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Rule #1 in the Grand Canyon: Leave the trails, and you lose the crowds. Rule #2: Hiking cross-country in the Big Ditch is really, really hard. This challenging loop has significant off-trail portions, and we strongly suggest only backpackers with at least five years of experience, class 4 climbing skills, and solid map technique attempt it. But the payoff is a Grand Canyon few hikers have ever seen.
Start at Thunder River trailhead and descend the Thunder River Trail. At mile 1.7, turn left to begin a clockwise loop. At the 3-way trail junction with the Bill Hall Trail, continue straight, heading southeast. From here, this route parallels the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop for the next 2.5 days to Deer Creek. After that, things get tough. The final leg of this challenging loop—the Cranberry Route—is the boldest, hardest scramble our scouts have done in the Grand Canyon. Warning: Don’t attempt this route without advanced navigation skills.
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: (928) 638-7875; nps.gov/grca
- Distance: 39.3
Location: 36.458897, -112.488188
Start at Thunder River trailhead and descend the Thunder River Trail. At mile 1.7, turn left (east) to begin a clockwise loop.
Location: 36.449327, -112.498251
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.
Location: 36.426773, -112.455583
Continue straight at the 3-way junction with Bill Hall Trail, heading southeast.
Location: 36.407883, -112.474551
Inner Passage: Your ticket to the lower canyon is this fortuitous break in the 400-foot-tall Redwall.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Location: 36.392102, -112.506988
The Cranberry Route starts on day four of the Deer Creek-Thunder River Loop. Just before sunset, top off all of your water jugs and exit Deer Creek just above where the gorge narrows. Camp is at the two dry lake beds located one mile west, at 2,854 feet. This gets you in prime position for a huge day five.
Location: 36.388946, -112.508488
Deer Creek Falls
Location: 36.398479, -112.515987
Pitch camp near the sandy divots of these two parched lake beds. No water here. Target a sunrise departure, and the next morning hike 0.7 mile west to the first prominent rock slope. From camp to the rim is 7 hard miles.
Location: 36.401027, -112.525801
Ascend northward nearly 1,000 feet over one-quarter of a mile toward the top of the Redwall, You’ll slow to a quad-burning crawl as you zigzag through an avalanche of loose rocks, some the size of pickup trucks. Stick to the higher ridges to avoide rockslides in the gullies. Tip: Plug UTM 0363284E
4029397N into your GPS to verify you have the correct rock slope.
Location: 36.404774, -112.525588
After an hour of step-breath-step climbing, the terrain slightly flattens and two gullies lead up through the Redwall. Go left (west); it’s the easier way out.
Location: 36.405681, -112.52561
The crux: The route is now pockmarked by upturned limestone, and your heartbeat will surely spike in the last 50 feet, which requires class 4 climbing (but there are numerous solid hand and footholds). Be meticulous, test holds, and stagger hikers on the climb
to avoid multiple rockfall injuries. Worried? Pack a 100-foot rope to haul packs up.
Location: 36.405983, -112.525953
Once on top of the Redwall, the route contours around an alcove (nasty and loose!) until you hit flatland east of an unnamed slot between Fishtail and Deer Creek Canyons. The most technical section is behind you. Go ahead and pick up the pace, but don’t get lazy on navigation.
Location: 36.425046, -112.51811
This drip spring, near mile 3.2, is quite reliable but yields only about one quart per 20 minutes, so plan a long break from the sun. Some hikers leave milk jugs to collect water.
Location: 36.432292, -112.513845
Scramble north over giant sandstone boulders, under tree snags, and exit the drainage upcanyon left to more sagebrush- and blackbrush-spotted flats. Near this area, on a nondescript, 40-foot-high sandstone dome, are two giant ghosts believed to be painted by Native Americans. Ghost Rock, as Grand Canyon insiders call it, also has bullet
holes in it, probably made by cowboys who used to drive cattle through here. Bear northeast back to the Thunder
Location: 36.44861, -112.498541
Bear left to rejoin the Thunder River Trail. Now, locate your water cache left on day one. From here, it’s 1,200 feet (or roughly two hours) to the North Rim.