Remote and spectacular!
Loop hikes are always popular with backpackers, beginning and ending at a single trailhead and offering new horizons each day. Unfortunately, the Grand Canyon does not offer many loop possibilities - the canyon is linear and so are most of the routes. The Royal Arch Loop, commencing and concluding at the South Bass trailhead, is a classic exception. The Royal Arch Loop is appropriate for experienced canyon hikers only, walkers who have paid their dues and acquired the appropriate wilderness skills, whose experience allows proper rigging of rappel anchors, and who can easily and safely rope down vertical cliffs. For such people the Royal Arch Loop offers a top drawer canyon adventure, replete with more natural beauty than humans can absorb. For those lacking the required skill and judgment this hike offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.
Spectacular Grand Canyon Adventure
An amazing loop hike of the Royal Arch Drainage - 7 days in the company of some great people - Guru, Diane, Tracy and our fearless trip leader Hank! This trip was something we had wanted to do for a while. For us, it was truly a "Grand Canyon Adventure" - this trip tested our skills and courage at times, effort wise - its been the longest self supported adventure. Our plan was 45 mile roundtrip starting at the South Bass trail head proceeding to Royal Arch via the esplanade/royal arch route; onto Elves Chasm, through the Tonto Trail to South Bass Beach and then up the South Bass trail to the rim.
Day 1 saw us head down South Bass - Up to the fork to Royal Arch that takes off west. Colors were just beginning to turn ....I wondered how the view would be a week later as we exit via same path. Some of the group ambled down and stashed a few liters of water further along the Esplanade. Mt Huethawali dominates as you traverse the Esplanade...cryptobiotic soil abounds ..you tread carefully sticking to rocky areas. We then contoured along heading west - beautiful slick rock of Esplanade soon gave way to much more challenging terrain - we navigated a few rock falls and called it a night at Chemehuvi Point. Life is good...
Primary objective was to get to camp deep in Royal Arch ....the rest of the Royal arch approach and the upper part of this trail was a 1st for all of us. It took us a while to work through the contours - One thing that is striking in this part is the absence of the abundant spires & buttes & mesas one associates with a Grand Canyon vista. Here, west of the Great Scenic Divide the canyon opens up to far reaching vistas, the esplanade is pronounces and the is interplay of the reds and green strong.. Beyond Toltec point , we note that the trail is getting quite rock from the rock falls from above - particularly the eastern side of the drainage is particularly rocky. We negotiated through very large boulders and eventually reached the top of Royal Arch Drainage. The trail (follow cairns) rapidly descending into the draining. The path ..some easy walking , some scrambling. You are mostly walking/boulder hopping along the creek bed till you reach a rather dramatic pour off ..your way around this is either via the infamous "Ledge", a rather precarious route with major exposure that takes off to the canyon left ( Do not underestimate this route, its not for everyone, we elected to use the bypass). There is the bypass for the ledge that hugs the right of the canyon ..its less of an exposure and the tread here is a 10-12 inches in some places with just a few feet of ledge ...be careful. You get some great views of the ledge from this route. You squeeze through a gap and pick you way down the trail (watch for cairns) rolling a few rocks and slipping and sliding on some loose rock. Eventually you will get to creek bottom. You will encounter a few pack passing descents along the way, if water pools are there check for by passes along the walls, they are usually marked by cairns, some of them will take a rather exposed route high above the creek bed. We ended up with an unplanned rappel to ford 2 deep pools in failing light (we elected to play safe here); you can down climb (lower you packs for safety). We camped right at the base of this having run out of light.
