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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.

“Do you think it’s safe?” asks Austin, pausing in the middle of a scree slope on the Esplanade. It’s the first day of our trip. We’d driven four hours through the Havasupai Indian Reservation and Kaibab National Forest to one of the least-visited trailheads on the South Rim, then descended two knee-crushing miles to this boulder-strewn plateau. Navigating Chemehuevi, Toltec, and Montezuma Points, we’d seen soaring ravens and sign of bighorn sheep. Now we’re picking our way through a rockslide that falls at a dizzying pitch for 500 feet.

Out in front, and testing for stability, is my friend and Flagstaff photographer Elias Butler. Along with Flagstaff physician Tom Myers, Butler co-authored a recent Butchart biography called Grand Obsession. During their research, they retraced a dozen of Butchart’s most technical routes, but neither touched the 12,000 miles and 1,025 days Butchart hiked during his 42-year exploration.

As Butler points out loose rocks to Austin, I think about the trek we’re undertaking. Like many Grand Canyon hikes, the Royal Arch loop is a quintessential Grand Canyon “route,” which should not be confused with the corridor trails frequented by 90 percent of Canyon hikers. Cairns, as opposed to signs, sporadically mark the way, and water is reliably found in only three places along the entire 34-mile loop. A trail like this could thwart an inexperienced hiker, but not my son. He did his first rim-to-river hike at four, and seven years later confidently billygoats across scree slopes where one slip could result in a serious injury.

Pleased by his growing surety, I focus on the ivory tower of Mt. Huethawali lit up in the afternoon light. We walk another two miles, then camp on the tip of the Esplanade, pitching our tents and eating dinner under shooting stars. Digging into my pasta, I finally answer Austin’s question: “I think it’s more dangerous to drive the freeway in Phoenix than hike anywhere down here.”

On day two, we drop into the eastern arm of Royal Arch Creek, trading big canyon panoramas for an ever-deepening gorge. Butler and I are relieved by Austin’s progress. Even with his experience, off-trail canyon hiking for an 11-year-old is a far cry from Butchart’s “fast and light” method.

Butchart carried only a knapsack, sleeping bag, food, and canteen. With no tent or family, he averaged 12 hard, cross-country miles per day. We’ve hiked a scant eight since our start–most of it in the relentlessly rocky drainages atop the Esplanade. Dropping onto the scoured slickrock floor of Royal Arch Creek, I momentarily envy Butchart’s approach. Austin is cranky, and I’m tired from carrying gear and food for two–plus the emotional weight of worrying about my child’s safety and happiness.

Fortunately, relief is in sight. By late afternoon, we reach a cluster of potholes, the first reliable water source on the trek and an oasis by Grand Canyon standards. Despite little rain in recent months, the pools are four feet deep and flickering with insects. We climb onto a slickrock bench and pitch our tents. Then Butler spies an ancient pottery shard half-hidden in the red dust.

As quickly as it gathered, Austin’s cloud lifts. Whatever irritation he has carried visibly vaporizes–erased by the discovery of this prehistoric relic. Watching him trace figures in the sand, I’m reminded of a major difference between Harvey Butchart and me: Butchart never included his family in his discoveries, while I am bringing Austin to ones he will never forget.

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