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Backpacker Magazine – May 2009

Depth Perception: Trek to Grand Canyon's Royal Arch

The best view in the Grand Canyon can't be seen from the rim. Brave the trek to Royal Arch, hidden deep in the gorge, and your world will never look the same.

by: Annette McGivney

Take Angels Window Trail for this view (David H. Collier)
Take Angels Window Trail for this view (David H. Collier)
Pools along Royal Arch Creek (Elias Butler)
Pools along Royal Arch Creek (Elias Butler)
Skirting the Esplanade (Elias Butler)
Skirting the Esplanade (Elias Butler)
Royal Arch (Elias Butler)
Royal Arch (Elias Butler)

Pack two days' worth of water and dive off the South Rim on this 4 to 5 day, 34 mile trip in the Grand Canyon.

trip icon INSIDER'S GUIDE: The Grand Canyon
From dayhikes to weekends to weeklong hikes our Grand Canyon expert will have you ready to hit this natural wonder in no time. 

video icon GOOGLE FLYOVER VIDEO: Grand Canyon's Royal Arch
Dive off the Grand Canyon's South Rim and explore a waterfall-rich grotto and the canyon's largest natural rock bridge on this classic, 34-mile trek captured in vivid 3-D detail.
Royal Arch: The Perfect Loop
Pack two days' worth of water and dive into the heart of Harvey Butchart country on this 4- or 5-day, 34-mile trip.

Hike It
The author's route went straight to Royal Arch and back, but this loop packs in more canyons and cliffs, plus a 20-foot technical rock climb on day three. Starting at the South Bass trailhead (1, see below), descend 1.2 miles north to a three-way junction to begin a counterclockwise loop. Go straight on South Bass Trail (2) and drop into Bass Canyon, descending more than 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles between two towering sandstone buttes that pinch the gorge tight. Bear left onto the Tonto Trail (3) and go 1.5 miles to a plateau campsite (4) under the 4,800-foot red walls of Tyndall Dome.

Start day two by 8 a.m. to avoid the midday scorch–it's 11.5 miles to a primo campsite on the Colorado River, the trip's first dependable water source. Follow the Tonto Trail west to the bottom of Copper Canyon (5), where you might find water in potholes after a rain. The route veers around 4,700-foot Fiske Butte and traces sheer sandstone cliffs above Walthenberg Rapids, which roar through Granite Gorge. After 10 miles, the Tonto Trail ends in Garnet Canyon (6). Head west on an unmaintained trail dotted with cairns. End at the sandy banks of Toltec Beach (7), your second camp at mile 17.5. On day three, leave your pack at camp for a 2.1-mile out-and-back to Elves Chasm (8), a secluded, waterfall-rich grotto at the mouth of Royal Arch Creek. Backtrack to camp and lay over or finish the day's remaining six miles with a stiff ascent to a roughly 20-foot rock wall and the technical crux of the trip (9).

Pack a harness, 40-foot dynamic rope, locking carabiner, and 20 feet of webbing for belays and for hauling up packs. From the top of the cliff, the route climbs gradually for 1.7 miles before dropping into Royal Arch Creek (10). Then, descend the rocky creekbed to Royal Arch (11), the Grand Canyon's largest natural rock bridge (there's a reliable spring upstream of it). Hike back upstream 3.2 miles to a set of smooth potholes carved into the creekbed, and your last campsite (12). The final day ascends past Montezuma, Toltec, and Chemehuevi Points. After 7.3 miles, reconnect with the South Bass Trail and climb 1,200 feet to your starting point.

The Way
To reach the South Bass trailhead, go west from Tusayan six miles on FR 328 (off of AZ 64). Veer northwest onto FR 328A for another 17.6 miles to Pasture Wash Road. Turn right and continue to the parking lot.

When to Go
Spring, when water is plentiful, or fall. Summer brings heat and flash floods. Go Guided
Join the Grand Canyon Field Institute on an eight-day trip to Royal Arch in April 2010. Food and shuttle included. $665;

Guidebooks and Map
Official Guide to Hiking Grand Canyon, by Scott Thybony ($12,; Grand Canyon Treks, by Harvey Butchart ($17, spotteddogpress .com); National Geographic Grand Canyon National Park map ($12,

Required backcountry permits are $10, plus $5 per person per day. Apply up to four months before desired departure date. Download application at; then fax to (928) 638-2125. Entrance: $25 per vehicle.

Vacation Planner
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Reader Rating: -


Barbara Dickinson
May 28, 2011

As a lover of the Grand Canyon, I enjoy Annette's articles. I have been to Royal Arch (the whole loop) 3 times and it remains a truly adventurous hike. One point - George Mancuso did not die near Royal Arch, but in a flash flood in Big canyon near the Little Colorado confluence, which is miles up river from the Arch. I had the privilege of hiking with Harvey Butchart while attending NAU 65-70 and learned much about finding routes..

Jul 08, 2009

Pretty lame how you didn't even realize the author was a woman. And *she's* been writing about backpacking with her son for years now and inspiring all of us backpacking parents out here to keep on trekking. Thanks Annette - great piece and congrats to Austin who my 6 year old loves to read about.

Jul 06, 2009

Pretty lame how the author keeps telling us how macho he'd be if only his kid weren't there.


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