Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop

By Michael Lanza

Hiking just ahead of my three companions in Royal Arch Canyon, a remote chasm off the South Rim the Grand Canyon, I stop before a dead end: a 15-foot pour-off dropping away in front of me and towering cliffs to either side. It looks impassable. After a moment of scanning the walls more closely, though, I notice a stack of narrow ledges—some only as wide as one of my feet—leading across and down the cliff to my left, around the pour-off. The traverse is exposed—a slip could result in a really bad tumble off this cliff. But it actually looks fairly easy, and it’s clearly our route. So I start inching across as David and Kris come up behind me and watch.

As I’m shuffling sideways along the first ledge, the front pack holding my camera gear bumps the cliff face—and the effect is like an unseen hand shoving me backward. Arms windmilling wildly, straining against gravity, I feel my entire body tilting off-balance, about to pitch into the abyss behind me.

Surprising myself—and really glad I’m carrying a light pack—I manage to regain balance and straighten up on my slender foot ledge. I take a couple of deep breaths. That was too close, and the thought of the consequences barely avoided hits me like a hard slap in the face. A little voice in my head hisses icily: “Don’t be a f—ing idiot. Stay alert.” This is experts-only terrain. We can’t afford a lapse in focus.

It’s our first afternoon on the Grand Canyon’s very rugged and infrequently hiked, 34.5-mile Royal Arch Loop, and my friends Jon Dorn, David Ports, Kris Wagner and I can already tell it promises to be one of the greatest backpacking trips any of us has ever taken. That’s a high bar, given that three of us (Jon, Kris, and me) are Backpacker magazine alum, and David is a longtime friend of mine who’s joined me on more adventures than I could quickly tally from memory.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

The campsite by Royal Arch in the Grand Canyon.
The campsite by Royal Arch in the Grand Canyon.

But the GC’s Royal Arch Loop stands out even in a park where just about any hike would make just about any top 10 list. Starting from the South Bass Trailhead on the South Rim, reached by driving at least 90 minutes on rough dirt roads sometimes rendered impassable by heavy rain or snow, the route makes a top-to-bottom-and-back-up circuit of the canyon—going from a words-can’t-do-it-justice panorama at the rim to dipping your toes in the Colorado River.

It delivers a multi-day highlights reel of just about every type of physical feature that makes backpacking in the Grand Canyon unique: sweeping views, an intimate side canyon with lush hanging gardens nurtured by a vibrant stream, a high solitude quotient, and one drop-dead gorgeous campsite after another—including what must be one of the best in the entire Big Ditch, below Royal Arch itself (technically not an arch but a natural bridge because it was formed by water).

But the Royal Arch Loop isn’t for the timid—or for backpackers whose image of their skills and experience doesn’t sync with reality when using the honesty app. The park’s website says it is “considered by many to be the most difficult of the established south side hikes.”

In a note that now resonates on a deeper personal level for me, the website warns that the route “offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.”

Yea, no kidding.

All of our neck craning, nature-paparazzi photo shooting, and trite expressions of awe aside, priority one is getting through this hike with all bones intact, vital organs functioning normally, and no severe flesh wounds.

And that means no one falls off a cliff.

Get the right backpack for a hike like the Royal Arch Loop. See my picks for “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the best ultralight backpacks.

Rain in the Grand Canyon

Several hours earlier that first day, the four of us had set off down the rock-strewn South Bass Trail in conditions decidedly atypical of early May in the Grand Canyon: relatively cool temperatures, gusty winds, and overcast skies. Before long, the bruised sky developed a leak that built into a light but steady shower. Veils of rain hung down from the gray cloud ceiling, partly obscuring far-off towers and mesas.

But none of us was complaining. The Grand Canyon is the unusual kind of backpacking destination where you welcome a cool rain because its more-common antithesis—hot sun—poses an exponentially larger threat to water-addicted animals like us. Here, light rain and mild temperatures are a gift that one receives with gratitude.

We turned west off the South Bass Trail onto a cairned path traversing the 20-mile-long, wide shelf of red sandstone known as The Esplanade, seeing no one else as we hiked below the huge cliffs of Chemehuevi Point, Toltec Point, and Montezuma Point. (We’ll see only two other parties of backpackers on the entire route, and some rafters in passing at Elves Chasm.) The most conspicuous signs of life were birds and an eruption of wildflowers from the dry earth that our visit has apparently synchronized with perfectly.

Find your next adventure in your Inbox. Sign up for my FREE email newsletter now.

 

Any trail descending into the Grand Canyon is hard, but the Royal Arch Loop exists in a category all its own, at least among South Rim routes. For starters, from the South Bass Trailhead at 6,650 feet, the route drops more than 4,500 feet—nearly a vertical mile—to Toltec Beach on the Colorado River. Those will be some of the hardest, quad-burning, downhill miles you’ll ever log. And then you have to ascend all of that vertical back to the rim. It would be ass-kicking hard even if the entire route followed a maintained trail.

