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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.

“What would Harvey do?” Butler half jokes as we survey the ominous skies around us. It’s the third day of our trip, and we’re now just six miles from Royal Arch. Despite the gathering clouds, we eat breakfast on a ledge overlooking the potholes, then decide that rather than lumber with heavy packs to the Arch, we’ll leave our camp and dayhike–basically, make a run for it and retreat if the weather turns.

Although our route mainly follows the creekbed, it is not exactly an easy, rock-hopping ramble. The first–and biggest–obstacle comes just below camp, when we encounter a sheer 100-foot pour-off. We take a bypass, climbing up a steep talus slope and crawling through a dwarf-size opening between a juniper trunk and the cliff face, then slide down a jumble of boulders to the drainage floor.

The 2,000-foot-deep gorge gets warmer and lusher as we descend. First the prickly pear appears, then the ferns, monkey flowers, and glassy pools. When Butchart hiked this drainage 50 years ago, he suspected that he was coming upon something special. He had no idea he was about to discover Shangri-La.

My heart rate increases as we round one bend after another, the canyon closing in and seeming softer, now laced in the coral-like calcium carbonate deposits called travertine. Then, out of nowhere: the Arch, suspended 100 feet above the canyon floor. As if to reward us for our effort, the clouds part, illuminating it in vibrant sunlight. Standing under the bridge, Austin beams with pride and I do too, almost to the point of tears. Despite the everyday obstacles that threatened my journey, I made it. And sharing this reward with my son is sweeter than anything.
But I quickly sober up. This is no triumph if we don’t make it back to the car. And there is no hazard more threatening to obsessed Grand Canyon hikers than their own inflated egos.

As we turn to leave, Butler points to an area on top of Royal Arch where a helicopter landed in 1963 to rescue Butchart after he slipped over a pour-off and broke his heel. Others have died near here, including George Mancuso, Butchart’s heir apparent in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, he was killed in a flash flood while exploring a creek during summer monsoon season.

Abruptly, a rainstorm arrives, and we beeline to camp, scampering up pour-offs that have become increasingly slippery. With each backslide, Austin and I gouge our shins. The shower turns into a downpour, and the temperature drops 20 degrees. Austin is scared, fighting tears and hiking as hard as he can. Following closely behind him, I grow angry with myself. These kinds of situations are precisely why Butchart left his family at home and why many of my friends–parents who’d rather spend weekends with their children–have given up ambitious backpacking trips.

Then, as often happens in the canyon, the darkness lifts again. We climb onto a ledge, now speckled with freshly filled potholes, and see our tents; we’ve made it back from the Arch in half the time it took to get there. In the last gasp of sunset, the clouds part, and a double rainbow frames our camp.
On our last night, I stay up and study the sky. To the southwest, the twinkling orbs of Jupiter and Venus are almost aligned for the first time in 40 years. A half moon shines blue amid the many stars, casting the craggy cliffs in an eerie silhouette.

We have a big hike tomorrow, but I know the hardest terrain is behind us. Back from our adventure, Butler and Myers will check off a commemorative Butchart route that involves a scary free-climb to the top of the Cheops Plateau. I’ll secure a permit to return to Royal Arch. And Austin will write a school essay in which he says Grand Canyon backpacking is his favorite sport.

Somewhere between the South Rim and our campsite on Royal Arch Creek, a boulder breaks off the canyon wall and crashes through the gorge. The sound reverberates for several seconds, and I tense for a moment as the echo grows, then fades.

Standing in the moonlight, I am struck by the fragility of Austin, me, this. But then–just like my anxiety on the descent to Royal Arch–the feeling passes and I’m left with a deeper calm, like a pilgrim returning home from a successful journey.

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