Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop
By Michael Lanza
Hiking just ahead of my three companions in Royal Arch Canyon, a remote chasm off the South Rim the Grand Canyon, I stop before a dead end: a 15-foot pour-off dropping away in front of me and towering cliffs to either side. It looks impassable. After a moment of scanning the walls more closely, though, I notice a stack of narrow ledges—some only as wide as one of my feet—leading across and down the cliff to my left, around the pour-off. The traverse is exposed—a slip could result in a really bad tumble off this cliff. But it actually looks fairly easy, and it’s clearly our route. So I start inching across as David and Kris come up behind me and watch.
As I’m shuffling sideways along the first ledge, the front pack holding my camera gear bumps the cliff face—and the effect is like an unseen hand shoving me backward. Arms windmilling wildly, straining against gravity, I feel my entire body tilting off-balance, about to pitch into the abyss behind me.
Surprising myself—and really glad I’m carrying a light pack—I manage to regain balance and straighten up on my slender foot ledge. I take a couple of deep breaths. That was too close, and the thought of the consequences barely avoided hits me like a hard slap in the face. A little voice in my head hisses icily: “Don’t be a f—ing idiot. Stay alert.” This is experts-only terrain. We can’t afford a lapse in focus.
It’s our first afternoon on the Grand Canyon’s very rugged and infrequently hiked, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop, and my friends Jon Dorn, David Ports, Kris Wagner and I can already tell it promises to be one of the greatest backpacking trips any of us has ever taken. That’s a high bar, given that three of us (Jon, Kris, and me) are Backpacker magazine alum, and David is a longtime friend of mine who’s joined me on more adventures than I could quickly tally from memory.
But the GC’s Royal Arch Loop stands out even in a park where just about any hike would make just about anyone’s top 10 list. Starting from the South Bass Trailhead on the South Rim, reached by driving at least 90 minutes on rough dirt roads sometimes rendered impassable by heavy rain or snow, the route makes a top-to-bottom-and-back-up circuit of the canyon—going from a words-can’t-do-it-justice panorama at the rim to dipping your toes in the Colorado River.
It delivers a multi-day highlights reel of just about every type of physical feature that makes backpacking in the Grand Canyon unique: sweeping views, an intimate side canyon with lush hanging gardens nurtured by a vibrant stream, a high solitude quotient, and one drop-dead gorgeous campsite after another—including what must be one of the best in the entire Big Ditch, below Royal Arch itself (technically not an arch but a natural bridge because it was formed by water).
But the Royal Arch Loop isn’t for the timid—or for backpackers whose image of their skills and experience doesn’t sync with reality when using the honesty app. The park’s website says it is “considered by many to be the most difficult of the established south side hikes.”
In a note that now resonates on a deeper personal level for me, the website warns that the route “offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.”
Yea, no kidding.
All of our neck craning, nature-paparazzi photo shooting, and trite expressions of awe aside, priority one is getting through this hike with all bones intact, vital organs functioning normally, and no severe flesh wounds.
And that means no one falls off a cliff.
Rain in the Grand Canyon
Several hours earlier that first day, the four of us had set off down the rock-strewn South Bass Trail in conditions decidedly atypical of early May in the Grand Canyon: relatively cool temperatures, gusty winds, and overcast skies. Before long, the bruised sky developed a leak that built into a light but steady shower. Veils of rain hung down from the gray cloud ceiling, partly obscuring far-off towers and mesas.
But none of us was complaining. The Grand Canyon is the unusual kind of backpacking destination where you welcome a cool rain because its more-common antithesis—hot sun—poses an exponentially larger threat to water-addicted animals like us. Here, light rain and mild temperatures are a gift that one receives with gratitude.
We turned west off the South Bass Trail onto a cairned path traversing the 20-mile-long, wide shelf of red sandstone known as The Esplanade, seeing no one else as we hiked below the huge cliffs of Chemehuevi Point, Toltec Point, and Montezuma Point. (We’ll see only two other parties of backpackers on the entire route, and some rafters in passing at Elves Chasm.) The most conspicuous signs of life were birds and an eruption of wildflowers from the dry earth that our visit has apparently synchronized with perfectly.
Any trail descending into the Grand Canyon is hard, but the Royal Arch Loop exists in a category all its own, at least among South Rim routes. For starters, from the South Bass Trailhead at 6,650 feet, the route drops more than 4,500 feet—nearly a vertical mile—to Toltec Beach on the Colorado River. Those will be some of the hardest, quad-burning, downhill miles you’ll ever log. And then you have to ascend all of that vertical back to the rim. It would be ass-kicking hard even if the entire route followed a maintained trail.
