Thunder, Wonder, and Awe, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14041A, Backpack


  • Hike through some of the most spectacular country in the Southwest
  • Enjoy the use of a water cache on day six


  • Tasty, appetizing, and fulfilling vegetarian-friendly meals
  • Stoves and cooking equipment, Micropur water purification tablets


DatesApr 27–May 3, 2014
Difficulty3 (out of 5)
StaffPaul Gross

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Trip Overview

Note: Due to Park Service rules, backcountry permits cannot be obtained until December 1. This means that final trip dates cannot be confirmed until the first week of December 2013. Slight schedule changes, therefore, may be needed if specific dates are unavailable.

The Trip

This is a truly classic Grand Canyon hike, and it should rank high on your list of "must do" backcountry experiences. If you have never seen Thunder River, the view from the Esplanade, or Deer Creek Falls, this is your chance. Our adventure will take us through some of the most spectacular country in the Southwest -- not to mention the world. While some of the days will be strenuous, this trip is definitely not rushed and there will be ample time for photography, writing, or just contemplating the vast and magnificent wilderness surrounding us. The weather should be dry at this time of year, so rain shouldn't be a problem (though we'll need to be prepared just in case!). We will hike in warm, but not scorching, temperatures (75-85 degrees), then relax in cooler temperatures at night (upper 40s). Because of the mild temperatures, we can keep our clothing to a minimum, making for relatively lighter packs.


Day 1: After getting to know each other at our camp on the north rim of the Grand Canyon and distributing group commissary, we'll begin our trip on the morning of April 27 with a drive over back roads to Monument Point, the trailhead for our hike. The drive will take about two hours. We'll spend our first night on the Esplanade, about two-and-a-half hours (or roughly 3.5 miles) from the trailhead. We will start at 7,400 feet and camp at 5,500 feet, descending about 2,000 feet. It will be a dry camp with no water, so you'll need to bring extra water for dinner as well as to supply a cache for our last night. In all, you should start the trip at Monument Point with eight quarts of water. We will camp in the same place for our last night. It is a spectacular spot.

Day 2: We will hike along the Esplanade another two to three miles, and then descend steeply another 1,500 feet into Surprise Valley. The descent into the Valley is a steep trail with numerous short switchbacks. It is in the full sun, but we will be hiking it in the early morning. Once in Surprise Valley, we'll hike eastward along rolling hills for two miles; then, we start our descent into Tapeats Canyon. Shortly after starting our descent, we will be able to obtain good water from the Thunder River. Another two miles and 1,500 feet along a pretty good trail will get us to our camp at Upper Tapeats (about 2,500 feet) by early afternoon, allowing time to hike and explore the beautiful Tapeats Gorge.

Day 3: We'll leave Upper Tapeats and cross the Thunder River, which shouldn't be too difficult this time of year, but may be a bit of a challenge. We'll hike on roughly level ground for about two miles, and then enjoy cold, crystal-clear water pools at lunch. There will be time for a much-needed cold bath if desired. We will then travel on to Lower Tapeats, walking along the sheer walls of Tapeats Gorge with very impressive exposure. We will then descend steeply to our campsite, situated at the water's edge on the Colorado River.

Day 4: The next morning we'll hike west along the beach, picking up a trail that will take us to Deer Creek. It is a rough trail with a few steep ups and downs. It is about five miles to Deer Creek Camp, which sits among some cottonwood trees. We'll arrive by mid afternoon, which will allow time to explore Deer Creek Narrows and Deer Creek Falls (showers, anyone?) at the Colorado River. Deer Creek cuts through the stone, creating a beautiful layer cake effect as it drops to the River. Underneath the ledge on the Patio, there are amazing fossilized worm castings and other marine life.

Day 5: This is a layover day. Those who wish to stay in camp can find refuge from the heat, or just kick back and enjoy the peace and solitude in Deer Creek Narrows. If you're feeling more adventurous, we will take a day hike to explore Cranberry Canyon.

Day 6: This day will present us with our most challenging hiking. We'll ascend the west side of Deer Creek Valley, which is shady in the early morning, to Surprise Valley -- 1,500 feet of elevation gain in about two miles. Once we get to Surprise, we will be in the full sun. We'll hike east a couple of miles in Surprise Valley until we get to the ascent to the Esplanade. This is the same descent we did into Surprise our second day out. We will be ascending a south-facing slope in the full sun to the Esplanade (about 1,500 feet up). Once we get up to the Esplanade, we'll make our way to our first camp and our water cache. We'll use two quarts of each person's cached water for cooking, and the other two quarts will be for each participant to drink. There is plenty of shade here, and we'll be at 5,500 feet, so it will be cooler. Each person will need to start this day with at least one gallon of water to drink.

Day 7: Our final morning. We'll make about a three-hour, 2,000-foot hike back up to Monument Point and the cars. We'll return to our cars before noon.



Getting There

The trip begins and ends on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The leader will send out specific information about our meeting place and time once you have been approved for the trip. The nearest airports are Las Vegas, Nevada (240 miles, 5 hours); Flagstaff, Arizona (165 miles, 4 hours); Phoenix, Arizona (310 miles, 6 hours) and Salt Lake City, Utah (350 miles, 6.5 hours). We’ll be meeting in Kanab, Utah, and caravanning from there. Many lodging options are available in Kanab. All participants must make their own travel arrangements. Individuals interested in ride-sharing should contact other trip members once the final roster is put together. Feel free to contact the trip leader for more information on pre- and post-trip lodging.

