I'm my quest of finishing the Tonto trail and all the South Rim trails laid this very elusive stretch of trail. The Royal Arch Loop!!!!! As some of you know it's hard to just get to the trailhead with 30 miles of dirt roads between the trailhead and the Paved roads of the Park. A bit of mystery hides behind it with obstacles known as "THE LEDGE" and "THE RAPPEL", the only rappel listed on a the map for the Grand Canyon. Those are just two of many obstacles along the way. But with places like Royal Arch and Elves Chasm as reward it makes all the hard work worth it.
This trek is not fit for just any hikers, only the most diehard canyon lovers should attempt it. So naturally I found two people I've never hiked with before to make the trip with me (Matt Hoffman and Mike-scorpion scus). For a few years it seemed like we were completing the same stretches of trail just a few weeks apart, from there trip reports it seemed we had a very similar hiking style as well. Well it worked.
- We meet at 4:00am at my house and leave for the long drive out to the TH. A quick stop in Flag for some breakfast and another in Tusayan for some last minute snacks & drinks and before we know if were on the dirt road to S. Bass TH. The road is long and dry today, a few weeks ago it was a mud pit swallowing even the biggest 4x4's trying to get down it. You could see some very deep ruts in places that I didn't even want to drive in dry as my Jeep would have probably been stopped by them. We reach the gate to enter Havasupai Indian land as the road cuts across a few miles of there land, to our great surprise there is nobody manning the gate, they usually charge $25 so to drive down a corner of there roads. We open and close the gate behind us and continue to the TH.
Soon enough we are on the trail, loaded down to our packs capacity, we each bring food and water to cache a short way down the trail at the Esplanade Junction which would be lour last nights camp. After dropping some goods off under a rock ledge we are headed down the Royal Arch Route now. The going is fairly easy at the start just contouring along the way. We then lose the trail, but continue to follow cairns out to the finger of the points. After getting there and doing some interesting scrambling along the way we all agree we are completely off trail and need to back track to find it. Some even more interesting climbing and a good hour wasted to hook back up with the trail. We all laugh that we have close to 1000 miles hiked in the canyon yet we still can't stay on the trail. Soon we come across a small dripping spring, not knowing where are next water would be we drink a few liters here and fill up our packs with water as it may be all the water we come across today. No filtering here, there we no pools or water so it would have been a pain, just water dripping down the canyon.
After a few more hours of hiking we are starting to reach our destination for the day. We reach a canon and start to head down it thinking it would lead us towards Royal Arch Canyon, well after 10 minutes we cliff out at a dry waterfall and have to head back. Another 15 minutes on the trail and we reached the larger canyon that we needed. To our surprise there was water flowing here and some decent camp sites here. We call it a day and our beat.
This would be another fun day, we head down this canyon towards the junction with Royal Arch Canyon. We down climb some dry falls and scramble down numerous ledges and boulders along the way. Soon enough the trail skirts along the left wall of the canyon and stays our of the canyon as there we large dry falls blocking the path. We all start to recognize this wall that were following and know that "The Ledge" is coming up soon. We reach it, it's a 8-10 rocks section that you have to face the wall and side step across, with only cut outs for your hands and feet. An immediate 40' fall below you with a long tumble after that should you slip. I've looked at pictures of it for months and knew it was a big obstacle. There actually is a bypass along the opposite canyon wall, but it's longer and doesn't look like much fun either.
After taking a minute to catch our breath and calm our nerves we start to head across. I just wanted to get it over with so I went first, it is what it is. Mike goes next while Matt takes pictures of our crossing. We all make across safely. Well sure as heck there are two more obstacles after crossing the ledge equally as hair raising. One being the canyon wall that comes to a V-shape with large stomach height boulder that sticks out of the wall that you have to hug and traverse across the V. This scared me a bit more. I go across, then Matt but he didn't want to do it with his pack as his camera bag sticks out front, we end up roping it across, but as it swung and we pulled it up the cliff his tripod got caught and ended up falling off. Mike then goes across. We skirt the edge some more and soon get to drop back into the canyon. We bushwhack and backtrack and begin the search for the tripod. It was hard to tell from below where the actual ledge obstacles were so we looked in the wrong area for a while. I headed a bit further from the main search are and end up finding it quickly.
