Sunday, May 1, 2011

Grand Canyon Royal Arch Route

Royal Arch Route, April 16-22 2011

Trip participants: Andrew Douglas, Jennifer Koermer, Roger Soucek, and I.

Full photo gallery is on my Smugmug page

GPX map file available at Everytrail

Royal Arch was a Grand Canyon destination that was on my list of places to see in the canyon, but which was pushed to the top by my friend Jennifer. We’d been discussing a Thunder River/Deer Creek trip, but after thinking that one over we switched to Royal Arch. The trip was supposed to be a challenge, but I thought that given my past experiences in the canyon it shouldn’t be too big a problem. In the end, the trip was much harder than I expected, but getting to see Royal Arch was pretty cool. We put in for and received a permit in December for our first-choice April dates. The participants were Jennifer and her boyfriend Andrew, their neighbor Roger, and I. Jennifer and I had done a simple North Kaibab trip in 2006; she and Andrew spent 3 weeks on the river last summer, with a lot of day hikes from the river. Roger also had done a river trip before, hiking in to meet a trip at Phantom Ranch.

This was the first trip I’ve done in some time that wasn’t a solo, and I was glad of that. This trip would be very challenging alone. We all read up pretty heavily on the trip and were a surprised by the difficulty at some places. Royal Arch is always noted as requiring a short rappel along the route; that rappel was actually one of the easier points. The route is not always hard to follow, though there are places where there are several possible routes around obstacles. There are also quite a number of false trails or trails where enough people have missed a switchback to create a short path to nowhere.

Overall, a good trip, but a hard one and one that shouldn’t be lightly undertaken.

The trip:
We flew into Las Vegas from NJ, picking up a 4WD Chevy Yukon for the reportedly-bad road to the South Bass trailhead. After a night in Williams, AZ, and a few hours of general sight-seeing in the Park, we headed out for the trailhead, following Park Service directions. The directions were serviceable, and the road was in generally good shape. It looked like one vehicle had gone ahead of us by a few days, digging deep ruts in the muddy road. If not for these ruts and a couple of wet places, the road would have been in excellent condition. We crossed the Havasupai reservation boundary without seeing anyone (and wouldn’t on the way out, either, saving us $25) and continued out Pasture Wash Road. Leaving reservation land the road degraded, but still wasn’t too bad- it is too narrow for two cars to pass on this section, but we didn’t have any problem with that.
At the trailhead we were surprised by the number of vehicles, and that a couple of them were passenger cars. I think the road was in pretty good shape, but I’d be hesitant about driving out there in some of the compact cars we saw. Still, it was in better shape than the road to Tuweep on the north rim, which at the time I drove it was “passenger car capable”, according to the Park Service.

There are a couple of picnic tables at the trailhead, and a great view down the South Bass trail. The Powell Plateau, on the north side, is visible; though it took us a little time with the map to decide that was really its identity. There are a couple of decent tent sites, and probably more if you look around. We camped here, sharing space with a man heading down the South Bass and then east, toward Hermit.
Day One:

We started out early on Sunday; officially we were heading for the point where the Royal Arch Route splits off from the Esplanade Trail, dropping into Royal Arch creek. We were all hoping to go farther, maybe even making the arch that first night.

The South Bass trail, rebuilt a few years ago, is in good shape, better than any of the other non-corridor trails from the South Rim. It drops quickly, one long straight run taking it most of the way through the brief Kaibab section and then Toroweap rock layers, then a slightly harder section through the Coconino. In here, the trail passes the squared openings of an Anasazi granary, well preserved just above the trail.

Soon the trail hits the Esplanade, the plateau that stretches in the Supai rocks in this portion of the canyon. The Esplanade Trail splits off the South Bass, heading north & west. It’s well defined and easy to follow, with small trees breaking up the rock and wide views all around. Mount Huethawali sits on the Esplanade, a major landmark that we’ll spot again in a few days when we reach Copper Canyon.

The Esplanade is very pretty territory, but it’s largely exposed and without shade. The April temperatures we experienced were high for the season, near records on a few days. I think more than anything the heat was responsible for increasing the difficulty of this trip. Ten degrees cooler and it would have been a lot easier; ten degrees hotter would have been dangerous. I wouldn’t want to try this trip in July or August.

The trail contoured around several points. As we’d been told likely, we found water in pools at Seep Spring, just above the trail past Chemehuevi Point. We continued, passing Toltec Point and starting around Montezuma Point. Around here, I started to flag pretty badly. I’d probably pushed my pace too hard early in the day and now I was hitting a wall. We’d all pretty well decided by then that we weren’t going all the way to the arch that day; now we started looking for a place for the night.

