There is a reason that the NPS warns about the Royal Arch Loop. Backpacking the 34.6-mile trail (really more of a sparsely cairned suggestion) located on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon could very well be the toughest hike you will ever do. The 20 ft rappel, lack of water, 6,200 ft of elevation gain, heat, exposure, primitive trail, and remoteness of this trip demands the respect of everyone who attempts to do it.
Warning: Not for the faint of heart, this trip is very challenging and is best suited for experienced backpackers. However, if you are looking for a challenge, solitude, and adventure, the Royal Arch Loop will deliver.
Just getting to the trailhead is half the battle. A GPS really helps here as there are many confusing unsigned roads throughout the route. Additionally, while the NPS states that a high clearance vehicle is recommended and that a four-wheel drive vehicle might be required if the road is muddy, you should assume that the roads will be muddy and take the four-wheel drive vehicle. In general, the road deteriorates the further you go. Due to the remoteness of the area, this is not a place that you want to get stuck at.
From the Grand Canyon Village, take Rowe Well Rd southwest. You will eventually see a dirt road with gravel on your right (Rowe's Well Picnic Area). Continue on that for about 1 mile until you get to the intersection of another dirt road that runs southwest (named the "Boundary Road Trail"). You will stay on this road for about 14 miles until it intersects with another dirt road that is in worse shape. That road is labeled Pasture Wash or South Bass Trailhead Rd on most topo maps and you will want to turn right onto it. This is the roughest road that you will travel on yet but following that will lead you to the South Bass Trailhead where you will begin your trip.
For the first 1.4 miles, you will descend to the Esplanade (a plateau midway between the Colorado River the rim). Once you reach the floor, you will see a relatively large cairn that marks an intersection of trails. This is a fantastic spot to cache water as you will be coming back here after ascending 1300 feet when climbing out of Bass Canyon.
After caching water, follow the cairns west. The cairned path will wind back and forth for 6 miles past Chemehuevi, Toltec, and Montezuma points. This isn't the most exciting portion of the route, but it will give you a good warm up for the tone of the trail and the frequency of the cairns as they should stay this consistent for the duration of the trip.
After you've hiked the 6 miles, you will start your descent in Royal Arch Canyon. This area will sometimes have pools of water that you can collect from if you are thirsty. If not, continue for 1.5 miles until you reach a 200 ft drop-off that looks impassible. You have reached the location of the infamous "Ledge of Death".
To get around this 200-ft drop-off, you basically have two options:
Go around the drop-off to your left (south side). This is the Ledge of Death. It was coined this name because it is terrifying and is a really bad option. Don't go this way, but if you want to see what it's all about you can watch this video. The majority of people who take this way probably do so without realizing there is option #2.
Go around the drop-off to your right (north side). Winner. This is the NPS's recommended way and is hereby named the "Ledge of Improbable Death". If you back up from the drop-off about 50 yards, you should see cairns to your right and up. Follow those cairns.
Taking option #2 will eventually lead you to a series of switchbacks that descend to the Royal Arch Canyon floor.
It's about 2.5 miles of slow and sometimes tricky boulder scrambling to Royal Arch - a massive natural bridge that is the Grand Canyon's largest and is truly a sight to see! There is also a great perennial source of water that flows through the arch. Do try to camp here as it is one of the highlights of the trip!
Unfortunately, a short way past Royal Arch will lead you to an impassible drop-off preventing you from going any further down the canyon. Instead, retrace your steps back up the canyon for about a half-mile where you should see a stack of cairns to your left (the east side of the canyon) and a trail that heads up. This is the trail that you will take to climb out of Royal Arch Canyon. The climb out will offer your first glimpse of the Colorado River and surreal views of the Grand Canyon.
After about 1.2 miles of easy walking along a trail heading east, you will reach another drop-off. You have reached the 20-foot rappel! Take out your 40 feet of rope, 20 feet of webbing, harness, carabiner and other rappel gear you need to descend. You will likely see ropes/webbing left over from previous attempts, but there is no guarantee that the gear is still reliable.