Finally we meet up with Royal Arch Canyon, we turn down it and find a great cave/overhang to get some needed rest in the shade and enjoy a nice lunch there. The days were hot in the difficult terrain. After lunch we continue down canyon over countless boulders and numerous falls. We lower out packs with rope in a few places, but are able to down climb all the obstacles. We are running low and water and will need to fill up soon. Soon we meet up with another side canyon and it's a waterfall oasis. Clean cold water now running down the creek. Couldn't have timed it any better. We tank up here and take some pictures of the small cascading waterfall.
We all consult our maps and agree that we still have long ways to go to reach camp, it's 3pm now and we are pretty beat. We saddle up and head down canyon some more, not 5 minutes later we turn a corner and a massive arch is a towering over us, we are at camp. We all got a good laugh again that the 3 of us with as much canyon experience still couldn't read a damn map this day.
The arch is massive and the creek runs right through it, I go for a swim in the ever so cold pool, but it is very refreshing after a 2nd day or HARD hiking. We relax and explore a bit, a hundred feet past the arch the creek reaches a 180 foot waterfall, you can't go further down canyon. Some have rappelled this way to reach Elves Chasm though. Hmmm?-future trip
Back up canyon to the turn off back on the route, we actually had passed these cairns yesterday and not thought much of them since we weren't sure what park of the canyon we were in. The climb out is steep, but it was nice to be on somewhat of a trail after yesterdays boulder hoping and canyoneering. Some great views once we climb atop the canyon and make our way over to Toltec for a decent to the Colorado River. Hiking was nice up top here and we enjoyed the break. Soon enough we start heading back into and down to Toltec Canyon. This is were the Rappel is. Some very steep scrambling and down climbs here just to get to it. 100's of feet of exposure of to our side as we make our way down. We reach the rappel site. Not what we really pictured. At one point it's a 100' foot drop, another 10' along the ledge at the rappel site and there is the 20' rappel down to another ledge. Matt is a our climbing expert and I know Mike and I we certainly glad to have him there. He packed a rope down so we were going to use it regardless although there are 2 good looking ropes in place already.
I had read a few places that most people just the rope as a hand line and don't actually rappel, well after seeing it, it would have taken a lot of courage for me to do it that way. I was certainly glad we had a harness and belay device to we could rappel. Matt gives us a very brief intro on what to do and he descends. I send the packs down one at a time. Mike is next, it takes us a minute to configure the harness again and get the belay device right, Matt did a great job of talking us through it from down below. If may not of made sense to send the only guy who knows how to rappel down first, but actually the way the device works, if we screwed up on the way down, all he would have to do is tug on the rope and it would stop us. Mike makes it down with no problem. Matt sends the harness back up attached to the rope all I have to do is put the harness on. This was my first time ever Rappelling, after giving the rope a test tug I felt safe, the belay device is actually very simple to use, just pull down/back on the rope and it stops you. The first 10' feet I was more or less slowly doing down, but still placing my feet in holds, then I got the hang of it, just lean back and push off. I want to rappel somewhere again.
Ok, after the rappel we are still high up on some ledges with still a ridiculous amount of exposure, there are two more good down climbs that are a bit interesting with packs on but still manageable. Finally we reach Toltec beach along the Colorado. We drop our packs here and have lunch. A raft trip goes by as we relax. After a good break we stat our trek over to Elves Chasm. This is the day we had all been waiting for. I remember seeing a picture of Elves Chasm years ago and wanted to get there. The wait would be worth it, what takes a week long heavy duty backpacking trip to get there is a mere lunch break stop for a river trip. The trip to Elves is only about a mile a way, but it's a arduous trek up and over rocks and more climbing over mostly volcanic type (think Sharp) rocks. I had been given the hint to bring gloves (thanks Ambika) and was glad to have them.
We finally make to Elves and make the climb up to them main falls. The falls actually are just 3 very large (20-30') boulders that jammed when coming down the canyon. You can actually swim back behind them, climb up and then jump down into the deep pool below. Matt and I both do this twice. It was refreshing but damn that water was cold. We were there with some others from a raft trip, but after 30 minutes or so they had left. We relaxed there for probably 2+ hours, taking some picture, enjoying the fresh water.
