Note: Don’t take hiking or backpacking in the Grand Canyon, generally and with this route in particular, lightly. While this trip included newcomers, and the story may be light-hearted, the Royal Arch Loop is not a trek for beginners. The group below had a lot of preparation, several members with a lot of Grand Canyon and other backcountry experience, including familiarity with the difficult portions of this route, good conditioning, and ultralight/lightweight gear which provided an opportunity to take on additional weight when needed. Without this, bad luck, illness, or injury, could lead to serious problems or death. Really. Don’t be stupid.
As much as I enjoy the Grand Canyon, I enjoy introducing it to new people. At the same time, I’m just not that interested in walking among the teeming hordes on the Corridor trails. The first week of April, we set forth to test the proposition (inspired by the need to HTFU and the spirit of the Honey Badger) that it would be not just possible, but fun to travel as a group of 11, including several GC first-timers, and less-experienced backpackers, on the Royal Arch Loop, via Pt. Huitzil. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
I’m here to report that 11 went in, 11 came out (well, 10 ½ anyway). And as is the Rogers family tradition, we survived the ordeal by drinking our own urine.
Saturday, March 31/Sunday, April 1
Flying in from as far away as Maine, California, North Carolina, and Oregon, 10 of us met in Phoenix on March 31 to grab a couple of rental vehicles, parse out group gear, and grab a margarita by the hotel pool.
During dinner, I was reminded of past dining failures, and I’m still wondering if it’s possible to get a good meal in Phoenix. By my reckoning, we struck out AGAIN on Saturday night with some barely passable Mexican food. I think we’re about 1 for 20 on dinner there. Any suggestions?
The morning of April 1, perhaps a fitting start date, we headed north and stopped for the traditional Thai lunch in Flagstaff before continuing on to corral Bruce and his well-used pick-up in Tusayan. There we grabbed a to-go meal to eat on the rim as the sun went down. We then piled back in the three vehicles, headed down the road, and turned left on Forest Service road 328.
328 can be challenging in wintery or wet conditions. Instead of swampy hell, though, we found a well-rutted but dry road with the occasional bumps and washboards. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, and four wheel drive a practical necessity when the road is wet (unlike, say, on the streets of DC, where Stupid Unnecessary Vehicles are more than overkill to ferry groceries or tackle the daily commute). And while feelings of rugged machismo crept in as we drove down the road, they were burst when we passed a Toyota Yaris coming in the opposite direction on Pasture Wash road, just a couple miles from the South Bass trailhead. Seemed like a tough woman driving. And I don’t want to know what the large stick in her back seat was for (or whether it had a nail in the end). I’m certainly not recommending beating up a sedan on 328 or Pasture Wash roads, but on this particular Sunday, it was evidently possible.
Without major incident, flat tire, or vehicle roll-over, we made it to the South Bass trailhead. Almost immediately on opening the vehicles’ doors it started snowing, a good strong snow that completely blocked visibility of the outlying canyon. Expecting both snow and cold, we set up tents, enjoyed our port-a-meals and some evening libations. The snow didn’t last long, but it did help emphasize the point that we’d started the trip. Having driven all the way from CA, Bruce had brought along a real car-camping luxury item, a gas lantern which helped brighten and warm the after-dark conversation. Having emptied a few 750 ml bottles, we quickly drifted off to our bags, and got to experience the late night symphony of snores, coughs, and farts (with the women claiming no farts, just “fluffs”). Coughs…the coughs should have been a warning.
Monday, April 2
After a solid night’s sleep, and a bit of patience waiting for the sun to appear, we packed, loaded two of the vehicles (leaving one as a shuttle for the exit), and drove back down the road to the abandoned Pasture Wash ranger station. It seems they’ve done a bit of work at the old station recently, rebuilding the front porch and adding the steps that had been missing on previous visits. Determined to quickly get on our way, however, we didn’t spend any time looking around or testing for Hanta virus.
