|Mighty Thunder Spring in Grand Canyon National Park.|
"You're in luck," the ranger explained. "All three campsites are available tomorrow--you can have your pick."
This isn't what I wanted to hear. I wasn't prepared to make a decision.
I was at the Interagency Office in Saint George, Utah, with one ear on the phone with a Grand Canyon backcountry ranger, and one eye on my 2-year-old son yanking books off of a shelf in the adjacent bookstore.
My in-laws had recently offered to watch the kids for a couple of days so Susie and I could celebrate our belated 13-year wedding anniversary. We had so much fun on our hiking anniversary last year, Susie gave me the green light to plan another memorable adventure. Ever since my rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, I'd dreamed of backpacking with my wife into the Grand Canyon (she had never been before), and this was my chance.
I knew it takes several months to reserve a camping site at Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel, or Indian Garden camps along the main corridor trails, so they were out. With limited time to research alternatives, I discovered three easily accessible (from southwestern Utah) 2- to 3-day backpack trips from the North Rim that are far less crowded, but still require easy-to-get camping permits from the NPS.
So, there I was, trying to decide between South Canyon (a tributary to Marble Canyon in eastern Grand Canyon), or Tapeats or Deer Creeks in western Grand Canyon. A smarter man would have asked the ranger which would be a better introductory backpack into the Grand Canyon. Instead, a fantastic image I'd seen a couple of hours earlier of an entire river bursting out of a massive desert cliff entered my mind. I probed the Ranger, "Which route passes that huge spring?"
"You're talking about Thunder Spring. That's on the way to Tapeats. It's an incredible hike."
With an Upper Tapeats permit in hand, I returned home with about 5 hours to study the route and to pack our gear.
The hiking distance to the campsite didn't seem to be a problem--a modest 9.2 miles. But the elevation change from the trailhead (Monument Point) to Upper Tapeats camp had me worried at 5,000 vertical feet! Susie's legs were going to be tested for sure.
Temps dipped well below freezing that night as we camped at the 7200-foot trailhead on the edge of the hulking Kaibab Plateau. We waited until we had full sun before slipping out of our sleeping bag and making final preparations.
From Monument Point, the Bill Hall Trail (named after an NPS ranger killed on duty in 1979) heads north along the rim, then drops over some Kaibab limestone ledges that usher in a twisty 1,800-foot descent to the Esplanade bench. This is the first of three large descents or "steps" into this part of the Grand Canyon (a 1,600-foot drop into Surprise Valley, and another 1,500 feet into Tapeats being the other two).
Under a clear but hazy November sky, temperatures quickly rose to near perfection (~upper 60s) and I was soon stripped down to t-shirt and shorts.
|Susie climbs down the rim of the Grand Canyon along the Bill Hall Trail.|
|Susie enjoys the slickrock wonderland of the Esplanade bench.|
Once down onto the Esplanade, we stashed a bottle of Gatorade as a pick-me-up for the final climb out of the canyon the next afternoon. Here, the Bill Hall Trail intersects the Thunder River Trail. Time and mileage passed effortlessly as we traversed the scenic, smooth red rock of the Esplanade.
Just before reaching the steep drop into Surprise Valley, we met two NPS rangers with very large packs that looked like they'd been out for several days. The lead ranger asked to see our permit. Her eyebrows raised as she looked it over. "Only one night at Upper Tapeats, eh?" she said as more of a statement than a question. "Very ambitious," she continued. "Most people take two days to get back out, camping an extra night on the Esplanade." She looked us up and down. Her eyes lingered on my worn-out running shoes.
"We know what we're getting into," I lied. "I've survived the rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, and I'm sure we can handle this."
I neglected to mention that it was really just me that knew what we were getting into. I was frank with Susie about what I'd signed her up to do, spouting off elevation gained/lost and distances, but until you hike in the Grand Canyon, it's difficult to grasp what those numbers mean. I also failed to mention that I barely survived the R2R2R hike, literally crawling/limping out of the canyon in the dark.
"Everyone does that, Tyler," she said flatly. "People are now hiking from rim-to-rim and then back to the first rim these days."
I stood quiet for a moment, first in amazement that she remembered my name after glancing at our permit for 2 seconds, and second, a bit bewildered because I was pretty sure I had just told her that I had in fact, completed a double--not a single--crossing of the canyon. Before I could speak, Susie quickly clarified, and not wanting to waste anymore time, we wished the rangers happy trails and we continued on our way.
Just as we descended the first rocky switchback off the Esplanade, we met two backpackers that were on their tenth day of a long loop hike from Sowats Point. Their route followed Jumpup, Kanab Creek, the Colorado River, and finally up Deer Creek. They looked pretty beat up (most likely from bushwhacking along the banks of the Colorado) but they were wearing ear-to-ear grins that come with wandering through the desert canyons for an extended period.
