The Stair Machine from Hell aka Tapeats Creek to Deer Creek Loop via the Bill Hall Trail

This one wasn’t even on my list, but it was on the North Rim, and since the season to do those trails was closing, I figured why not. So it was another midnight run down to Arizona, looking for deer through the Kaibab forest, and sneaking in to Grand Canyon NP by moonlight. Everything was closed down except for the backcountry office so I could get permits. The campground was open, and free, unless all the sites are full. That was cool. Tried to use my hammock, but the trees are just too big for the webbing I’ve been using, so I need to buy longer webbing. Fortunately I slept in my truck, and brought my 0° sleeping bag cause it got down to 14°.

I didn’t exactly get the permits I was looking for, but that’s okay because nothing at that point was going to go according to plan. It was something I wanted to do in 3 days, and that is doable, but you’ve got to be able to move through some pretty gnarly terrain to make it happen. The first problem was getting to the trailhead. The directions were pretty bad, the author of the directions wrote it in paragraph format, and had a couple sections where he’s telling you to take one road, and in the next sentence telling you not to take a road. So I ended up at the Jumpup Nail Trail before loading up the GPS to find out just where I was at and where I wanted to be. I wasn’t even on the Trails Illustrated Map from National Geographic. So that ate up much needed daylight. Finally getting to the trailhead sometime in the early afternoon I was able to get started.

The weather on top was awesome during the day, and the weather down below was supposed to be even better.

Trip reports I read online and in the guide book I was using made the Bill Hall Trail out to be a pretty bad section of trail, but compared to the rest of the trail I’d be backpacking on this trip, it was certainly on par, so it didn’t seem quite as bad. There’s plenty of steep angles, slippery footing, and really big rocks to get down, one minor down climb, and then a gazillion switchbacks until it mellows out and meanders through some forest onto the slickrock esplanade.

The Esplanade is one long chain of cairns with a couple well traveled trails through some sandy areas high with old cryptobiotic soil on each side. After a good walk through that you come upon the Red Wall section where you’re scrambling down big chunks of rock on the edge of a cliff that was formed after a mega-landslide caused some new terra forming in the area. There are many switchbacks and a couple really good places for shade.

After a seemingly endless trek I got close to the bottom and met the first backpackers I’d see on the trail that day. These guys had little experience backpacking and had done the same loop I was doing. They on the other hand had massive packs on, and were in sad shape at this point. They thought they’d have a great trip if they brought wine, beer, waders, cigars, pounds of cheese, and who knows what else. They were kind of bragging about it too. They were short on water, and were going to have to drink out of the potholes on the Esplanade. I just felt sorry for them. They shouldn’t have been out on this trail and hadn’t even done a backpacking trip through the corridor where there’s drinkable water from spouts left and right, and rangers galore if they got in trouble. They said their packs were well over 60 pounds, and I’d guess even more when they started out.

So I had little time left, and only made it to the rim of Thunder Canyon before the sun was going down. I needed to pick up some water to rehydrate with and cook with and use for the next day, so I ventured down into Thunder Canyon to get some water from the massive spring. I never thought that access to the spring would be halfway down the next section, or that it would be as rough as everything else, but water is needed, so in the fading light I worked my way down who knows how many feet to fetch some water. When I got to the falls, I had huge bats flying straight at my face and swooping away at the last second when they came into the light of my headlamp. Nothing like seeing a bat that close in the wild. The trip back up was pure hell cause I didn’t get all the calories I needed that day to function like I wanted to, so there were frequent stops. It was pitch black, and I thought at one point that I had made it out, when in fact I was only a 1/3 of the way up on a section of trail just like the one on top. That was a major bummer. Eventually I made it out, setup camp, ate, and slept to the sound of Thunder Falls in the background.

There were supposed to be a ton of tarantulas on this trip, and there were certainly a ton of tarantula web floating around in the air that had detached from the bushes, and plenty of web on the bushes, but I didn’t see a single one. I heard them yipping the last night when I wasn’t around water to drown out their noise, but I’m disappointed I didn’t get to see any.

Next day was very interesting. After dropping back down past Thunder Falls and into Tapeats Canyon, which was shown to be fairly flat and gradually drop down to the Colorado River, it actually undulates up over bands of cliff along the creek and back down, crossing steep areas with cliff exposure on narrow trails. It wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t great either. The last section has you climbing up a gradual slope until you’re high above the Colorado River, and then you go over and drop down into a steep gully to switchback your way all the way back down.

I had got some Aquamira for this trip, but the night before when I was treating the water I came to find out that one of the two bottles needed to make the solution work was basically empty, so from here on out it was drinking untreated water. I’m not too worried about it. There’s a high turnover rate for the water, and it has a short distance to travel before getting to the Colorado with minimal animal contact, so I guess we’ll see if I’m completely miserably sick next week, or just fine.

After that, it’s a rough section on the banks of the Colorado. These aren’t really beaches here, just boulder fields, with a climb up and over a cliff band, and a semi-technical drop back to river level. Then it’s a steep climb way up above the river, maybe 400 feet, and then the trail flattens out and curves with the terrain in and out of small drainages until there’s a short, steep climb up and over a pass into Deer Creek Canyon. The guys we met at the Red Wall with the wine said it took them 9 hours to do the traverse section, when it only took around 3 hours with plenty of breaks along the way.

Night was falling as I got into the Deer Creek camp sites, so I ended up staying with some guys I met at the trailhead the previous day who were doing the loop in the opposite direction, and taking 5 days to do it. That night was spent right next to Deer Creek, and the ground was pretty damp. The cold picked up and the temps dropped close to freezing – and this was at the lowest elevation of the trip! It should’ve only got down to 55, but I think the proximity to the water, and the large area of cold air that the Deer Creek Canyons drain, must’ve done something.

Next day it was up to the Deer Creek Spring, and back into Surprise Valley. I was expecting that section of trail to gradually slope upwards, but I should’ve realized it wouldn’t be that easy since this whole trip had been one slow, technical section of trail after another. It’s pretty much like everything else. Stair stepping up huge rocks, at times close to two feet high, usually around 16″ though, and along narrow trails etched into steep slopes above cliffs.

The Red Wall section went surprisingly fast. I don’t know why. It being day 3 and having just climbed up from Deer Creek, and doing another big climb under clear blue and overly sunny skies I should’ve probably been more tired, but all I could do was just keep trudging along. It was certainly much easier going up this stuff than down.

After doing a short stretch on the Esplanade I camped and spread everything out to dry a bit for about 30 minutes before the sun set. Off in the East a fire was eating up a mountain sending tons of smoke up into the horizon. As the sky darkened the light from the flames took over that ridgeline, and were simply massive. I think these were the mountains that divide Arizona and Nevada along the Colorado River over there. The flames must’ve been several hundred feet high to see them all the way from where I was at.

Last day was the Bill Hall Trail. It went pretty quickly as well. I was tired, but not exhausted when I reached the top. Then the clouds that had come in that morning started to drizzle, and I was out of there. This time I got home around 9:30, which is one of my better re-entry times to civilization.

If there were just a little more daylight, and an earlier start on the first day, this would’ve easily been a 3 day trip.

View photos from this trip

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