A promised account of this trip by Christopher Defraia, age seventeen, never materialized, and so I'll recount it to the best of my memory. A teenagers perspective on the whole thing would have been interesting to say the least. "The old farts were moaning and groaning the whole time, ...". but I guess we'll just have to wait for that story.
A veteran of two previous trips, Gary Defraia decided it was time his boys experienced the Grand Canyon first hand. His exaggerated stories of forced hikes, ominous overhangs, trail blocking rattlers, deadly scorpions, unavoidable blisters, and uncaring trip leaders did not deter them. Fact is, they probably blew off all those tales as fantasies of a middle aged man grasping frantically to his youth when in fact it was gone years ago.
Danny, a high school freshman and avid mountain biker, probably would have preferred hurtling his body down the trails atop his bike, right through the switchbacks, over the Redwall to meet us in Surprise Valley. Would have taken him 6 minutes tops. Chris, his older brother, took a more measured approach to the hike. At times he even realized his mortality. Quite a feat for a 17 year old.
The Defraias flew into Tucson and the next day along with Tom we all headed to Jacob Lake Lodge on the North Rim, where we had three rooms reserved and where we were meeting John Avello, another veteran GC hiker. After checking in and unloading, we headed to the lodge to eat dinner. The sit down dining area was still closed for the season so we sat down for counter service just before closing. It was only 7pm. They close things up early on the north side. The menu was varied enough, and with the exception of Chris and I, everyone ordered trout, which came with a choice of french fries or Tater Tots, which should give you some idea as to the level of the cuisine. Johnny wanted wine. First he asked for chardonnay, and the waitress went in the back only to come out and say they had no chardonnay. Then he asked for merlot. Returning a few minutes later she offered that they were out of merlot. So he asked for pinot noir. She patiently checked and came back to announce there was no pinot noir. He asked for Zinfindel. Finally my patience had run out. Probably a little too loudly I said "John, for christs sake, you just ordered fucking tater tots!! Does it really matter what kind of wine you drink with them??" He ended up ordering a beer. Back to the room, a game of hearts, and we hit the sack, ready for our upcoming adventure.
After breakfast we headed towards Kaibab Lodge, missed the turnoff and drove all the way past the entrance to the National Park, which was still closed for the season. We backtracked, found our dirt road, and immediately realized Johnnie 2 wheel sedan was not going to make it through the snow. We all piled into the 4 wheel drive vehicle, parked John's car at the closed lodge with the permission of the caretakers, and then headed off again. We would have saved a lot of time by asking the caretakers the best way to get over the ridge separating us from the trailhead, but we didn't think of that until we were again thwarted in our attempt to get through the snow, this time about 2 miles up the dirt road.
Getting a little concerned that we would never get to the trailhead, we went back to John's car and while there asked the caretakers for the best route to the trailhead. They suggested we go back to the Jacob Lake Lodge and take the first forest service road to the south. The elevation there would only be a little above 7,000ft and the roads would be clear. So, two and a half hours after leaving Kaibab Lodge we were back in the parking lot. We left one car there and took only the 4 wheel drive, just in case. With 5 people and our gear it got a little crowded in the Isuzu trooper but we eventually got on the right road and headed for the trailhead. While there had been some talk about going down via the Thunder River Trail, we decided against taking that longer route because of the time we had already lost.
The Bill Hall Trail down to the Esplanade is explained in another one of the trip reports. The trailhead starts immediately past the far gate of the parking lot. Do not go down the dirt road! Take the marked trailhead just outside the fence and follow the trail for about 20 minutes before it drops off. The dropoff is very steep and on this particular day very windy. We proceeded slowly until we were protected from the wind and then continued at a good pace. The only memorable event during the trip down was at the same steep point where a few years prior one of our hikers had tried to descend with his pack on facing ahead, lost his balance, tumbled about 8-10 ft. and broke a rib. While we all got to the bottom safely this time, Chris, who was leading the group missed the trail continuation and headed straight ahead to where the trail seemed to end abruptly at the edge of a wall with an enormous dropoff. Wisely, he stopped and asked me to take a look. It was obvious to me this was not the trail, and we returned to the base of the 10' drop and found the trail going off to the west, instead of the southern route we tried to take. Soon after leaving this area, the trail passes through a big rock slide and then heads into a series of switchbacks which eventually get you to the Esplanade and the junction of the Thunder River trail which is coming in from the west.
Bill Hall Images
We rested at the junction for a few minutes waiting for the stragglers and continued east and south along the Esplanade. Our plan was to camp about 15 minutes from the beginning of the Redwall. There are at least two nice camp spots there, shelter if you need it with a nice overhang, and water in the tinajas on the rocks above, if it hasn't been really dry. In fact, we had planned on a dry camp just in case the tinajas were dry, but they were not, so we had plenty of water that evening and the next morning.