But it doesn’t. From the point where you depart the South Bass Trail, 1.4 miles into the hike, it follows a meandering and faint but sporadically cairned footpath traversing The Esplanade for some 10 miles. Once you drop into Royal Arch Canyon, there’s no path at all—you just follow the canyon downstream—and the scrambling gets serious and exposed in spots.
You must know how to set up a safe rappel. The desert heat can be wilting, and long stretches of the route lack water, so you’ll carry several pounds of it. Magnifying the risk level, it’s in a remote area of the park, where you’re not likely to encounter many other people, and help in an emergency would takes hours if not more than a day even if you carry a rescue beacon or satellite phone.
Compounding the challenge, the route repeatedly presents you with spots that appear impassable. Early on our first afternoon, we reached a 200-foot pour-off in the eastern arm of Royal Arch Canyon. We’d read in the park’s route description that the safer way around it skirts right of the pour-off, so we embraced that advisory, clambering over and around rocks large enough that we’re conscious of not dislodging one that could crush a foot or a femur. We traversed a ledge as wide as a sidewalk for several hundred horizontal feet, high above the canyon floor and beneath an overhanging cliff, crawling through one claustrophobic passage between the cliff face and a stunted but resilient tree sprouting from it. When the ledge ended, we followed a wandering path of cairns along what initially seemed an improbable route down the canyon’s steep wall back to its bottom.
The fairly level Tonto Trail represents the only easy stretch of the Royal Arch Loop. Enjoy it, because the subsequent ascent of the South Bass Trail is, to employ gross understatement, unkind to your body—and the degree of punishment it dishes out ratchets up proportionately with the air temperature and angle of the sun (read: hike it in the cool of early morning rather than in the blazing heat of afternoon).
Still, we’re planning to hike the loop in three days instead of the five recommended by park rangers. That isn’t a suggestion that everyone attempt to do it in less than five days—it’s just an understanding of our abilities and years of experience backpacking and ultra-hiking, including here in the Grand Canyon.
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Royal Arch Canyon
Now, with all four of us safely below the ledges I almost fell off, and the light slowing dimming as the day arcs into evening, we continue carefully negotiating our way through the seemingly endless twists of Royal Arch Canyon.
The canyon narrows and its walls rise higher the farther we descend. A spring-fed stream zigzags along the canyon bottom, sending thin cascades down slabs into crystalline pools framed by incongruous drapes of greenery—a rare desert oasis. We pick our way around and over boulders that wouldn’t fit in my living room.
Around yet another bend, we stop at the sight of Royal Arch looming ahead.
A thick arm of sandstone bridging the canyon walls, with a gap you could fly a small plane through, Royal Arch appears to have been chopped from solid rock with a giant hatchet rather than excavated over millennia by the shallow stream gliding quietly under it. We walk through the gap to ledges just beyond, which terminate at a 200-foot pour-off and a view into the lower part of Royal Arch Canyon. A freestanding spire towers a hundred feet or more directly above our campsite.
Jon, who has backpacked and hiked all over America and the world, looks around and says, “Definitely all-time top 10 campsite.” (I agree and added it to my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.)
A light rain begins falling as dusk slowly settles into the canyon. We grab our food and cooking gear and walk over to sit in the broad rain shadow of Royal Arch.
On our second morning, the clouds and rain have surrendered to a flawlessly blue sky, but temperatures fortunately remain well below nuclear-fission levels. After backtracking a half-mile to locate the steep hike up out of Royal Arch Canyon, we emerge into open, sunbaked desert, surrounded by classic Grand Canyon scenery.
A monstrous and complex layer-cake buttress looms directly across the canyon from us, sheer cliffs interspersed with sharply tilting slopes piled to their angle of repose with fallen rocks. Soaring walls striped in darker and lighter, horizontal geologic layers stretch for miles. The emerald Colorado River carves a calm turn downstream from us. A footpath scratched into the desert by the boots of previous hikers crosses gently downward-sloping ground sparsely covered with cacti, blooming wildflowers, and a smorgasbord of razor-edged and prickly flora.
A couple of hours after leaving our camp below Royal Arch, our trail appears to end at a cliff. But once again, upon closer inspection, what appears impassable proves to be precisely where we have to go.
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“This must be where the rappel is,” I call over my shoulder to the others while crab-crawling down a gully of loose rocks, a thin seam in the cliff. It deposits us on a long, mid-cliff ledge that we walk along until it ends abruptly. There, we find fairly new slings wrapped around rocks near the cliff’s edge, marking the spot where the Royal Arch Loop becomes “technical”—adding a fun little bit of spice to a backpacking trip that’s already strenuous and more than a bit sketchy. We break out the 50-foot rope and the one harness, locking carabiner, and rappel device we brought to take turns making the 20-foot rappel.