Accommodations and Food

The leader takes pride in providing tasty, appetizing, and fulfilling vegetarian-friendly meals. Dinner is the largest meal of each day, with soup, main course, and dessert on most nights. Please discuss any dietary restrictions with the leader. All participants assist with camp chores, including preparing and cleaning up meals, on a rotating basis. The Sierra Club will provide stoves and cooking equipment. The food and group equipment (commissary gear) will be divided up among all the participants at the trailhead. The first meal provided will be lunch on the first day, and the last will be lunch on the last day. Participants need to supply their own personal eating utensils.

All water will come from creeks, potholes, or streams and must be purified. All participants will be given enough MicroPur water purification tablets to cover their water needs for the duration of the trip.

The Park Service requires that all trash be packed out. Ziploc-type bags containing some dry bleach will be provided for used toilet paper. 

Trip Difficulty

This trip is rated moderate/strenuous (M/S). While Sierra Club guidelines would rate this as a moderate (M) trip, the rigors of desert hiking combined with the stresses of long ascents and descents dictate that participants be aware that this trip may involve a higher level of difficulty than they may be used to. If you have previously hiked in the Grand Canyon without difficulty, you should have a good sense for the difficulty of this outing. We will hike trails that have been unmaintained for the past 80 years but that are still in generally good shape. The first and last days will involve significant losses and gains in elevation, while the rest of the trip will be along the rolling western Tonto Trail. It is important to realize, however, that hiking even moderate trails here may seem significantly harder than other trails you're used to hiking. The steepness of the first and last days, rim altitudes, and the challenges posed by desert hiking make proper conditioning prior to this trip essential.

Daily backpacking distances will range between six and nine miles.

If you are in good physical condition you should be more than able to enjoy this trip. Beginners should contact the leader prior to committing to this outing. If you are not in shape, you may have difficulty enjoying this trip. For a great description of what it's like to hike in the Grand Canyon, please read the first chapter of Sharon Spangler's excellent book (see "References" below).

Please do not hesitate to contact the leader if you have questions regarding the difficulty of the trip.

Equipment and Clothing

The weather should be dry at this time of year. Temperatures should be warm, but not excessively hot during the day (75-85 degrees) and we'll be able to relax in cooler temperatures at night (upper 40s). A comprehensive list of recommended equipment will be mailed to each participant when they sign up. Essentials include a backpack (internal frame preferred), sleeping bag (30 degree), sleeping pad, light tent or tarp, broken-in boots, and clothing suitable for 90-degree daytime temperatures and 45-degree evening temperatures. Snow is a possibility at the rim. It is very important that all personal items be kept under 25 pounds. Each participant will carry 12-14 pounds of group gear and food. Keep in mind that the first day we’ll need to start of with eight liters of water for our dry camp and water cache.


Grand Canyon National Park maps, books, and guides can be purchased from many outdoor shops or from the Grand Canyon Association through their Web site at


  • National Geographic/Trails Illustrated Topo Map: Grand Canyon National Park - Map #207.


  • Spangler, Sharon. On Foot in the Grand Canyon: Hiking the Trails of the South Rim. Pruett Publishing, 1989. The first chapter provides an excellent sense of how one feels when hiking on a route for which they are not adequately prepared.
  • Thybony, Scott, Official Guide to Hiking the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon Association, 1997.
  • Adkison, Ron, Hiking Grand Canyon National Park. Falcon Guide.
  • Price, L. Greer, An Introduction to Grand Canyon Geology. Grand Canyon Association, 1999.



This trip will afford each of us the opportunity to reflect on the value of our national park system. We will talk about how the concept of wilderness has changed from the era of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century to the modern times. We will also talk about how different segments of the population think about development versus conservation.  We’ll also talk about water policy and usage across the Colorado River ecosystem.

We'll discuss the changes that have resulted from the building of the Glen Canyon Dam. You are encouraged to come prepared and introduce topics of interest to you. 
Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Grand Canyon National Park.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Grand Canyon National Park.



Paul Gross, an avid outdoor enthusiast, has been a cycling and backpacking vegetarian living in harmony with his surroundings for many decades. Ten years spent building his homestead in the Ozarks and living self-sufficiently have given him a significant appreciation of being connected with nature. Paul has been leading local Sierra Club outings for the past 17 years, and national outings for 10 years. He decided to share his love of the outdoors -- not to mention his zest for life and people -- with the National Outings program. Providing fellow adventures the safety to experience the wonders of nature is especially rewarding. Besides backpacking 5-6 weeks per year, Paul is also an avid cyclist and cycle tourist. He has completed several long-distance, self-supported cycling tours with his wife Melody on their tandem bicycle. When not backpacking or cycling, Paul can be found in his garden, experimenting in the kitchen, or ballroom dancing with Melody. In his spare time, Paul supports himself as a remodeling contractor, carpenter, and cabinet/furniture maker. Paul has and maintains a Wilderness First Responder Certification.

Assistant Leader:

Bill Flower

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