes.

The junction of Bill Hall and Indian Hollow trails
On this journey I chose to overnight on the Esplanade in both directions, breaking up the descent and climb into more enjoyable (less difficult) sections. Although water was available due to recent storms, I had already elected to deposit water ahead of time on an earlier reconnaissance trip.

After a restful afternoon and evening spent watching light and rain curtains dance amongst the pinnacles and promontories around me, the journey resumed the next morning. Following a path to the edge of the Esplanade, the trail switchbacks numerous times to descend the Redwall into Surprise Valley.

Surprise Valley is an anomaly in this part of the Canyon, hence the name. Geologists believe a very large section of the Redwall slumped away from the main body, forming a broad basin between the side canyons of Tapeats Creek and Deer Creek.

For many hikers the surprise comes from the fact that the valley has a southern exposure, is waterless, treeless, and can be unmercifully hot in the summer months. On this trip I was fortunate in that the weather was unsettled, and I actually got rained on a few times as I dropped down into the infamous cauldron.

Rain falls across the Canyon above Surprise Valley

Descending along the Redwall

Looking down into the valley

Surprise Valley
Once at mean level, the trail meanders through the valley, picking its way through folds and pleats of talus skirts receding from the base of the Redwall. Soon a large cairn appears heralding another choice of routes. This is where hikers completing a loop of Tapeats and Deer Creek can opt for clockwise or counterclockwise circumnavigation, depending on personal choice and permit limitations.

From the Bill Hall/Indian Hollow merge to the junction in Surprise Valley is 4.6 miles, with the only moderately arduous part being the Redwall descent. This passage through the Canyon's most formidable barrier is no more difficult here than any other, and is certainly less of a challenge than the beginning of the Bill Hall trail.

The intersection of Deer Creek and Tapeats Creek trails
The loop is probably the most heavily used trail in the west end of Grand Canyon, due entirely to the attractiveness of Thunder River on the east side and Deer Creek Falls on the west side.  Both destinations are also popular with river runners, and you will likely encounter invading hordes of sandal wearing day trippers at either location. 

Even so, the difficulty of the hike and far flung location offer enough of a challenge to keep all but the most hardy away, and the area still has a very remote character.

On this visit I am hiking the loop, making a descent to Thunder River and Tapeats Creek before continuing along the River to Deer Creek.  I am only covering the Thunder River portion with this post because unfortunately just past this point I slipped and used my camera to break the fall, rendering me unable to photograph anything else.  Stuff happens.

Heading east from the junction, the trail roughly parallels the base of the Redwall.  Like the Tonto, the views from this mid-canyon perspective are amazing, offering high walls above and yawning depths below.  Soon the path approaches the edge of Surprise Valley where it begins a series of (you guessed it) steep, loose switchbacks into the gorge below.

The upper reaches of Tapeats Creek

Dropping into Tapeats Creek

Two things become obvious when standing at the edge. The first is audible - the sound of lots of water pouring over rock ledges. The second is visual - the sight of lush green plants and trees clinging incongruously to the base of the Redwall.

First look at Thunder River

Thunder River is really not a river at all, but it is a prodigious amount of water blasting out of springs at the base of the cliff. This mighty torrent flows about 1/4 mile down canyon before merging with perennial Tapeats Creek, and the surrounding area is a oasis of green and living things in a sere, barren desert.

As the trail loses elevation the extent of the springs become more apparent.  Soon you're at eye level with the falls and looking directly across the canyon at them.  This is as close as you're likely to get, as dense vegetation surrounds the water- and moss slick cliffs and rocks.

The environment here is more like a tropical setting than anything else you are likely to see in the Canyon, and the spectacle is truly entrancing to those who understand the harsh and unforgiving nature of this place.  The Colorado River at the bottom of Grand Canyon is the only comparable source in terms of volume, and although it winds for 277 miles through the gorge, nowhere does it present as magical a setting.

As I mentioned earlier in the post, my journey is barely underway, but I'll have to leave you here for now.  I will return in the future to chronicle the rest of the loop hike, taking care to better protect my (new) camera this time. 

In the meantime try to imagine the delicate spray of water, the mighty roar of a river unleashed from its underground prison, and the gentle fluttering of leaves on a warm breeze, all while surrounded by majestic walls of timeless beauty.  If you can do that, you'll be fine until I get back.


  1. Mr. Smith,

    Thank you for posting this online. I'm about 2 weeks (7/2/13) away from a round trip hike from Monument Point to Upper Tapeats Creek campground. What you've posted is very helpful and helps to alleviate some of the "fear" (I would classify it more as respect) I have for this trip. I've done several hikes in the GC in August so I'm familiar with the effort involved. That said, the unknown can be scary. I remember my first rim-to-rim in August having the same feeling as I do now. Subsequently when I did the same R2R hike in August a couple years later it was significantly more enjoyable because I knew what to expect. What I also liked about your description was the "...earlier reconnaissance trip..." you made. I'll be getting to the BH TH parking lot a day before my descent and I was considering a quick (relatively speaking) trip down to the trail intersection to leave 1 of my 2 food/water caches. I'm pleased to see someone else had the same thought and I'm not being overly cautious.

    THANK YOU for putting the site and description. I for one can tell you it has helped to sooth my nerves a bit :-)

    Mike Rossi

  2. Eric,

    Great description of the trail. We are gearing up to do the Thunder River Deer Creek Loop in about a week and a half and it was great to read another trail description. I was thrilled when I can across your blog. Hope all is well with you.

    Ex Arizona Snowbowl Employees
    Ashley and Kent McDaniels