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Grand Canyon National Park: Deer Creek-Thunder River Loop

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Distance: 21.4 miles


This lollipop loop dishes out enough superlatives to send a guidebook writer running for a thesaurus.

You'll pass one of the nation's steepest rivers, the Grand Canyon's slimmest narrows, and some of the Desert Southwest's biggest waterfalls and most inviting swimming holes. This could also very well be the toughest long-weekend hike in Grand Canyon National Park, but you won't regret a single sunny mile.

Leave early in the morning from the Bill Hall trailhead on the North Rim, 25 miles northwest of Bright Angel Point as the raven flies. The gravel roads are snow-free from May to early November; spring and fall bring the most tolerable temps. Very strong hikers can manage the 27.6-mile loop in 3 days, but you'll be happier if you give yourself an extra day for the climb out.

This route has limited water sources, so pack enough bladders or bottles to hold at least 7 to 8 quarts of water. If you drink lots of water, pack more. It's wise to cache water on your descent for drinking on your return climb back to the North Rim.

The big plunge starts 20 minutes from the trailhead, as the rough trail drops almost 2,000 vertical feet over 2.5 miles before joining the Thunder River Trail. Wander south across the Esplanade, a tree-dotted slickrock bench, for about 3 miles, then dive toward the inner canyon to reach hot, dry Surprise Valley, named, one might surmise, for its astonishingly profuse vegetation. Stay left at two junctions with Deer Creek Trail, your return route, and ease over a low saddle. Cache two liters of water in the sagebrush near the first Deer Creek junction; you'll want that extra water on the return climb. Tip: Mark the location of your water cache with a GPS unit. 

Now it's payoff time. Thunder River erupts from twin slots in a Muav limestone wall, and a misty oasis of trees, mosses, and ferns below the spring offers a cool spot for an afternoon siesta. Follow the churning river as it literally thunders 1,200 vertical feet to Tapeats Creek in just a half-mile, making it the steepest river in the United States (it's also one of its shortest). Camp at the cottonwood-shaded Upper Tapeats campsites, about 10 miles from the trailhead, and ice your sore legs in the cool creek until dinnertime.

The next morning, rise early for the hike down the trail to the Colorado River, where temperatures can quickly soar, even in early spring. Top off your water bottles here; the rugged trail ahead contours cliffbands above the Colorado River and you'll have no reliable access to water until Deer Creek.  Follow rocky beaches west then climb above the river, crossing the drainage of Bonita Creek (not a reliable water source where the trail crosses) and passing above 135-Mile Rapid. A steep, cairned trail then climbs high above Granite Narrows, where the Grand Canyon cinches down from 6 miles wide at its rims to just 76 feet at river level. Three miles after leaving the river, the route descends to the lush banks of Deer Creek. Set camp under the cottonwoods and head to Deer Creek's serpentine narrows. Lounge in clear, cascading pools and tiptoe downstream along gorge-side ledges to the top of slender, 180-foot-tall Deer Creek Falls and a wish-you-were-here view of the Colorado River. A steep trail leads down to yet another unforgettable swimming hole at the base of the falls.

You'll be tempted to kick back by Deer Creek's pools all the next day, too, but the climb to the rim awaits: Ten miles and 4,750 vertical feet if you're on the 3-day plan, or 6 miles and 2,750 feet if you're camping midway up, at the Esplanade. Your first gorp-and-agua break is at Deer Spring, a smaller version of Thunder Spring that bursts from its own rock-wall outlet, half a mile above your last camp. Need motivation to keep those aching quads churning? Few sights are more awe-inspiring than the psychedelic sunset view from your North Rim endpoint.

WHEN TO GO: Spring, when temps are cooler and water is more plentiful, or fall. Summer brings extreme heat at temps above 100 degrees, and flash floods.

PERMITS: Required backcountry permits are $10, plus $5 per person per day. Download application at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm; then fax to (928) 638-2125.

MORE INFO: Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888; nps.gov/grca

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