Not far downhill from the rappel, in rising heat, we stroll up to sandy Toltec Beach, beside the softly churning Colorado. I’m sure my three friends share the first thought I have looking at this place: It’s a shame to not be camping here.
But our itinerary is a little too aggressive to hang out anywhere for several daylight hours. So we settle for massaging our bare feet by wriggling them in the hot sand, followed by chilling them in the river, and lying back in the scant shade of a stubby tree to eat lunch. Then we leave our packs here for the side hike to one of the gems of the Grand Canyon—a place with a name that no one with a wild heart or curious mind could pass up visiting, once you’re this close.
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A rocky, up-and-down, surprisingly rugged goat path winds through talus and cliff bands above the river for 1.5 miles from Toltec Beach to the mouth of Elves Chasm. In the midst of a parched landscape mostly adorned in earth tones of brown, burgundy, and cream, water gushes over waterfalls and cascades in an oasis where greenery suddenly runs amok.
The four of us walk and scramble up a path of sorts into the narrow defile, until we can go no farther, stopping in an alcove filled nearly to its walls with a pool of frigid water perhaps 25 feet across and nearly as wide. At its far end, a thin but steady column of water pours over leafy plants clinging to red rock. One at a time, we swim across the deep pool to stand on a ledge beneath the brain-freezing little waterfall.
As we’re hiking the hot trail back toward Toltec Beach, Elves Chasm almost seems like a place we imagined, it’s so glaringly out of place here. Elves Chasm defies easy description. It’s not easy to reach, and that’s probably a good thing; otherwise, that quiet and mysterious little alcove would be jammed wall to wall with tourists hoisting selfie sticks. It’s just one of those magical spots you gotta see.
The Tonto Trail
Back at Toltec Beach, in late afternoon, we start hiking upstream through a sprawling boulder garden, on a footpath gradually ascending hundreds of feet above the river into Garnet Canyon. We turn up that tributary canyon until reaching yet another point where cliffs appear to bar further progress—and where, again, the seemingly impassable proves to be the route.
A line of cairns leads us up over a delightfully serendipitous series of wide ledges jutting like diving boards from the cliff face. At an elbow in the wall, a break in the canyon’s Tapeats sandstone layer, we climb up over a pour-off to gain the broad tableland known as the Tonto Plateau.
And here we find something we haven’t experienced in what feels like quite some time: a real trail. Now, after many challenging miles, the Tonto’s smooth tread and gently undulating contours will give us a respite of about a dozen miles before we face the grueling ascent of the South Bass Trail—3,400 feet packed into just 4.3 miles, nearly all of it lacking enough shade to shelter a kangaroo rat.
But some of the trip’s best scenery awaits us over the next day along this section of the Tonto Trail. For much of its more than 100 miles spanning a mid-canyon plateau below the South Rim, the Tonto gives a hiker the unique perspective of viewing a full cross-section of the Grand Canyon: having the river and at least one rim, plus a complex universe of cliffs and towering stone monoliths, all in view at the same time. Here at the Tonto’s westernmost end, we’ll see the usual splashes of color from wildflowers while gaping at unfathomable formations like the Shinumo Amphitheater.
We hike into the evening again, watching the slow light show play across a vast geologic stage as the sun sinks lower, leaving us in shadow long before its last rays abandon the canyon layers high above us. At one point while hiking, we spot the moving specks of people with a rafting party in a beach campsite a thousand feet below us; and they spot us, moving specks hiking along the top of the massive walls of stone above them. We exchange waves, and I imagine them gloating that their mode of travel includes coolers full of beer and ours does not—and for a long moment, I kind of wish there was an easy path to hike down there. But despite being within sight of one another, we might as well be separate by, well, a 1,000-foot cliff.
Winds begin to gather momentum, like rocks rolling down a long hill; when we stop before dark to camp in a flat area overlooking the river and a sweeping arc of the Grand Canyon that is really just a tiny fraction of the whole thing, we’ll have to stake and guy out our tents with large rocks to keep them from blowing to New Mexico.
However, the real difficulties of the Royal Arch Loop lie behind us. We will face no more seemingly impassable obstacles. Short of some bizarre and genuinely unlucky stumble on a well-maintained trail, we’ll encounter no more traverses with an imminent hazard of falling off a cliff.
From here on, the Royal Arch Loop morphs into just a really, really good, and pretty hard backpacking trip—formidable, but never even looking impassable.