We stopped for a lunch break halfway down the grade into Surprise Valley. It was there that I first noticed something was amuck. Even though we were 100s of feet below the red sandstone and mudstone of the Supai Group that we'd already traversed a ways back, I could see this same sequence of rocks straight across from our lunch spot at the level of the Redwall Limestone. I then examined the house-size boulder providing shade as we ate. It certainly looked like Supai Sandstone rather than limestone. It quickly dawned on me that we were hiking on a massive rotational landslide (I didn't realize just how massive until later) and these rocks had slid down a considerable distance. Most of the rock strata in the Grand Canyon rarely waver from near-perfectly flat for miles on end. The bit of chaos here was exciting.
|Part of the Surprise Valley landslide as seen from our lunch spot on the Thunder River Trail..|
The temperatures continued to climb--perhaps into the 70s as we strolled across Surprise to the head of the Thunder River drainage. We had one more big drop to our campsite, and Susie wasn't showing any signs of fatigue.
We heard Thunder Spring echoing through the maze of canyons below us well before reaching the drainage edge and enjoying our first view of the spring. A short side trail leads to the base of the spring. Being way too loud to have a conversation, we simply soaked our feet and cooled off in the mist for a spell.
|A juvenile red-spotted toad at Thunder Spring.|
|Thunder Spring supports a rare verdant oasis in the inner Grand Canyon.|
As we continued our descent toward Tapeats Creek, I was amazed to find the exposed basal slip plane of the Surprise Valley landslide running parallel to the trail. The other landslide features I'd seen back in Surprise Valley were nearly 1.5 miles away! This thing is huge. Above the slide plane lay brecciated (broken and munched up) limestone most likely of either the Muav or Redwall limestones. Below the slide plane lay relatively undeformed mudstone of the Bright Angel Shale.
|Discordant and brecciated limestone involved in the Surprise Valley landside overlie well-bedded mudstone of the Bright Angel Shale.|
|Another great exposure of the basal landslide surface from the trail. Black arrows point out the basal slip surface.|
I would later learn after reviewing some published work by researchers at the University of Missouri that the Surprise Valley landslide is the largest in the Grand Canyon, at close to 1 cubic mile in volume. The researchers believe that Thunder Spring may have played a role in triggering the slide. The slide initially dammed the Colorado River until the river reestablished its course farther south around the slide's margin. Many other large landslides have been mapped in the region. It appears landsliding has played a significant role (in addition to river down-cutting) to the deepening and widening of the Grand Canyon.
|Map view of the Surprise Valley landslide. At it's widest, the slide is nearly 2.5 miles wide.|
From the spring, the trail traverses the western ridge of the Thunder River drainage before dropping abruptly toward the Thunder/Tapeats confluence. We couldn't resist taking an additional break to shatter thin sheets of 500-million-year-old shale along the trail. We also noticed several petrified burrows left by Cambrian-age worms.
From the confluence, it's a very short stroll along the west side of Tapeats Creek to the campsite.
Hiking at a steady pace but with plenty of breaks (lunch, Thunder Spring, and several other viewpoints), we made it from trailhead to camp in just over 6 hours. This left us 2-3 hours of daylight to relax, cook dinner, and watch the sunset. After dinner, I strung our food up from a tree (little buggers still managed to get into a package of peanut butter crackers) and we crawled into our bags. We talked for a while as we gazed at the narrow strip of stars above the canyon walls, but the soothing sound of the nearby river had us both knocked out by 9 pm.
|Susie makes her way down the trail above the confluence of Thunder River and Tapeats Creek.|
|Ancient worm burrows preserved in a sandstone horizon of the Bright Angel Shale.|
|It's amazing how just a few steps can take you from a tropical-like paradise along the river to sun-parched desert. The beaver tail cacti are comically large in this country.|
|Collecting water for dinner from Tapeats Creek.|
|Upper Tapeats Creek camp at sunset.|
|An adult red-spotted toad joins us for dinner.|
Being a little anxious about the big climb back to the rim, we packed up and hit the trail at first light. Taking far fewer breaks, we were back at Monument Point in 7.5 hours.
Susie surpassed mine, and I think her expectations. I thought the exit would be much more difficult for someone not accustomed to such a persistent climb. She does run regularly, and it really paid off.
I highly recommend this route as a reasonable alternative to the crowded main-corridor hikes. I look forward to spending a few more days in this area, perhaps making a loop with Deer Creek and the Colorado River.
Susie insists she had a great time, but I have a feeling she'll be doing all of the planning for next year's anniversary.
|One last look at the tall cascade beneath Thunder Spring on our hike back out.|