The wind was very strong, and it was difficult to find any protection. Tom, John and I decided to sleep under the overhang and the DeFraias went about setting up their tent in the wind, a very comical thing to watch. We sipped the wine which was to go with the evenings dinner, then watched the sunset from the rocks a few yards from our site. Dinner was the usual sumptuous fare, fresh pasta, italian sausage and bread, a fine salad and lots of good wine to wash it down. Hey, what kind of dinner did you expect 4 New York italians to have anyway? And Tom ,the only non-italian in the group, did the cooking!
It rained that night, not so hard that it woke up John, but hard enough where we had to wake him up and tell him he was getting wet and needed to scoot his bag in a little bit. Other than that it was a comfortable night and we all slept soundly.
Esplanade and first night
The next morning we ate breakfast, cached quite a bit of water for the hike out, and headed down the Redwall. As we were packing up a group of hikers came by. Our itineraries were basically the same. They had camped on the esplanade the night before like we had but were aborting their trip because of the weather. They were doing a day hike to Thunder River and coming back up to the Esplanade to spend the night, wanting to be close to the rim in case of bad weather.
The Redwall and Surprise Valley
We arrived in Surprise Valley about 11 am and headed east. We had lunch on the bluff just before the drop to Thunder River and debated whether we would spend the night there and day hike to Thunder River and Tapeats or carry our gear down and camp beside the creek. Because it was only about noon, and a little warm in the exposed valley, we decided to continue on. Thunder River and the falls are majestic! We spent time in the shade, filled up on the crystal clear fresh water which we did not filter, and explored the area. Then we headed down the trail to the Upper Tapeats Creek. Parts of this trail have crumbly shale and care should be taken, but none of it is really problematic. We reached a nice large campsite about 50 yards upstream from the outhouse and set up camp. Some of us explored downstream, some went fishing, and some just relaxed.
Thunder River and Upper Tapeats Campsite
The next day we decided to head to the Colorado River. Since there are trails on both sides of the Tapeats, we weren't certain which one to take. The Tapeats was running very high and fast, and simply wading across was not an option. We headed downstream on the west side of the stream and soon came across a log which was spanning the creek. Still not comfortable that crossing the stream was the answer, and a little leery about crossing this log, most of us opted to continue on as we were, but Tom crossed right there. The trail on the west side seems to peter out less than a mile further on, though I think it is possible to go the entire route on the west side of the stream. We didn't explore that possibility, but instead backtracked a bit, crossed the log and continued on.
Three ways of crossing a log over a roaring creek
Walking on the east side was much easier, with a clear, wide path and very few obstructions. We continued on for another 20 minutes before meeting a group coming up from the river. The leader said we had two options further on. The first was to cross the stream again and take a clear path to the river and the second was to stay on this side and navigate what he called a rather exposed area, and then continue on to the river. Given a choice between exposure and the stream, we opted for the stream, but just needed to find a place to cross. This was no easy matter but eventually we decided on a cottonwood tree whose branches had spanned the creek. Some of us climbed the upper branches and dropped down on the other side, staying completely dry. Others (like me) used the lower branches for balanace and waded across.
"The Cottonwood Crossing"
Continuing on, the trail stays on the edge of, but well above, the Tapeats. This exposed portion of the trail lasts about 10 minutes, but for me anyway, it was a long 10 minutes. Finally, we turned the corner and saw the river and boats below us. We took the final steep descent to the river and relaxed at the bottom for about an hour before heading back.
The next day we broke camp for the Esplanade. We stopped for quite awhile at Thunder River Falls, enjoying the view, and talking with quite a few hikers who were doing the Thunder River to Deer Creek loop. Some of them did not look like they were going to make it, but who knows?
The trip up the Redwall to the Esplanade was slow and uneventful. The weather was comfortable but still the shade was appreciated. What we hadn't planned on was that the water in the tinajas had just about dried up in the three days since we had been there. It took about an hour of searching, scooping water from tiny pools and then filtering it before we had enough for the evening, the next mornings breakfast, and the hike out. This was in addition to the water we had cached.
After relaxing for a few hours at our first nights camp spot, we decided to head to the Thunder River/Bill Hall junction another three miles along the Esplanade. This would shorten our trip on the last day. We had a great campsite under some trees, and everyone slept under the stars. While it did get a little overcast during the night, there was no rain.
More Esplanade Photos
We packed up and headed out the next morning. We celebrated at the top with some cold beers and mambo music, quickly becoming a tradition at the Bill Hall trail.