The descent itself can look intimidating, but it looks scarier from up top than it does from down below. After the descent, you can breathe a huge sigh of relief because you will have completed the most technical portion of the trip. The rest of the trip is aerobically taxing, but not nearly as technical.
Descend to the sandy Toltec Beach (also another great camping option) where you two options:
To the west, you can take a 1.5-mile faint and rocky trail back to Royal Arch Canyon to see Elves Chasm - a beautiful waterfall oasis. This side trip will add 3 miles of additional hiking.
Continue on the main route eastward toward Garnet Canyon. There will be a faint trail starting about 100 yards away from the river.
Before beginning option 2, it is imperative that you filter, drink, and store as much water from the river as you can muster because this is the last reliable water source for the remainder of the trip. Sometimes, you will find stagnant pools of water in some of the side canyons, but from here on out, water is not a certainty.
After hiking parallel to the river for 1.6 miles, you will reach Garnet Canyon. Garnet Canyon will probably have water that looks tempting to collect and drink. Unfortunately, it is undrinkable as a result of being too mineralized.
Instead, follow the cairns to climb out of the canyon. Once you have climbed out, you will be on the Tonto Trail.
The Tonto Trail is beautiful and relatively flat walking but can be tedious and demoralizing because of its repetitive winding nature around small and sometimes large canyons that block a more direct route. Still, it offers beautiful views of the Grand Canyon. Starting from Garnet Canyon, it is 7.6 miles to Copper Canyon. Make sure you are on the lookout for small water pools of water in Copper Canyon as they can sometimes remain there and offer a much-needed quench to thirst.
Continue 2.5 miles further on the Tonto Trail until you reach an intersection of trails marked by a cairn and a deep canyon to the south. That canyon is Bass Canyon and you should follow the trail leading into it.
The South Bass Canyon trail starts out on the upper west side of the canyon where it slowly descends to the bottom of the canyon floor, crosses it, and picks up again on the west side. From the west side of the canyon, you will go up and down rolling hills for 1.7 miles until you reach the end of it. The only way out of the canyon from here is up. And it is a long up - 1300 feet of challenging switchbacks that William Bass himself constructed in the 1880s. You may not have the most endearing of thoughts of him while you hike out though - the elevation gain is just brutal.
Once out of Bass Canyon and on top of the Esplanade, you are out of frying pan and into the fire because you still have about 2 miles and 1,170 feet of elevation gain back to the trailhead. Hopefully, you cached water here before you start the long slog up again back to your car on the South Bass Trailhead.
Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop is no joke. If something goes wrong (and there are plenty of opportunities for that), it could get very bad. But the challenge and remoteness of this area are also seductively alluring.
There may be more scenic trips out there, and there are definitely easier ways to see the canyon. But hiking the Royal Arch Loop will leave you with a deep sense of accomplishment and will allow you to see a part of the Grand Canyon that few people ever see. For how popular the Grand Canyon is nowadays, it is pretty awesome to find areas like these that are still relatively untouched. And that's what adventure is all about.
A permit is required for this trip, but, due to its remoteness, you should have a great chance of securing one if you apply early. The Grand Canyon lets you apply up to 4 months in advance.
See the NPS's permit page for more information on how to apply.
Be sure to bring:
Follow the NPS's suggestion of 40 feet of rappel rope, 20 feet of webbing to be used as an anchor, harness, and a carabineer for the 20-foot rappel.
The biggest water bladder you can fit in your bag because after Toltec Beach, water is scarce and you will need to ration it.
Gloves (optional). This route contains some really nasty sharp rocks especially the trails adjacent to the river. Wearing gloves could help save your hands when navigating past these.
Exposure (the Ledge of Death and even the Ledge of Improbable Death. Also the rappel.)
Lack of water
6,200 ft of elevation gain
Primitive trail. While the route has regular cairns most of the way, it is completely unsigned once you leave the trailhead.
Remoteness. You will likely encounter very few people on this trail.
Shoot for March through May or October through November for the most comfortable temperatures. Keep in mind, however, that while March and April will leave you with better chances of finding water in the canyon (which is a scarcity past Toltec Beach), the road that leads to the trailhead can become impassable due to heavy mud.
For current weather conditions on the South Rim, check out the NPS monitoring site.
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