Royal Arch; the rappel and "suicide hill" descent to Toltec Beach. We headed down the creek and past the climb out of the drainage (on canyon right) till we reached another pour off ( down climb on left) and dropped our packs here. There is a spring at the base of this where we refilled and headed off to Royal Arch. A few cold waders and the beautiful waters following you all the way until you reach Royal Arch, a spectacular sight indeed! This is one of the only arches in Grand Canyon with a perennial stream running through it. Shortly past the arch you are presented with a ~ 150 ft drop. We retraced our path to the cairned exit out of Royal Arch ( look for cairns on the east side), it's a steep exit and soon you are heading down towards Toltec. The path is fairly clear here as you gradually head down, views open up in to Stephan Aisle and you see Explorer's Monument across the river on the North side. The trail contours along and soon you reach the 20ft rappel, straightforward stuff. 1st section is a rappel, 2nd section has a knotted hand line. From here we ended up at Toltec Beach via a rather interesting section which we affectionately dubbed "suicide hill" a scree slope that appears rather prominent way down, it was dark and we missed a few cairns off to the right, there is fairly good trail here. Toltec is a rather rocky beach but you are at the Colorado!
Elves Chasm & Tonto just past Garnet Canyon. Elves Chasm was calling and it was slow going getting there, negotiating, hand bruiser rocks (gloves recommended). The route heads west following the Colorado ( not at river level) and is cairned as it makes its way in and around the rocks. You end up at beautiful grotto, all river trips stop here so be prepared for crowds. Head back to Toltec and your packs and follow the route east and eventually you end up at the major drainage of Garnet and climb out onto the Tonto, this is the official start/end of the Tonto trail. We camped just past Garnet.
Long haul to Bass Beach. It's a really long walk to Bass Beach, beautiful views and typically Tonto. Copper Canyon is the major drainage along this part of the trail. A shortcut forking (great views here) off to the left leads you down a steep slope ( if you miss this you will eventually intersect with Bass Trail a few miles later) down to the creek bed. Take the trail on the east side and a good trails takes you higher off the bed and past the pour offs and you finally reach a steep descent down dark rocks to the Bass Beach which is tucked off to the right ( Stick to the eastern side if the rocky down climb). You do not see the beach from the trail till you are at river level. Handholds and foot holds are abound and you pass the old metal boat Ross Wheeler along the way.
Up Bass Trail and Esplanade camp, Good trails; great views You basically follow the drainage all the way up to the Esplanade. It's clear trail the entire way up. We camped right up on the edge and were treated to a great light & thunder show! Great views looking out over Bass Canyon.
Day 7:: Exit and back As Guru put it in his journal - this was an "experience"... a combination of spiritual, panic, pain, joy and whatever other emotions a normal human is capable of experiencing - of this wonderful adventure in one of the most infrequently visited and challenging areas of the canyon.
1) This is a tough route ( not all of it is a trail, route finding skills are a huge plus) Know what you signing up for and know your limits. Some rope skills /scrambling skills are a great help A length of rope (50 feet), webbing (20 feet), rappel ring (optional) are needed for a rappel and some hikers may want a belay in places. This trip will redefine "exposure" for most, so be prepared.
2) Make sure your 1st aid kit is stocked up. We used it quite well on this one... blisters, cuts, falls, scrapes. Leather gloves strongly recommended.
3) Trailhead is remote, you may need to pay $25 access to the Havasupai for access if they are there... Have cash handy!
4) It's a long (~2 hr) drive on rutted & dusty roads (that turn to mud slicks) 4x4 high clearance needed!
5) Plan your water - Water availability is often a problem on the Esplanade and the Tonto Plateaus. Water Sources - Esplanade (Seep Spring). Royal Arch Creek, seasonal potholes along the Esplanade and Tonto, Colorado River. Garnet Creek is salty but drinkable. Copper Creek has water seasonally.
Grand Canyon NPS Reports Hike: A cliff that can only be passed by a short rappel located near the midpoint of the route dictates that the Royal Arch Loop be walked in a clockwise direction, that is along the Esplanade Platform, down Royal Arch Creek and back to the South Bass Trail via the Tonto Trail. Walk west from the South Bass Trail on the Esplanade at the top of the Supai Formation, passing Chemehuevi, Toltec, and Montezuma Points. South of Montezuma Point the route starts down the long, eastern arm of upper Royal Arch Creek. Just before the eastern arm joins the main stem of the drainage hikers are presented with an impassable pouroff. This obstacle can be circumvented on either side but it's safer on the right (north). Follow a series of ledges along the north side of the canyon to a talus slope and descend to the bed of the drainage below the fall. If you chose to bypass the pouroff on the left side prepare for a thrilling traverse along an exposed ledge only a few inches wide. Both bypasses are cairned at the top and bottom of the pouroff so choose wisely.
