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mini location map2018-05-07
21 by photographer avatarautumnstars
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Royal Arch RouteNorthwest, AZ
Northwest, AZ
Backpack avatar May 07 2018
Backpack41.19 Miles 8,000 AEG
Backpack41.19 Miles5 Days         
8,000 ft AEG
 no routes
1st trip
Partners none no partners
I had long wanted to hike the Royal Arch Route, and everything finally aligned to make that happen - and with my favorite backpacking partner! It was well worth the effort, and now we just need to plan a return trip under better weather conditions.

Day 0
Not 100% knowing the status of the road, we gave ourselves all day to drive from Vegas out to South Bass trailhead. We had reports of 5-7" snow on the rim a few days before, so had fingers and toes crossed for the road to be dry. Much to our surprise, the road was actually in really great condition, for what it is. Good clearance needed, but 4WD unnecessary. Some deep ruts in places, but all dry, so an alert driver was all you really needed.
Arrived in time to enjoy lunch at the trailhead, then backtracked a little on foot to check out the road to tonight's campsite - Ruby Point (SE2). Road was fine, just narrow, so we went back for the van and got down to enjoying the views from the campsite and Havasupai Point, a short distance away. Serious relaxation and map study ensued.

Day 1
We started down from the South Bass trailhead a bit later than hoped, after driving over from our night's campsite. To get that really early start, camp right at the trailhead (SE3).
With a plan to set up camp tonight after dropping into the Royal Arch drainage, but likely prior to finding water, we carried 8 L water each in our packs. The weight did slow us down some, but thank goodness for it! It was to be one of those weeks in May where, without warning, it is suddenly high 90s to low 100s :next: need to drink more per day plus unlikely to find much water in puddles. And, indeed, we saw no water today except a very small and rapidly drying puddle in the drainage bottom near our eventual camp spot. Good for wetting bandanas, but not much else.

I really enjoy the descent through the Coconino on South Bass - sloping sandstone ledges where there doesn't seem to be a way from above or below. A great route obviously known long before Mr Bass ever stepped foot in Grand Canyon. Once down, a quick jaunt across the Esplanade brings you to the junction of South Bass and the Esplanade Route, and we turned left into the unknown. :D

The Esplanade Route was just what we imagined it being - a meandering traverse along the Esplanade. This route doesn't go to such lengths as the Tonto Trail to head the many small side drainages it crosses, but that seemed to be more a result of being higher up and already closer to the head of the drainages than by design. Or maybe that IS the design. Regardless, this traverse was pleasant and scenic. We stuck to the use trail, which was easy to follow. Just watch for cairns on the other side as you approach each drainage to avoid potential confusion. Other than the Thunder River / Deer Creek loop, this was my first time doing much hiking west of the Grand Scenic Divide, and there is certainly a different feeling to it. More open, although that is hard to explain to someone who hasn't done much hiking in Grand Canyon east of here.

A little more than half way to our day's destination, we saw 2 hikers heading the opposite direction - they had done a one night out-and-back to Royal Arch only. Said their last trip here had involved doing the rappel in the dark and skipping Royal Arch, so they had to come back. They confirmed no water until shortly before the arch, making us extra thankful for our heavy water loads. These were the only people we saw until reaching South Bass several days later.

More traversing, and the day was really turning hot. At some point, the pace turned into more of a slog than a hike. After dropping into the Royal Arch drainage, we sat in the shade along a ledge (sweet relief!), using a minute puddle to wet our bandannas for neck/head cooling. Deciding this was it for today, we waited until the sun dropped behind the surrounding walls to eat and set up camp. Nice spot under a tree for the night. Didn't really need the sleeping bag, which was to be a consistent trend throughout this trip.

Day 2
Most of this day consisted of limited views while hiking, boulder-hopping, and downclimbing down the Royal Arch drainage. Progress was slowed numerous times by needing to pass packs or find the best way around an obstacle. Our canyoneering experience came in handy for downclimbing, but we also ended up going the harder way several times just because a downclimb looked "doable," so we stopped looking for the easier route. We often didn't go the backpacker way down. Oh well.

Being quite nervous around heights, my husband wanted no part of the infamous Death Ledge route for the major dryfall you must bypass en route to Royal Arch. While I was interested in giving it a go, it seemed smarter to stick together and both use the less nerve-racking RDC bypass. The bypass itself, although narrow and high above the canyon floor, was easy walking. For the climb back down into the drainage, it was good to have a durable pack to avoid wasting time taking it off and passing it down. Some of the "helpful" rock piles hikers had placed as steps were less than stable and best avoided, but we quickly figured out to test them with a pole before applying any weight.

There was a feeling that although we were in an interesting canyon for sure, we could have been almost anywhere in any sandstone canyon. Approaching an innocuous pile of rocks we were abruptly reminded of our location when my husband alertly spotted a Grand Canyon rattlesnake coiled up between 2 rocks. These guys have such a calm personality compared to the Mojave greens we are accustomed to encountering, and indeed the snake didn't move or react when we stopped for photos and to figure a way around. Very small puddles appeared more frequently as we approached the arch, until we reached one final downclimb on ledges LDC with the sound of flowing water below. Stronger flow started slightly down canyon, and remained on the surface all the way to Royal Arch itself.