It was also around this point that I think the Esplanade Trail and the Royal Arch Route split apart. I never really saw a break, but after a short distance of following a fading trail coming out of one drainage, I looked out to see a lower plateau with a trail on it. The trail I was on was real, but I think rarely used; we moved back and found a few cairns leading down onto the lower plateau and took a break.

Jennifer and I sat in shade for about a half-hour while Andrew & Roger looked ahead. They returned, telling us that there was water and some campsites not far ahead. They’d dropped their packs at that spot, now Andrew carried mine. (Thanks Andrew!) We continued around, this section of trail getting markedly rougher than any to this point. Eventually we reached what we realized was the branch of Royal Arch Creek that we were supposed to be following and made camp for the night. There was good water and a few decent campsites, so it worked for us.

Day Two:

The next morning I took off a little earlier than the rest, starting down the creek. A well-cairned trail led to the left of the creek and I followed that, soon reaching a steep set of switchbacks down into the creek bed proper. There are several different cairned routes down this hillside, so I sat there for a bit directing the rest of the group down the easier-appearing routes. None were really hard, but some were harder than others.

The creekbed turns, heading toward a junction with another branch of the Royal Arch Creek. The Park Service route description says that at this point you reach an impassable pouroff, with a short but difficult bypass to the left and a longer but less dangerous route to the right. We went by a number of possible impassable pouroffs, none of which were really all that impassable, before finding the real one. The drop is probably about 40’-50’, and there was an anchor rigged for a rappel. If you’re carrying enough rope, doing a rappel at this point looked like a good option. Otherwise there are the bypass trails. To the left the trail is easily visible branching right out from the top of the drop. It doesn’t go very far before turning into a narrow ledge that quickly disappears; we didn’t like that way. Jennifer looked around and found the right bypass, which starts further back and continues for some way out above the creek.

We went that way. The route isn’t too bad, though it’s narrow in a couple of places. In one, there’s a small hole you have to crawl through under a large rock; we passed packs ahead of us. The trail goes out quite a ways, before dropping over the side down steep switchbacks. At a couple of places we felt more comfortable passing packs rather than wearing them down; the more daring can probably go for it.

Be aware that this is a place with an alternate, or false, trail. Leading, I missed the cairn marking the route down. I followed other cairns out toward the creek intersection and was called back. As the trail I was on was petering out, I went back; I’m not sure if the trail I followed was a real alternate or not.

The Park Service route description has a memorable sentence at this point: “…normally this section offers something like hassle free hiking.” Um. Yeah, sure. If this is hassle free, I don’t want to see hassles.

Below the creek junction you follow the creekbed, sometimes going just above on bypasses where the creekbed is blocked. We’d only gone a few miles today, but all of our legs were tired from the large bypass. At least it clouded up today, and wasn’t as hot. This might be an observation from an overweight suburban desk-jockey, but this wasn’t hassle free. There are quite a few places where you have to squeeze past, climb over, or work around obstacles. It’s possible we missed side trails, but mostly the geography wouldn’t allow for them; also, we were usually following cairns. There are several places where we felt more comfortable taking packs off and passing them down; again, others may be ok wearing them.

Eventually we reached a spot where the trail met up with water in the creek, and where the creek dropped through a section of thinly-layered stones. This section didn’t look too bad, but there was one point where I got very uncomfortable. You must work your way around on a very narrow ledge, chest pressed against the rock, with very poor, crumbly hand-holds. It’s not a long fall, maybe 10’, but it would hurt.

Just below here the creek dropped into a waist-deep pool; we all changed to water-shoes and waded through. I’d guess that this pool is around in all but the driest weather. Below here are some more wet spots that we waded through, not changing back to hiking boots; these spots probably dry up quickly.

After only a few hundred more yards we reached Royal Arch itself.
You don’t get much of a long-view of the arch; pretty much, you turn a corner and there it is. It’s a big carved section of rock, probably 50’ wide and 80’ tall to the bottom of the arch; the arch is probably another 40’ thick. The tiny little creek that carved this winds innocently through it; it’s hard to believe that this water carved this arch.

Just below the arch is a giant phallic rock monument, one of the biggest hoodoos in the Grand Canyon. It’s as tall as the arch, and equally impressive.

Past the monument the creek drops, a steep fall down into Elves Chasm almost 200’ below. I didn’t explore much this way, but some people do take a long rappel this way down into Elves. It’s variously described as 100’, 150’, or 200’; all of those are a little high for my rock skills.
We ate dinner at the arch and camped under it. It’s a great spot. There are a lot of loud frogs, but most of them gave up during the night. The near-full moon, bright enough to be annoying the first night, lit the canyon beautifully but was blocked by the arch from hitting my tent. This was the first night I slept well on this trip.

Day Three: goal Toltec Beach and (maybe) Elves Chasm.