We filtered water here and brought all we could carry back to camp, otherwise we would have to filter from the muddy Colorado. Once back at Toltec we scouted for some camping spots. It's just a large sandy beach and there are none. The past two nights had been windy, but tonight the weather cooperated with us and it was calm. I used my tent every night, Mike slept on a tarp and Matt had MikeInFhAz's tarptent which he set up were possible, sand and slickrock make it hard to set-up a tarp. Today was another hard full day of hiking, climbing and scrambling, but got to see a place than probably 99% off Grand Canyon hikers never get to see.
Today we are head toward Garnett canyon where we will pick up the Tonto trail. We are looking forward to Tonto trail hiking after the last few days of various trail types. The path to Garnett is similar to that of going to Elves Chasm but a bit easier. Once back at Garnet we tank up on water there, unsure whether we could depend on water at our next camp which would be Copper canyon. The Garnet water is ridiculously salty and mineralized. I had packed enough from Elves Chasm and didn't have to end up drinking any, but did end up lugging a gallon all the way to copper. The trail to Copper was enjoyable, it was nice to cover some actual mileage, there were a few side canyons along the way. I think it was about 12-14? miles from Toltec to Copper canyon. We reach camp about 3pm and it looks bone dry. It's a nice looking canyon, but campsites are few and spread out. 1st priority was to find water, my intel told me that about a mile up the canyon there is a spring with water. Sure enough after making our way up canyon a bit we found water (Thanks Ambika). I did a taste test of the water here compare to Garnet and immediately dumped out my gallon of garnet water that I lugged all day for this stuff. It was still a bit mineralized and you could certainly see the stains on the rocks from them as well, but it didn't taste too bad. Heck when it's 80 degrees and you've been hiking in the sun all day, water is water and your just glad to have it. We enjoy dinner on a ledge that would be Mike's campsite. While enjoying dinner I hear a noise which sounded like thunder, but lasted too long and look up and we see a rockfall happening above the redwall in the distance. We were far from it so no danger, it was cool to see and 5 minutes later after the dust had cleared you would have never known it happened. I purpose that if we make it up to the esplanade at a decent hour the next day we just skip our camp there, hike out the last two miles and head home a day early. They were ok with that, I was just looking forward to recovering this day and not having to head straight back to work.
We had a 4-5 mile jaunt back to S. Bass canyon, enjoyed some lunch were the tonto crossed into the canyon and found the only spot of shade we could all cram into. The hike up to the redwall doesn't waste anytime. It's steady and steep in places, but compared to most canyon trails, I don't think S. Bass is any harder than the rest. Another quick break before the main redwall climb and I headed off. I planned on going slow as it was hot and they were hiking a bit faster than I was. I just kept at it and topped out on the Esplanade from there it was about a mile back to the junction with the Royal Arch turnoff. I found our cache and chugged down some fresh water with some gatoraid mix. Mike and Matt followed shortly after. We took a 20 minute break hear and it was a bit windy up here, we headed out. It was under 2 miles back to cars from here. At the top there was a young couple who were scouting out the road for a future trip. He will be taking a 4-5 day raft trip hiking in from New Hance, rafting to S. Bass, hiking out it. There car battery was dead for some strange reason as they just drove the 5 hours up from Phoenix. We gave them a jump and they were on there way.
We relaxed a bit and enjoyed the finest beverage in the world (Coors Light of course), still cold after 5 days in the car. Then flew down the road back to Tusayan. Think we were only an hour and a half coming out, went to Oregano's in Flagstaff for some pizza and were back in Phoenix at 10pm, 13 hours after leaving our camp at Copper Canyon.
It was a great trip and I couldn't have asked for two better trail companions. Every day presented new and difficult challenges. I will say this was by far the hardest backpacking trip I've done in the canyon, each day leaving me thoroughly exhausted. I can say that this will probably be the only time when the easiest day of hiking in the canyon was the day that we hiked out. Thanks Matt and Mike for coming along and I look forward to some future adventures with you guys.
BTW- With this trip Mike and I both finished hiking all of the Tonto trail. I have now finished every main trail on the South rim from the Little Colorado to Royal Arch. It took me 3 years and a few months but I finally got them done.