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Hiking Below the North Rim in the Grand Canyon

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Car camping on the rim, hiking down the Bill Hall Trail to Deer Creek. Up the Colorado River to Tapeats Creek, Thunder Falls and back out. With Matt & Agnes Hage; Photograph by Cameron Martindell

It doesn’t matter how you access the Grand Canyon, so long as you actually get down into it. It’s too big to fathom just from above. Whether by boat or by foot, you’ve got to get into it.

Matt and Agnes Hage and I planned on a four-day backpacking trip descending from the North Rim along the Bill Hall Trail and into Deer Creek Canyon. We spent the first night car camping on the North Rim which offered an amazing, though limited, view from above. The morning sun crept down along the walls, displacing the dark pooled in the canyon as we packed up our car camp and got on the rocky trail taking us down.

The most remarkable aspect of the canyon is not how big and vast it all is, but that there are areas throughout the canyon of smaller more intimate side canyons. Deer Creek Canyon and the Deer Creek Narrows are a section of deep and narrow stone walls, mostly through the Bright Angel Shale layer of strata. Reflected sunlight glows on the walls on either end of the canyon, but the light barely makes it to the flowing creek itself. The trail hugs along a narrow ledge where irregular erosion patters have caused shelves of rock to protrude from the walls right about where you head wants to be or worse yet where you expect your pack to fit, throwing you off balance with a neck breaking 10m fall if successful.

No more than a quarter mile long, the Narrows lead you to an open ledge 100 meters above and overlooking the mighty Colorado River. Once down along the river’s shore you can look up and see where Deer Creek comes leaping from the stone chasm it has been flowing down to meet with the Colorado. The outflow from the base of Deer Creek Falls makes it nearly impossible to get right under the falls, probably for our own good as Matt and I made numerous attempts to be showered upon.

The trail deteriorates to a route as we work our way up river to Tapeats Creek. This is because walking along the river is far less popular than rafting down it. Rafters, to get off their duff for a day, are known to be dropped off at Tapeats Creek, then hike up to Thunder Spring and along Surprise Valley to connect with the trail we came down into Deer Canyon and out again to meet their rafting party that more than likely has been waiting all day for the hikers to emerge.

We hiked up river and to Tapeats Creek where I camped on my river trip years ago. It hadn’t changed one bit. Once we hiked up to our camp for the night, the day was still young and we opted to push on expecting to find a camp somewhere along Surprise Valley. But once we got to Thunder Springs our ambitions ramped up and we cooked up dinner, ate and set out to hike out back to the North Rim that night making for a 17-mile, 6,000-vertical-foot day.

We hiked through the sunset as we crested onto the Esplanade. Into the dark along the Esplanade and up into the stars to gain the windy rim. Along the way, just below the step where a touch of scrambling is required to continue on, Agnes in the lead stopped to ask me what those two lights just across the way were. They disappeared then came right back. Mountain lion. With the combined power of our three headlamps the faint outline of a large cat framing the two super reflective eyes became clear to us. His coiled tail lay motionless with the rest of him. Matt was certain mountain lions this close to ranch country along the North Rim were no strangers to gunshot.

Agnes forwent the front and opted to be between Matt and me as we finished our punch out of the canyon. Once we crested the lip, the northern sky joined the rest of the heavens giving us the full hemisphere of the stars. We made another car camp in the bitter cold and wind of the North Rim exhausted from our big push out.