But it doesn’t. From the point where you depart the South Bass Trail, 1.4 miles into the hike, it follows a meandering and faint but sporadically cairned footpath traversing The Esplanade for some 10 miles. Once you drop into Royal Arch Canyon, there’s no path at all—you just follow the canyon downstream—and the scrambling gets serious and exposed in spots.

You must know how to set up a safe rappel. The desert heat can be wilting, and long stretches of the route lack water, so you’ll carry several pounds of it. Magnifying the risk level, it’s in a remote area of the park, where you’re not likely to encounter many other people, and help in an emergency would takes hours if not more than a day even if you carry a rescue beacon or satellite phone.

I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.

 

David Ports on a ledge high above Royal Arch Canyon in the Grand Canyon.
David Ports on a ledge high above Royal Arch Canyon in the Grand Canyon.

Compounding the challenge, the route repeatedly presents you with spots that appear impassable. Early on our first afternoon, we reached a 200-foot pour-off in the eastern arm of Royal Arch Canyon. We’d read in the park’s route description that the safer way around it skirts right of the pour-off, so we embraced that advisory, clambering over and around rocks large enough that we’re conscious of not dislodging one that could crush a foot or a femur. We traversed a ledge as wide as a sidewalk for several hundred horizontal feet, high above the canyon floor and beneath an overhanging cliff, crawling through one claustrophobic passage between the cliff face and a stunted but resilient tree sprouting from it. When the ledge ended, we followed a wandering path of cairns along what initially seemed an improbable route down the canyon’s steep wall back to its bottom.

The fairly level Tonto Trail represents the only easy stretch of the Royal Arch Loop. Enjoy it, because the subsequent ascent of the South Bass Trail is, to employ gross understatement, unkind to your body—and the degree of punishment it dishes out ratchets up proportionately with the air temperature and angle of the sun (read: hike it in the cool of early morning rather than in the blazing heat of afternoon).

Still, we’re planning to hike the loop in three days instead of the five recommended by park rangers. That isn’t a suggestion that everyone attempt to do it in less than five days—it’s just an understanding of our abilities and years of experience backpacking and ultra-hiking, including here in the Grand Canyon.

Read all of this story, including my expert tips on planning this trip, and ALL stories at The Big Outside, plus get a FREE e-guide. Join now!

 

Royal Arch Canyon

Now, with all four of us safely below the ledges I almost fell off, and the light slowing dimming as the day arcs into evening, we continue carefully negotiating our way through the seemingly endless twists of Royal Arch Canyon.

The canyon narrows and its walls rise higher the farther we descend. A spring-fed stream zigzags along the canyon bottom, sending thin cascades down slabs into crystalline pools framed by incongruous drapes of greenery—a rare desert oasis. We pick our way around and over boulders that wouldn’t fit in my living room.

Kris Wagner in Royal Arch Canyon.
Kris Wagner in Royal Arch Canyon.

Around yet another bend, we stop at the sight of Royal Arch looming ahead.

A thick arm of sandstone bridging the canyon walls, with a gap you could fly a small plane through, Royal Arch appears to have been chopped from solid rock with a giant hatchet rather than excavated over millennia by the shallow stream gliding quietly under it. We walk through the gap to ledges just beyond, which terminate at a 200-foot pour-off and a view into the lower part of Royal Arch Canyon. A freestanding spire towers a hundred feet or more directly above our campsite.

Jon, who has backpacked and hiked all over America and the world, looks around and says, “Definitely all-time top 10 campsite.” (I agree and added it to my list of 25 all-time favorite backcountry campsites.)

A light rain begins falling as dusk slowly settles into the canyon. We grab our food and cooking gear and walk over to sit in the broad rain shadow of Royal Arch.

After the Royal Arch Loop, hike the other nine of my “10 Best Backpacking Trips in the Southwest.”

Lodging There are several lodging options in Grand Canyon Village managed by Grand Canyon Lodges (grandcanyonlodges.com), and more in the town of Tusayan, outside the park entrance on the South Rim.

 

Tell me what you think.

I spent a lot of time writing this story, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using one of the buttons at right, and leave a comment or question at the bottom of this story. I’d really appreciate it.

 

Let The Big Outside help you find the best adventures. Join now to read ALL stories and get a free e-guide!

Previous

Video: Hiking Utah’s Slot Canyons Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Gulch

Review: Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer 2 Down Hoody

Next

Leave a Comment

6 thoughts on “Not Quite Impassable: Backpacking the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop”

  1. Hey Michael –

    Thank you for this excellent write-up, and insight into the sketchier parts of this hike. A friend of mine and I are going to do this (permits in hand) in a couple of weeks, so we are starting to get ready. Finding your blog has been great, so thank you for that. We are both very experienced backpackers, and I have done some pretty sketchy things in the Canyon (most notably the Walter Powell Route a few years ago) so we are somewhat ready for this.