With packs on backs, heavy with the start-of-trip weight of nuts and fruits and oatmeal and freeze-dried chili mac, we set off. Now, one could make a strong argument to simply take the compass bearing and head straight out from the ranger station on the increasingly obvious path in that direction. However, we opted for the abandoned road to the telephone line route from older descriptions. I’d been this way before and managed to walk directly to the correct point on the rim 3 out of 4 times. The fifth time wasn’t the charm, and following someone else’s mistake and the deceiving direction of the drainage, I found myself leading the group South—the wrong direction. Fortunately, a compass check by Bruce and Bob confirmed that the sun hadn’t really changed its course and allowed us to correct and redirect towards the rim…albeit not quite the right drainage. With a couple of quick up and overs, though, we hit the right spot for the tip-off. Wow. Five years ago there was nary a cairn to be found here, and the path was almost indistinguishable from many game paths crisscrossing the area. Now, there were sizable cairns scattered about and a well-beaten path.
Thus, we were off. A half hour later than expected, but on a slippy-slidey jaunt through the Toroweap and on to what remains the most fun descent through the Coconino I’ve experienced. Great scrambling. Some real exposure. And a bit of mild climbing. Enough to get the heart pumping from both effort and adrenaline. This is definitely not a beginners’ route, and certainly not a route for those afraid of heights. [For more pictures of the route, see photos from our 2008 trip down the RA drainage and video from our 2010 trip. We’ll add pictures from this trip soon!]
And yet, we had beginners in our midst. Amanda was new to backpacking and srambling. I’ve seen the exposure on the Pt. Huitzil route shake up even seasoned GC and backcountry veterans. And here was Amanda taking a stab at it. She wasn’t completely comfortable, and didn’t trust her feet. But Michael played coach and got her through this smiling and gaining confidence, something that became even more apparent as the trip progressed.
I’m just using Amanda as an example here. This route was beyond the comfort zone of several in the party. As descriptions of this route describe, there are many fun (I think they’re fun!) scrambling elements. With a large, mixed ability group, we reassembled the group frequently as designated points and many of the interesting spots. And as a large group we tended to bottleneck at the more challenging obstacles like the chimney, the Moki steps, and some of the down climbing (see pictures in the links above for many examples of the various obstacles). This meant we moved slowly. Very slowly. Less than half the speed I’m used to traveling. And this long day was tiring. While we’d set the goal of making it to Royal Arch, the day wore on, and people got tired. In fact, as sunset approached, the rear guard looked and acted like prisoners of war.
So we pulled it in early and camped near a large chockstone with reliable water, a couple miles up from the Royal Arch—still a wonderful place to camp, with enough nooks and crannies to tuck away 11 souls.
Someone a day or two ahead of us apparently needs either a refresher on “leave no trace” or a swift kick in the butt. At the above mentioned chockstone, the site of an obviously frequently used camping location and where we wound up spending our first night, on 4/2 we found a big pile of pistachio nut shells and a bit pile of cooked food dumped right on the trail. This would be bad enough on the trail anywhere. It’s a disgusting sign of disrespect dumped in an established camping location. I picked up and packed out the shells (thanks for the added volume on Day 1), I didn’t want to carry the wet food, so I treated it as human waste and took it a few hundred yards away and buried it. It didn’t appear that the pile had been discovered by critters and it was still damp (the rice wasn’t hard) so it couldn’t have been too old. Maybe that helps ID the morons.
Yes, I’m name-calling—but it makes me angry to see this in such a beautiful place.
As we set up for the night, first Bruce and then Carlee started filtering water. In fact, filtering gallons of water became a daily ritual for Carlee. While everyone else pitched in throughout the trip, you could count on her arms of steel to be at the water hole pumping away—it takes a lot of water to keep 11 people moving. [Gear heads note, the river silt and thick pothole algae made it difficult even for Wonder Woman to keep up, and we were glad that Bruce had brought supplemental water treatment in the form of a steripen, although the steripen left the water silty or green respectively. We did have iodine as backup.]
This evening, like every other, we shared sips of a variety of spirits, from bourbon to pear brandy and tequila to limoncello. Though the banter was lively, and we learned how many remodelers it takes to screw in a light bulb (the correct answer is “two”), we struggled to stay awake until 8:30 before retiring to again enjoy the symphony.
Tuesday, April 3
Having a relatively light day ahead—one of the keys to getting a large group of first-timers through a route like this is not being too aggressive on the daily distance—we had a leisurely start and enjoyed an indulgence of a breakfast wrap, or a breakfast unwrap, with some heavy tortillas and cheese that I’d snuck along.
