Grand Canyon National Park: Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop

This 21.5-mile clockwise loop in Grand Canyon National Park strings together faint trails and an Eden of waterfalls and swimming holes.
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This 21.5-mile clockwise loop in Grand Canyon National Park strings together faint trails and an Eden of waterfalls and swimming holes.

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.
Depart from the Bill Hall trailhead in the cooler late afternoon and climb to 7,166-foot Monument Point for a 20-mile view of redrock cliffs, temples, and buttes. The next 2.5 miles nosedives nearly 2,000 feet to the Thunder River Trail. Turn left and cache water for the return trip (in four days). Hike for two more miles and camp near the mushroom-shaped rocks on the Esplanade.
On day two, you'll crest the Redwall to see the serpentine guts of the lower canyon. Descend the loose Thunder River Trail into sun-scorched Surprise Valley. Follow cairns south to the dry forks of Bonita Creek, then at milepoint 6.4 swing east toward Thunder River. Swim, nap, and eat at the multitiered falls of Thunder River (the world's shortest named river). To finish the seven-mile day, zigzag along Tapeats Creek to its lower designated campsite near the Colorado River.
Day three: Leave established trail and follow a faint path northwest along the Colorado. The undulating route goes from beach to cliffbands, crosses Bonita Creek (dry), and offers bird's-eye views of rafters paddling 135 Mile Rapids and Granite Narrows. Camp three is under cottonwoods at Deer Creek, three hard-earned miles from Lower Tapeats. Nearby is the cliff-pinched Patio (primo dinner site), a cherry-picker view of the Colorado, and the 180-foot Deer Creek Falls (best swimming hole).
The next day, spend a few hours exploring Deer Creek's narrow gorge, tank up on water, then depart late-afternoon via Deer Creek and Thunder River Trails to a dry campsite on the Esplanade. It's a four-hour climb to the North Rim on the final day.
PERMITS: Required backcountry permits cost $10 per group, plus a $5 charge per person per day. Apply up to four months before desired departure date. Download form at nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/upload/permit-request.pdf.
WHEN TO GO: Spring, when water is more plentiful, or fall, with mild weather. Avoid summer, when temps soar well above 100°F in the lower canyon.
CONTACT: Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7875; nps.gov/grca

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 34.7

Waypoints

THN001

Location: 36.434442, -112.430031

Depart from the Bill Hall trailhead in the cooler late afternoon and climb to 7,166-foot Monument Point for a 20-mile view of redrock cliffs, temples, and buttes.

THN002

Location: 36.426367, -112.454862

Leave the rim with two gallons of water per person and stash two liters each to drink on your climb out. Tip: Waypoint caches with your GPS. Next, turn left at the T-junction, heading southeast.

THN003

Location: 36.407883, -112.474551

Inner Passage: Your ticket to the lower canyon is this fortuitous break in the 400-foot-tall Redwall.

THN004

Location: 36.401071, -112.475961

Bear left at the Y-junction, heading south.

THN005

Location: 36.395226, -112.47333

False oasis: Surprise Valley can be oven-hot and a navigation challenge. Don't be lured into upper Bonita Creek (it's impassable). Be sure to bear east to Thunder River.

THN006

Location: 36.39523, -112.458311

Thunder River Spring: This ribbon of water shoots out of the Muav limestone, creating a desert oasis of shady cottonwoods and pools.

THN007

Location: 36.371071, -112.470155

Begin off-trail section here. The 3 miles between Tapeats and Deer Creeks is lightly traveled and will take several hours. Tip: This route mostly traverses cliffbands above the Colorado. No water; top off bottles before you start day three.

THN008

Location: 36.378304, -112.482955

From 135 Mile Beach, take the user trail that goes high (shown here) to avoid crossing a sketchy three-foot-wide ledge perched 100 feet above the Colorado.

THN009

Location: 36.392654, -112.506107

Turn left at T-junction for an out-and-back to Deer Creek Falls. After returning to this point, continue straight at the junction, heading north.

THN010

Location: 36.388946, -112.508488

Deer Creek Falls drops 180 feet into a giant swimming pool.

THN011

Location: 36.400125, -112.502705

Act like a king and sit in one of the giant man-made stone chairs just before Deer Spring, your last reliable water source until the North Rim. Next, hike east and reconnect with Waypoint 4. Turn left at this junction to return to the trailhead.

THN012

Location: 36.426013, -112.454467

Locate your water cache left on day one before starting the climb back to the rim.