    I also spent 9 years in Mountain Rescue, and was the team leader for three of those years, so lots of technical experience. It appears that on the technical side, we have heard that there is only that one required rappel that is only about 20 feet or so, and then you have to set the anchor. What we have been told is to bring about 40-feet of rope, and about 40ft to set the anchor as well (my plan was with 2″ tubular webbing that we could leave, with a pair of rap rings.) Does this sound like enough? I notice in your video that one member is carrying a full rope. I have an older 9mm rope that I was going to cut down to 50ft, hoping that would be enough and save a good amount of weight. What do you think of that plan?

    Then, it looks like the main challenges are the numerous spots of real exposure, but all doable if you are careful and intentional, and then the endless quest for water. We will be well prepared for the water part, and thankfully I have been to Elves a number of times by boat. The actual pool and ledge camp at Royal Arch looks amazing, and a perfect spot to get our act together and well rested for the rest of the journey.

    Oh, and we are doing it over 6 full days, assuming that we have to walk in to South Bass, since the Hualapai Nation is currently closed – so we will have to do the 7-mile hike across the plateau to get to the trailhead.

    Any impressions from you would be more than welcome – and yes, I read the discussion above as well.

    Thank you –

    Sinjin

    Reply
    • Hi Sinjin,

      Thanks for the kind words about my blog and for these good questions, as well as for joining The Big Outside for full access to all of my blog’s stories.

      The one short rappel (about 20 feet) had a fixed anchor of slings when we were there; I expect that’s what you’d find, but backup tubular webbing and rap rings are a good idea. We used a short rope; your 9mm would be fine, understanding it creates a bit less friction than a fatter rope, but it would work. I think 40 feet is probably enough but close, 50 feet would be plenty.

      You’re right, there’s some scrambling and exposure in Royal Arch Canyon but the rest of the route isn’t as challenging (although quite strenuous), and beyond Royal Arch Canyon, there’s visible trail on much of the loop. Going before the reservation road opens should be really nice, I imagine not many backpackers would be heading in then. Water is scarce, but sounds like you’re planning for that.

      Your subscription, of course, lets you read this entire story, including my tips about managing the rappel and other details of the route and planning this hike that appear at the bottom of this story (above).

      Have a great trip. It’s a wonderful hike. And click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please keep in touch!

      Reply
  2. I loved the story, thanks for writing it.

    A friend and I did this route twice. The first time, when we got to the drop off you describe in your first paragraph, we saw the trail on the left side nearly disappear into the wall and thought “no way.” We took a break, ate a snack and I wandered off up the right wall and found a passable route that required us to remove our packs and shove them through a hole, similar to the one in your video. Later, talking to a ranger at the South Rim, we learned that spot is called the “Spider Man Steps.” He told us we’re supposed to face the wall and side step with our toes across the narrow ledge, using handholds in the rock wall. We looked at each other and said “no way.”

    On our second trip we just took the route on the right wall without a second thought.

    Reply
    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for the compliment about my story and sharing your route-finding experience. That’s very interesting. I didn’t know about that route on the right side or see it when we went through there, but the next time I backpack the Royal Arch Route—as I very much want to do—I’m going to look for it and compare it with the traverse on the left side. I will say that, with caution, the route on the left is fairly easy to do safely.

      Keep in touch.

      Reply
[login_form]
<form id="rcp_login_form" class="rcp_form" method="POST" action="https://thebigoutside.com/not-quite-impassable-backpacking-the-grand-canyons-royal-arch-loop/"> <fieldset class="rcp_login_data"> <p> <label for="rcp_user_login">Username or Email</label> <input name="rcp_user_login" id="rcp_user_login" class="required" type="text"/> </p> <p> <label for="rcp_user_pass">Password</label> <input name="rcp_user_pass" id="rcp_user_pass" class="required" type="password"/> </p> <p> <input type="checkbox" name="rcp_user_remember" id="rcp_user_remember" value="1"/> <label for="rcp_user_remember">Remember me</label> </p> <p class="rcp_lost_password"><a href="/not-quite-impassable-backpacking-the-grand-canyons-royal-arch-loop/?rcp_action=lostpassword">Lost your password?</a></p> <p> <input type="hidden" name="rcp_action" value="login"/> <input type="hidden" name="rcp_redirect" value="https://thebigoutside.com/not-quite-impassable-backpacking-the-grand-canyons-royal-arch-loop/"/> <input type="hidden" name="rcp_login_nonce" value="f82b6ead3b"/> <input id="rcp_login_submit" class="rcp-button" type="submit" value="Login"/> </p> </fieldset> </form>