Conditions ease somewhat after making the turn north into the main stem of Royal Arch Creek. In wet years pools of water might impede progress in the Redwall gorge and there is plenty of scrambling around to pass minor obstacles, but normally this section offers something like hassle free hiking. Hikers descending the drainage to see the natural bridge should note the large cairns that mark where the route climbs away from the creek on the east side before continuing down the watercourse. Royal Arch itself is spectacular, Grand Canyon's largest natural bridge. A huge fall below Royal Arch presents tantalizing views down into Elves Chasm, but cuts off any possibility of additional progress downcanyon. Retrace your steps about 1/2 mile to the cairns marking the trail up through the Tapeats Formation and follow the path north and east to the top of the infamous rappel that gives passage to the Colorado River. The trail gradually descends toward the river and just short of the unnamed drainage that falls below Toltec Point the route drops over a little 20 foot cliff. Rig an anchor worth betting your life on and rappel. Beware of old webbing or rope of unknown origin. The rest of the way to the shoreline is steep, but straightforward, coming to the river at the mouth of the Toltec Point drainage.
It would be a pity to come this far and not detour downriver to see Elves Chasm. This little nook is a rare gem and worth the time and effort. Follow the immediate shoreline or take the trail across the slope above the river about 1.5 rough, rocky miles downcanyon. The climbing becomes increasingly difficult as one follows Elves Chasm up from the river so be careful. This idyllic oasis has been the scene of several gruesome accidents.
The main trail between the Toltec Point drainage and Garnet Canyon starts upcanyon about 100 yards above the river. It is possible to walk the shoreline as well but eventually this route is forced up to join the upper trail. The trail gradually gains elevation and finally tops the Tapeats Sandstone at the mouth of Garnet. Garnet Canyon marks the western end of the Tonto Trail. Follow the Tonto Trail upcanyon. Most of the side canyons are small, but Copper and Bass Canyons require significant detours to cross. The Tonto Trail intersects the South Bass Trail in the bed of Bass Canyon. Climb the South Bass to the rim to complete this classic Grand Canyon loop hike.
Notes: The Royal Arch Loop is considered by many to be the most difficult of the established south side routes. The rappel near the river and the lack of reliable water along the Tonto Trail combine with the remote setting to make this hike significantly more hazardous than other canyon trails. As previously stated, this route is for canyon experts only. The required rope, webbing and hardware adds an additional burden to already heavily laden walkers. Plan on carrying a minimum of a 40 foot rappel rope, 20 feet of webbing for the anchor, additional webbing to tie a harness, and a locking carabineer. The large and complex Aztec Amphitheater offers several challenging route possibilities for adventuresome canyon hikers. Point Huitzil and Apache Point offer more difficult rim-to-Esplanade routes and a few of the many arms of Royal Arch Creek go through to the bed of the drainage.
Water Sources: Flowing water appears on the surface in the Redwall gorge of Royal Arch Creek. The Colorado River can be accessed at Toltec Beach. During cooler weather seasonal water is sometimes available from Seep Spring (between Chemehuevi and Toltec Points), from temporary pools along the Esplanade and in the bed of upper Royal Arch Creek, in Copper Canyon at the Tonto Trail crossing, and from potholes in Bass Canyon below the Tonto Trail. Garnet Canyon occasionally has water, but mineral content is extremely high and the water may be undrinkable. Lack of water in the Tonto Trail section of the loop makes this route hazardous in hot weather.
Campsites: Elves Chasm is day-use only, closed to overnight camping. With this single exception, the Royal Arch Loop is contained within "at-large" Garnet Use Area (BR9).
WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.