Wow! One of the most rugged, challenging, remote, satisfying, and beautiful backpacking loops I've ever done...
This route has been on the list for a few years now as I've been slowly ticking off the Tonto trail and now I've finally completely this route with competent hiking partners Todd & Scott and now just have a Gems route left to complete the full Tonto trail.
Well I don't think I can quite out do writelots triplog, but some notes are definitely worth sharing. Day 1: Thursday
We made the muddy drive all the way to the South Bass TH w/o paying any fees and it was quite foggy up there. Dropped down into that drainage and got below the clouds and got to see the amazing features in the area. My buddy liked asking what the features in the area where called and some pointy one across the river wasn't listed so I named it Molly's nipple.
Spent most of the morning traversing along the Esplanade while trying not to get off route too often. Eventually dropped into upper Royal Arch canyon and quickly hit the Ledges section. We had heard of some bypass route on the right side, but we're all hikers/climbers/canyoneers so we just pushed on and did the exposed traverse w/o issue other than our heart rates racing.
We made it down to the confluence of RA canyon at the big bend to get stopped by a small drop with a swimmer below so we backtracked to the bypass trail. Heading down canyon, we kept looking for ideal camping spots but there's not much to be found... We hit another even sketchier bypass trail, but the climb down at the end wasn't too crazy... About a half mile up canyon from the trail out to the Tonto, we lucked and and found a huge boulder to setup camp on.
Some clouds and thunder were rolling in, so we setup my 2-man BPing tent in minimalist mode and we mostly got all 3 of us under the rainfly.
It rained fairly good that night, but my tent, dry sacks, and pack sack all worked great!Day 2: Friday
Broke down camp and headed down canyon to find out we camped only a half mile from the trail out. All along RA canyon, there were puddles from the recent storms but the creek wasn't flowing until we got close to the arch. We dropped our packs at the junction and scrambled & rock hopped our way to that amazing Royal Arch
and the huge drop as it continues down to Elves Chasm. Too bad we didn't have some ropes to just rappel that sweet drop.
Backtracked to our packs and climbed up to the Tonto and made the easy hike along the plateau until we had to start down climbing thru that cliffband.
Some class 3 down climbing and you hit the 20ft rope, which looks much worse than its is but it definitely gets the heart pumping. We took turns lowing down our packs and using the rope as a handline since there's plenty of solid footholds to be found. Made our way down to Toltec Beach where we dropped our packs and ate lunch before making the sidetrip along the Colorado River to the amazing Elves Chasm. We took the more challenging lower route on the way there and stuck to the easier trail on the way back.
Got rained on on the way over and talked to some rafters who shared some warm lunch with us before taking a dip in that amazing falls & pools & snagging some water before heading back. It was still early in the afternoon when we returned, so instead of camping at Toltec Beach we topped off by pumping from the murky Colorado River with 4-5 liters each and headed upstream along the river and got hit by some more rain soon after leaving the beach. Camped up along the Tonto Plateau near Garnet Canyon with some amazing views & sunset. Though the bugs were quite annoying that evening and it rained again during the night, but we were again all crammed under the tent again. It was tough but I still managed to get some sleep... Day 3: Saturday
With most of the highlights and technical aspects of the loop behind us, today was the long trek along the Tonto east to South Bass Canyon though we did luck out and saw two more Big Horn along the way.
'Hey Brian, what that other pointy peak up there on the other side of the river? Now there's two of them... It's still Molly's nipple, see that's the right one and that over there is the left one.'
With the views being about the same for hours on end as we slowly made our way in & out of small side canyons, I picked up the speed to 3-4 mph but got some complaints about going too fast.
Copper Canyon was the largest one to trek thru but we again topped out with 4-5 liters each from a clear puddle in one of the many forks. Kept pushing on and rounded the bend into South Bass Canyon by early afternoon and found another sweet campsite down off of the trail overlooking SB canyon and the mighty Grand Canyon. We ate an early dinner & gave Scott a rematch of chess from an amazing overlook instead of crammed in the tent though he beat me that time.
The weather looked good that evening and we were able to spread out and sleep in our own spots instead of spooning under the rainfly.
Though the bugs were out in force again and the full moon woke me up at least a couple times though with 12 hours of off/on 'sleep' I had some trippy REM dreams... Day 4: Sunday
Woke up early for the steep hike back up to the rim. South Bass was dry as a bone as expected. My uphill muscles had been itching at a chance to shine so I turned on the afterburners as we climbed out of SB canyon and thru the steep Redwall Limestone layer.
We took a scenic break along the traverse thru the Supai Sandstone layer before topping out on the Esplande and made it to the junction in pretty good time. Hit my last Gu and powered up thru the Coconino Sandstone layer with my two compadres not too far behind topping out at the TH around 11am.
Made the bumpy drive back to Tusayan and scarfed down a yummy Carne Asada burrito at the Mexican restaurant. Such a great way to end such an amazing backpacking loop!