We walked down the drainage, passed some sand graffiti scratched by a previous moronic hiker, perhaps the same bozo who had sullied the campsite. Great boulder hopping in the drainage. Just plain fun. By stopping early the night before, we actually reduced our total effort as we were able to drop packs at the cutoff out of the drainage, and continue the stroll down to enjoy the Royal Arch with just a few snacks and a water filter.
After enjoying the beauty of the Arch, grazing in the sun on the surrounding ledges, and watching Leigh entertain us with his coot-isms, we headed back up the drainage to gather packs, scamper out of the drainage, and amble across the plateau on our way to Toltec Beach.
Much ado is made of the rappel. In my eyes, though, it’s actually the approach to the rappel that is one of the sketchier sections of the whole loop.
And with Climb Master Bob leading the descent, even those who’d never rapped before got down in good form and without a hitch. We filtered our way down the wall and to the beach, with time to jump in the river (in a calm eddy—don’t fight the dangerous currents with the hypothermia-inducing water temperatures).
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Amy had managed to aggravate the IT bands in both her legs, and by the end of the day, she could barely walk. Since we were now about as far as we could possibly be from our vehicles, that promised to be an interesting development. And to top it off the head cold worked its way to a couple other people.
In another unfortunate attack of the morons, we found a half-eaten banana left behind on the beach, and my guess left by the same inconsiderate louts who’d sullied the last campsite. We did come up with a few unpleasant ways to use a trekking pole should we catch the culprits.
It was great to cool off in the river and rinse off a couple days’ of grit. We had a good couple hours of daylight to lounge around in the sand, practice yoga and acrobatics, make gear adjustments, snack, and watch John and Leigh duel in an unarmed battle of wits.
Apparently at some point Michael had either seen a 30-second infomercial on acupressure or possibly slept through an entire course on it. But he did manage to sucker a couple folks into his treatment. As far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on any benefit derived from his particular application, but it did manage to yield some very impressive bruises on a few legs. My advice: if Michael asks, just say no!
Another interesting development was the near simultaneous delamination of the soles of both of John’s shoes—and some would say the delamination of John’s soul. For the rest of the trip, we heard him frequently mumbling “it’s fucking demoralizing”, although that was really more commentary on our general plight than about the shoes in particular. The first shoe repair attempts included variations of Gorilla tape, duct tape, para cord, spectra cord all which has some benefit for a limited time. For some reason, John opted not to try the already-proven method of gummy bears, despite the fact that I’d packed a small supply of gummy bears just for this purpose.
We plowed into the beef jerky and salmon jerky. It seems that Bruce, who we later learned eats nothing but meat, had inadvertently been given nothing but vegetarian meals. And he didn’t get more than a taste of the jerky. At this point, we had no idea that a tempest was brewing.
The evening repartee, or chaffing depending on one’s perspective, continued as we’d come to expect. The festivities quickly dissolved and people fled to their sleeping quarters when Bob and Mike challenged Michael’s statements disparaging energy-efficiency and ACI. And on at least a couple of lists, Michael moved up in the rankings of people we would eat first should it come to that. In fact, Leigh had a momentary bit of elation as he saw a glimmer of hope that he would lose the top spot that he’d held since before the trip even started.
Wednesday, April 4
This day had been planned as a layover day to allow plenty of time to explore Elves Chasm, and to provide for rest and recovery if needed. People could hike as much, or as little, as they wanted. We had a very leisurely breakfast, spent 2 minutes finding the trails to both Elves and Copper, and lolled around waiting for the sun to warm things up.
By this time, Amy’s legs were a mess. She could barely bend her knees. And her worsening cold didn’t help. So she wisely opted out of the jaunt to Elves so that she could soak the legs in the river in between hot rock treatments and work on staying well-hydrated. Carlee opted to stay behind as well to address a bit of puffiness, provide moral support, and as it turned out fend off hordes of marauding ravens. The bêtes noires were relentless in seeking out and exploiting any weaknesses in our defenses, either real or perceived, with their razor beaks. Had Carlee not been the living, breathing scarecrow, we almost certainly would have had a clean up job on our hands upon our return. As it turns out, we think they made off with John’s titanium spork which we hope is being integrated in the new raven condo development nearby.