See all of my stories about the Grand Canyon, including this short story and photo gallery about a 25-mile dayhike from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel Trailhead on the South Rim, and feature stories about hiking the canyon rim to rim to rim, a family backpacking trip from Grandview Point to the South Kaibab Trailhead, a father-daughter backpacking trip from the New Hance Trailhead to Grandview Point, and all of my Ask Me posts about the Grand Canyon.
See also these stories:
“My Top 10 Favorite Backpacking Trips”
“Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites”
“The Simple Equation of Ultralight Backpacking: Less Weight = More Fun”
“Photo Gallery: 20 Big Adventures in Pictures”
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR experienced, fit backpackers with solid navigational and desert-hiking skills. Much of the route is not on an established trail and involves steep, difficult, sometimes exposed third- and fourth-class scrambling. There is one 20-foot rappel, so at least one member of the party needs to know how to set that up safely and the gear required for it. You will likely encounter few other hikers along most of this route, much of which is a day or two of hiking from the nearest road—a road which can become impassable during times of heavy rain or snowfall—so self-sufficiency is paramount.
Make It Happen
Season April to May and mid-September to early November are the best times for backpacking in the Grand Canyon. But in March and April, melting snow and storms can make the roads to the South Bass Trailhead so wet and muddy at times that they become impassable (see Getting There, below). We chose to go in the first half of May for better odds of passable road conditions, even though the average May temperatures are highs in the 90s and lows in the 60s in the canyon; but we had mostly cooler temps with a little rain.
Summer highs in the canyon frequently exceed 90° and 100° F., though morning temperatures are more moderate. The summer monsoon season, from July through early September, brings regular, severe afternoon thunderstorms with lightning, hail, strong winds, and sometimes flash floods.
The Itinerary The Royal Arch Loop is 34.5 miles, ranging in elevation from the South Bass Trailhead at 6,650 feet to Toltec Beach on the Colorado River at 2,100 feet, and normally done in five days because of the rugged nature of it. Hike it clockwise so that you rappel the 20-foot cliff between Royal Arch and Toltec Beach rather than having to climb it. Read the detailed route description at http://ift.tt/26KszUt.
Getting There The South Bass Trailhead is located in a remote area about 25 road miles northwest of Grand Canyon Village, reached via Forest Road (FR) 328 in the Kaibab National Forest, which is accessed from Rowe Well Road in Grand Canyon Village. A dirt road, FR 328 is rough and rocky and sections can become impassible during wet weather. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, and four-wheel drive might be needed if the road is muddy. The Havasupai Tribe charges a fee (usually $25) to cross their land; a tribe member often mans a gate along the road to collect the fee.
For driving directions to the South Bass Trailhead, see http://ift.tt/26KsBvs.
Lodging There are several lodging options in Grand Canyon Village managed by Grand Canyon Lodges (grandcanyonlodges.com), and more in the town of Tusayan, outside the park entrance on the South Rim.
Permit A permit is required for camping in the backcountry. You can apply for one beginning on the first of the month four months prior to the month in which you want to start a trip (e.g., on Dec. 1 for a hike beginning in April). A Grand Canyon backpacking permit is one of the hardest permits to get in the national park system. Fax in your application early in the morning on the first day you can submit it. See http://ift.tt/1RR5iuf for details and the application form. As of Oct. 1, 2015, the park increased the fee for backcountry camping below the rim to $8 per person per night, on top of the $10 fee per permit.
Map Trails Illustrated Grand Canyon East map no. 262, $11.95; (800) 962-1643, natgeomaps.com. We used a custom topo of the Royal Arch Loop from MyTopo that you can order printed on waterproof paper at http://bit.ly/1P4hnf2.
• Water sources are limited. The only perennial water is in lower Royal Arch Canyon, fed by springs, and the Colorado River, which can be heavily silted at times, enough to clog a filter. There’s a steadily flowing stream and clear pools near the campsites at Royal Arch and in Elves Chasm (the lower part of Royal Arch Canyon). The water in Garnet Canyon is unsafe to drink. For more information about water sources, see http://ift.tt/26KszUt.
• Heat is a killer in the Grand Canyon, where there’s often little shade. Wear a sun hat, sunblock, and light, breathable clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
• The rappel requires 40 feet of rope, extra webbing in case you have to back up the anchor, and at least one harness, locking carabiner, and rappel device. Assuming everyone can wear the same size harness, you can use your rope to hoist it back up the cliff instead of having everyone carry a harness and rappel device.
• Trails and off-trail sections of the Royal Arch Loop are often steep—as is true of virtually any hike in the canyon. Bring trekking poles.
Contact Grand Canyon National Park, (928) 638-7888, nps.gov/grca.
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