5 of the Best Grand Canyon River Hikes
The first Grand Canyon river trip slide show I ever saw was in the dim smelly bowels of a small raft company warehouse. Soggy wetsuit booties hung on the walls, but we endured the malodorous setting because the images were so captivating. Our boss, dory boatman Steve Jones (aka Jonesy) was behind the projector, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Grand Canyon trips are all about the hiking.” Jonesy kept true to his proclamation and flipped through innumerable photos of places I’d never before imagined. Elves Chasm, Olo Canyon, Blacktail; suddenly I had a new agenda for my forthcoming first Canyon trip—do every hike I could.
That was 25 years and a few dozen Canyon trips ago, but my approach to the greatest river trip in the world has changed very little: Survive the rapids, and do every hike. Here a few of my very favorites.
This is the first really classic hike done on most trips. The path follows the bed of North Canyon before tracing a cairned route across a rocky desert slope to bypass a pour-off in the dry creekbed. Once back on sidewalk smooth sandstone in the canyon bottom, hikers must negotiate a couple small scrambles before arriving at a gorgeous reflection pool. This is an obvious turn around point, but those who are overly stoked can swim the pool, and make their way another few hundred yards into the ever narrowing canyon.
An often overlooked jaunt, the relatively short trail hike to Hilltop Ruin gets you straight into a region called Furnace Flats. Sounds appealing, eh? Actually, this open section of canyon from roughly miles 66 to 73 is a nice change of pace. The views are wide here, which is why natives built Hilltop Ruin as a communication post. An extra side saunter leads to a breathtaking cliff overlook directly above Unkar Rapid.
River travelers might feel confined in the heart of the Inner Gorge, but there is a solution: Clear Creek. Winding between walls of schist, this rushing stream features mind meld bends that can make us feel oh-so-small. A unique horizontally spouting waterfall at hike’s end is a fitting finale.
This is a full day commitment, and untenable in hot weather, so the majority of trips will blow past. That’s good if you are lucky enough to make this epic trek, because you probably won’t see any other river runners until the end of the day at Deer Creek, which is where this point to point route finishes. The day begins along cold clear Tapeats Creek. By midday you’ll be at the surreal Thunder River Springs. The Surprise Valley slog is next, to be rewarded with the too beautiful for words Deer Creek finish. It’s a journey, a voyage, an odyssey, it’s Surprise Valley.
The once popular camps here are washed away for the moment, thanks to 16,000 cfs flooding down National Canyon a couple seasons back. So don’t stop if the monsoon is active. Still, this side canyon is a worthy destination, featuring crystalline pools, towering cliff walls, and a special green tinged light that infuses the atmosphere as it reflects Muav Limestone alcoves.
Photos: Tyler Williams (Clear Creek & Hilltop Ruin)