The rest of us went to Elves Chasm for a magical afternoon. One could do a lot worse than hang out there, and that’s just what the majority did. Ah, lovely.
Bob, Mike, Michael, and Chandler, climbed up into Elves, pushing as far as possible, and making it up a few levels, each different and wonderful until we hit a 150 ft cliff. We didn’t see any elves, but you could imagine them living there. I’m glad I had my 5-10’s on—they made me feel much more secure especially on the wet rocks.
Meanwhile, at the lower falls, a motorized rafting party had arrived. They ran up, jumped in the pool, screamed, and departed. A telling comment from one of the party was, “it’s really nice here, and we don’t have to spend too much time”. Huh? That’s exactly the opposite of how we felt—it’s really nice here and we get to stay a long time! But to each his or her own. John was also able to score some super glue from the rafters to reattempt the shoe repair, and we appreciated their generosity.
By the time the upper-Elves crew got down, most of the group had begun the return walk to Toltec. With the lame and infirm slogging along, we looked ahead to the next day, and what we saw was a humongous shit show unfolding. We knew it would take a lot of extra time to reach Copper Canyon, and with no recent water reports, we didn’t know if we’d have be able to find water in the CC potholes. While we would carry sufficient water to dry camp, the slow speed meant we’d burn a lot of water. So, we mentally prepared to send a couple of mules as far as the South Bass beach if needed to haul water back. Love those long days!
Back at Toltec beach, we didn’t let the looming death march sap our spirits—rather, we sapped the spirits. Indeed, the pear brandy, bourbon, and tequila helped staunch the pain and debase the parole. I can’t repeat the jokes that were told, and I’ll deny ever hearing them.
Just when we thought we could sink no lower, Chandler reached into his right pants pocket and pulled out pigs. Three little pink rubber pigs. And one slightly melted looking hippopotamus. While Leigh has already been indoctrinated on Appalachian shakedown hikes, Chandler taught a few brave (or foolhardy?) souls how to play, throwing and rolling the rubbery foursome and counting up hoofers, snouts, razorbacks, jowlers, and more. Carlee established herself as a force to be reckoned with by throwing a double leaning jowler, with no negative points from the hippo. (Did I just say “double leaning jowler”? Somebody hit me.) This didn’t really help my understanding the formation of the micro-layer of shale that I’d seen in upper Elves Chasm, but it did help deliver some of the deep belly laughing that infected us each night. Belly-laughing and random viruses—as if we needed more infecting.
Speaking of Chandler and infections, sometime earlier in the day, his GI system went haywire. Suffice it to say that torrential diarrhea and desert backpacking are not a good pairing. (If given the choice of pairing, opt for the cabernet and Parmigiano Reggiano–or the Grafton Village Cheddar for a Vermont flavor–instead.) Losing a lot of water makes it very hard to stay hydrated and functional. And thus although we hadn’t seen the full effect yet, Chandler was already well on his way from being a buoyant teenager (albeit a half-century old teenager), to someone from whom every step was a chore. This would stretch the walking part of the days out, and we lost much of his nonsensical banter in the evenings.
Thursday, April 5
With the hobbled shuffle in front of us, we pushed off early for Copper Canyon. Amy couldn’t bend her knee—an interesting proposition for the scramble up to Garnet Canyon and in and out of even piddly little drainages. In as close to empathy as I’m able to muster I thought to myself “I’m glad that’s not me!”. It looked like the shit show was underway.
Meanwhile, for days, Krista had been up in the front pack, charging ahead with her minimalist pack of the solid footing of her Camp Four shoes. She was the quiet rock star, with a quizzical smile wondering how she decided to accompany our sorry lot in the first place. But halfway through the day, the typhoid sweeping the party caught up with her, and she grew light-headed. That afternoon, not yet to Copper, I found the shade of a rock and made the sickies eat some soup, have some water, and eat some jelly beans. Sort of the get-well-quick trifecta? And the scouting party moved ahead to Copper.
At Copper Canyon, Bob and Carlee searched the major drainages upstream and found nothing. We sent John downstream, and he found the first pothole with maybe 20 gallons of skanky green water and lots of tadpoles and mosquito larvae. We did pull some water from this pothole, but Leigh put on his Defender of Wlidlife hat and wouldn’t let us take too much, insisting that we keep enough water for the tadpoles to have a chance to grow legs and hop away.
