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Royal Arch Creek loop, Grand Canyon

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Distance: 40.8 miles


In Grand Canyon, the Royal Arch Creek loop offers a chance to experience a quiet corner of the South Rim. Beginning and ending at the South Bass trail head, the loop is approximately 35 miles long and is best described as a route/trail, rather than a maintained trail.
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This multi-day trek is considered difficult for most hikers. In places, the route disappears on slickrock. During the spring of 2008, two experienced Canyon hikers from Utah became lost on this loop and required a rescue after 5 days being lost. The GPS tracks should be a big help.

Note that this trail head is often inaccessible in winter if there is snow on the ground or if heavy rain has fallen. Over 20 miles of dirt road must be driven to reach the trail head, some of which becomes an unnavigable gumbo infamous for trapping even jacked-up 4x4s.

Going counter-clockwise on the loop, the South Bass Trail (elevation 6,650 feet) descends Bass Canyon, then traverses the Tonto Trail west to Toltec Beach at the Colorado River. A short side-hike to Elves Chasm (the mouth of Royal Arch Creek) is a must. The route then climbs back up to the Tonto platform near Royal Arch Creek, then follows this tributary canyon upstream. Where Royal Arch Creek cuts into the Esplanade (Supai Formation), the route leaves the creek and veers east several miles on the relatively flat Esplanade back to the Bass Trail, then up two miles to return to the trail head. Three to four or more nights are necessary to complete the Royal Arch loop. Some of these miles pass slowly..

As told in a book I helped write (with my co-author Tom Myers), "Grand Obsession: Harvey Butchart and the Exploration of Grand Canyon," Northern Arizona University math professor Harvey Butchart made a significant discovery along this route in 1959 back when this side canyon was unknown: Royal Arch, the lovely natural bridge that gives this loop its name.

There are actually two main attractions on this hike, Royal Arch and Elves Chasm. Both are beauty spots located in Royal Arch Creek not far from the river, but they are separated by a 7-8 mile detour hike that includes a 20’ climb (or rappel if descending). A 160-foot drop in the bed of Royal Arch Creek prevents easy access between the two.

I recommend doing the loop counter-clockwise, for two reasons: First, the stretch between the Bass trailhead and Toltec Beach is 18 miles long with zero reliable water. In times of wet weather, pothole water could be available along this stretch, but if it hasn't rained for more than two days, you'll have to tote all your H20 - not an easy task.

I carried a little over 2.5 gallons from the rim, which got me through two full days of backpacking and one night of dry camping. The substantial weight slowed progress, but at least it was all downhill. Not that that makes it easy or even safe - be sure to carry trekking poles to alleviate the extra-heavy pounding on joints.

If you decide to do the loop clockwise, it would mean facing the 18 dry miles with a long, steep uphill hike out the Bass Trail at the very end. By contrast, doing the loop counter-clockwise means you’ll be ending those 18 dry miles with a gradual descent to the Colorado River. And, you'll have available water at the last night’s camp (pot holes in upper Royal Arch Creek) and less elevation to gain in order to reach the rim on your final day.

I did this trip during a relatively cool October. Doing the 18-mile stretch between the South Bass trail head and Toltec Beach in warm weather would be dangerous, because dehydration would be tough to avoid.

The other reason for going counter-clockwise has to do with the 20-foot climb/rappel along the way, just above the Colorado near Royal Arch Creek. When I reached this cliff, there was a knotted rope anchored in place. It made climbing up a snap, as it worked well as a hand line and I didn’t need a climbing harness. Although one wouldn’t want to depend on this rope always being there or in safe condition, a competent climber could climb this cliff without it, and then rig a rope for any less-experienced members of the party.

If one were coming down this cliff instead of going up, it would make it a sure thing to rig a safe rappel, but it’s also more daunting from a psychological perspective, because the exposure can be unsettling for some. By going up, rather than down the cliff, all the holds are visible and it’s also much less intimidating to have the exposed drop behind and below you.

Note that the Park Service recommends doing this loop clockwise so that hikers must descend the cliff and protect themselves by anchoring a rappel. This is the way to go if climbing experience is a worry.

If so, you'll have to take your chances going east into the 18 dry miles. One lady I met was camped where the Tonto and Bass Trails meet, in Bass Canyon. She had sent her son to the Colorado, over two miles and 1,200 feet below, to fetch water for camp and hiking out the next day. That's one way to do it.

Returning to the counter-clockwise loop, after getting past the cliff, you hike southwesterly on the Tonto platform for three gradual uphill-and-then-downhill miles toward Royal Arch Creek, and then descend rapidly to the creek bed. Here you must go 1 mile downsteam to reach a reliable spring and then Royal Arch. There's some rock-hopping involved and a few dry falls to negotiate. Royal Arch makes a fine camp. This is the largest natural bridge in Grand Canyon, discovered by Canyon explorer Harvey Butchart in 1959. Butchart also broke his heel here in 1968 while on a route-finding trek, and required a helicopter rescue. The chopper landed atop Royal Arch, the only available flat spot near the creek bed.

The route returns from Royal Arch the same way you came, passes the point where you earlier descended into Royal Arch Creek from above, and then continues to follow the rocky bed of Royal Arch Creek several miles upstream. Eventually you reach a set of pot holes in the Supai Formation, smooth bowls in the bed of the creek that have near-permanent water (I found plenty during a prolonged dry spell of over 60 days). This spot makes a good place to camp.

From here, the route follows the bed of Royal Arch Creek upstream until nearing Montezuma Point, where it climbs out of the Supai and heads east past Montezuma, Toltec and Chemehuevi Points. It's relatively easy walking, although there is some rough up-and-down across talus and steep landslides, but soon the route meets the Bass Trail at the junction you passed several days earlier. Head uphill on the Bass Trail for the final climb back to the parking lot. And thence to the nearest cheeseburger and cold beer.

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