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.
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 thru-hiking packs.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.