Royal Arch was pretty interesting, not to mention nice and shady, so we hung out here filtering water and just enjoying drinking as much as we wanted. Walking around without your pack is such a treat when backpacking, not to mention dipping your feet in cool water while enjoying a wonderful view! Eventually, we decided that, although this seemed like an enjoyable place to camp, we would head back up the drainage to camp just above the start of the flowing water. A little less mileage tomorrow with easy access to water for tonight. Camped on flat sandstone - very nice and comfortable site.

Day 3
Today's miles would be short, as we planned to move only to Toltec Beach, day hike to Elves Chasm if the feeling was good, and camp back at Toltec. In retrospect, this may have been a poor plan, as it really upped Day 4's miles, but it was also a good plan as today ended up being the hottest day of the trip (a bit over 100).

The other good thing about today's short mileage was due to my husband's discomfort with hiking, not to mention downclimbing, with exposure. Once you hike up out of the Royal Arch drainage, the route hugs the edge of the cliff band atop the canyon, sometimes mere feet from a potentially deadly fall. There is also exposed downclimbing both before and after the rappel - nothing super technical, just nerve-racking with the pack throwing your normal balance off. The rappel station is nicely tucked back under an overhang (yay, shade!), and we made quick work of such a simple rappel. My husband said on rope was the place he felt most comfortable all day, although I thought it felt strange to be rappelling without a helmet. The rest was easy and we were soon lounging in the only shade at Toltec - a lone tamarisk. The cold water of the Colorado felt wonderful and we spent the day dunking, drinking, and moving as our shade moved. After a brief discussion, in light of the heat and a high mileage day coming tomorrow, we decided against the side trip to Elves Chasm. Oh drat! Will have to plan a return trip now! :D

Day 4
This was one long day in hot temperatures. The first part of the day was pleasant with an early start, and mostly out of the sun until reaching Garnet Canyon. A few of the small drainages you cross before Garnet had a small trickle of water, but were all obviously heavily mineralized, and best avoided as a drinking source. We chose the more direct, but much more difficult, route up out of Garnet, and then spent most of the day Tontouring in and out, on the much more typical trail. Again today, it was hot and we carried heavy water loads, stopping as needed for short breaks when we spotted good rock shade. Upon finally reaching the first arm of Copper Canyon, we found a good rock and waited out the hottest part of the day. Thus ended the last section of the Tonto Trail I had not hiked before. :y:

Unfortunately, by the time we reached the intersection with South Bass, it was fully dark. The overhang campsite just at the intersection was unoccupied except for one very, very, very fat black widow. No matter, as we had to hike to water tonight, and started immediately down canyon. We did come across a group who had hiked down from the rim this day, but they had not looked for water in Bass Canyon nor hiked down to the river, so were not able to provide any information. We quickly left them and booked it down canyon in the dark. Overall, the trail was thankfully easy to follow and, motivated by rapidly declining water reserves, we made good time. At the point where you could just head straight down a rocky ravine as a shortcut to the Colorado, we did just that. The sounds of the water getting closer and closer was amazingly welcoming. At the river, we immediately began filtering water and drinking as much as we wanted.

In the dark, we had missed the cairns indicating the route over to Bass Beach, but probably wouldn't have bothered to move even if we had seen them. We just slept right there on the sloping bedrock by the river. This was strangely restful, even though I ended up getting almost no sleep.

Day 5
Just as we were getting ready to quickly head over to Bass Beach to check out the Ross Wheeler before heading up, a solo west-bound Tonto hiker showed up. She had been planning for water in Serpentine Canyon, which was dry, and had to continue on to Bass. Not sure why she expected water in Serpentine at this time of year, or why she didn't hike down to the Colorado via Serpentine, but the important thing was she had reached water and was okay.

We checked out the Ross Wheeler and Bass Beach briefly, talked with a gentleman heading east on the Tonto from there, and then headed out ourselves. South Bass doesn't offer the most expansive views along its lower reaches, and we trudged slowly ever up. Upon reaching the Supai layer, we found a nice rock overhang, and again waited out the heat. Unlike yesterday, I was the one suffering today, partially from a lack of sleep and also from skipping breakfast to try and save time. Finally emerging from the confines of Bass Canyon, the Supai ledges and traverse on this trail offer spectacular views. Popping up onto the Esplanade back into the sun was harsh, but the remainder of the hike seemed to pass rapidly, and soon we were back at the trail head where a salad and beer awaited. :D

My husband is a very social person, and we soon got to know everyone camping at the trail head. One couple would be heading down to Royal Arch via Point Huitzil in the morning, then back out via the Esplanade route, and wanted water reports. The other 2 were headed down the normal Royal Arch route and wanted input on rope. They had a 60 m rope they were debating carrying because they were not willing to cut it to a more reasonable length. We gave them the 50' 8mm rope we had carried and used, for which they were very thankful.
Boat / Ship
Named place
Named place
Royal Arch - GCNP
wildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observationwildflower observation
Wildflowers Observation Isolated
"Let it ride / Let it roll / Let it go"
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