What a windy night—we got a good sandblasting. Chandler sunk into a coma. On the other hand, Amy showed signs on bouncing back to her usual self, Amanda started to look and act like a wilely canyon veteran, Carlee told us of creepy fetishes from CA, and Leigh shared with us new uses for a glass pie plate.
Friday, April 6
On his early-morning bird watching constitutional, Bruce discovered a couple of large tanks further downstream, about ½ mile below the Tonto crossing. The water was cleaner and plentiful, and we loaded up and hydrated well.
Once again, the not-very-aggressive itinerary worked to our advantage. We had a very short trip from Copper Canyon to South Bass. Plan A was to walk down the drainage and camp at the South Bass beach. With the hospital contingent, though, even before starting out that day, we scuttled that plan and decided to stop where the Tonto met South Bass.
And a good thing, too. Amy was reborn and doing great. Krista’s hiccup was less than a day. Amanda was well-seasoned and hiking with increased confidence. But Chandler was down to 30 steps and rest. 30 steps and rest. We actually dropped into South Bass at the cutoff rather than contouring around. This would save us a lot of water hauling distance should we need to ferry water up from the river. We were pleased to find the few good-sized tanks full of water here, combined with a big shady overhang.
When I say “we” took the cutoff, I mean all of us except Michael. Looking to air out his legs, he missed the cutoff, and kept going. And going. And going. Eventually he figured out that we weren’t behind him and turned around making it back to us after we’d finished our soup and our naps. Looking for the cutoff? It’s well-cairned, heading down into the drainage immediately after rounding the point into the drainage.
A pleasant afternoon and evening, with an early bedtime and empty booze bottles.
Saturday, April 7
We agreed to an early start. Chandler left first and managed to get about 50-yards after a few minutes. It was going to be a long day. Bruce, John, and I charged ahead with the plan to go recover the vehicles from Pasture Wash. We made it up and out in less than three hours, but on the way up, we changed plans. Bruce and John would go get the vehicles, and I would drop my pack, head back down to get Chandler’s pack.
We saw a couple groups coming up and down. For me, it was the first people outside our group I’d seen in a week. They looked and smelled better than me. And having descended into our Lord of the Flies existence, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them.
On the way down, I passed the up-hiking womenfolk from our group. They were making good time and in great spirits, laughing, singing and dancing. OK, maybe not singing and dancing, but looking good anyway. A good while later, I met back up with Bob, Michael, and Leigh who had taken much of Chandler’s weight and were coaxing him up the hill. Ten steps and rest. Ten steps and rest. He was sick as a dog. We reloaded Chandler’s pack, and I grabbed it, relieving him of all weight except his drinking water. Bob and I powered up, and rested in case we had to drag Chandler up the last couple of miles.
He made it and exited looking like death warmed over. Whew, having bonked a couple of times during long hikes or at elevation, I can appreciate how hard it was for the guy.
Since several in the party had not ever been to the GC before, we headed into the Village to look at the views there. Impressive views, but after the solitude and quiet of the week we’d just finished, we weren’t as impressed with the crowds.
We grabbed a beer and snack at El Tovar. Mild-mannered Bruce, his meat deprivation apparently pushed a bit too far, flipped out when he couldn’t get a burger—and we learned that we’d better give him more flesh in the future. John kicked some kids out of his yard (the grassy area behind El Tovar), and we marveled at our waiter who seemed to be trying to doing everything but bring us beer and mayonnaise.
We said good-bye to Bruce. Following an ill-planned side trip to Sedonna, and thus a late-arrival into Phoenix, I could barely keep my eyes open. See earlier question: are there any good restaurants in Phoenix? And why did I book a 7am flight instead on something that allowed me to sleep in a bit?
We made it. And it was interesting. Perhaps a little too interesting. As an ersatz vegetarian, I was dismayed how close we came to creating our own meatjoy event. I’m not sure I’ll bring any first-timers on this route again. But what a show. Can’t wait to get back out in the Canyon!
For additional reports and descriptions covering part or all of the areas in this loop, I recommend reading the following.
- A repeat of the trip in 2014 with a smaller, faster group.
- http://www.bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/show_report.php?trip=2002A [and related pics: http://www.bobspixels.com/kaibab.org/tr021/]