Even in the morning I wasn’t sure that I’d be up for the trip to Elves , though I knew that Andrew and Jennifer wanted to revisit a place they’d been to on their river trip. We headed back up the creek, looking for the point that a trail would break off to the east and climb above the creek. We hadn’t spotted the trail on the way down yesterday, but weren’t too concerned.

One note about going back up canyon- near the point where we’d had to start wading, and at the point of crumbly rock that I hadn’t liked, there’s one large rock blocking the creek. Going down it had been almost unnoticed; on the uphill it’s more of an obstacle. I’ve since heard from people who’ve left a webbing strap in place when going downhill to make the return easier. This rock is smooth, and not very high- the issue is the smoothness. It’s hard to get a grip on going uphill, and it takes a little bit of scrambling.

Soon we found the trail up out of the creekbed. It’s steep, and like many trails around here it’s got lots of loose rocks underfoot. It climbs quickly, reaching a trail above that parallels the creek, going right above Royal Arch. The monument is easier to spot, but once you’ve seen that the arch stands out.

Beyond there, the trail curves around and begins a long, pretty, and not difficult (though hot) descent along a green expanse of (I think- I had some trouble with rock layers on this trip) Tapeats sandstone. There are good river views, and great canyon scenery through here.
Before too long the trail drops over into a side canyon and you reach the much-discussed rappel of the Royal Arch Route. It’s described variously as 10’-25’; looking back at pictures I’d go with 15’ or a little higher. There seem to be few good pictures of this point on the web, and looking back at mine I didn’t do any better. It’s on a narrow ledge with no real long view possible; there really isn’t much to take a picture of. There was a solid anchor around rock, and a new rope had been left. Looking it over, we didn’t break out the rope we’d brought. Andrew dropped over first, followed by our packs. I followed and was able to get pictures of Roger & Jennifer dropping down. It really wasn’t a big deal, though there’s always that moment of fear dropping over the edge.
Had we looked closer before dropping the packs we might have decided to just drop them further on the rope- below the rappel is another ledge, and carrying the packs down looked hard. We passed them down, then continued.

Below here the trail begins a relentless descent to Toltec, the small beach at the mouth of a wash on the Colorado, well below Toltec Point. For much of the descent our party needed to spread well apart, keeping the loose rock from bouncing down on those ahead. Eventually the rock ends at the top of a sand hill; descending this was more like glissading than hiking.
We reached Toltec by noon. Roger & I looked around and decided that it was a nice place for the afternoon. Andrew & Jennifer decided to continue up to Elves while Roger & I sat in the shade of a big rock and rested our feet in the cold river.

Late in the day a large group of 9, older boy scouts and their leaders, showed up at Toltec. We’d seen them while climbing out of Royal Arch (some of them, thinking we were in their party, shouted “Come back!”) and now they’d caught up. They were very nice about not taking up too much space, and were decent neighbors. Eventually Andrew and Jennifer came back, having given up and sat in the shade short of Elves, deciding the various crossing trails weren’t worth following.

Day Four, heading for Copper Canyon.

We had good reason to believe that there would be water in Copper, given that all of the “seasonal” sources had worked out for us. We were carrying pretty heavy water loads though, just in case.

Heading out from Toltec, a cairned route takes you along the hillside above the river. Right off, this trail is harder than you’d expect. There’s a lot of up & down, often poor footing, and many of the large rocks along the trail have big nasty sharp pointy teeth. I’m not sure what they are- some kind of black volcanic rock, I think, but whatever they are, they hurt to put a hand on for balance.

A mile or so up river we reached Garnet Canyon. Here, the trail turns well back into the drainage and climbs. Pools of water were visible in a few places, but by all reports the water in Garnet should be avoided- it’s heavy with minerals, and even after filtering is known to cause “intestinal distress”. We skipped that part.

The climb up Garnet is well cairned, and near the top there’s a good shady rest point before going over the top. Once on top (well, it probably really starts at the creekbed in Garnet) you’re on the Tonto Trail proper. Most people treat the trail along the river from Elves to this point as the Tonto, but technically it doesn’t start until climbing up onto the Tapeats sandstone layer.
If you’ve hiked any of the Tonto, this section will be familiar. I was happy to see it after the condition of the trail from Toltec to Garnet. The Tonto goes up & down in short sections, rarely more than 25’ or 50’ at a time, mostly adding extra steps going out & around headlands and into drainages rather than gaining or losing too much elevation.

It is, however, exposed and hot. Only back in some of the drainages is there shade worth using.
Into the afternoon and I started flagging again. I rested for a while in the last major drainage before Copper, sitting for a half-hour in the shade and letting the rest of the party go ahead. I’d have stayed longer, but it clouded up and cooled a little, so I took the opportunity to go.
Eventually I reached Copper Canyon, finding my friends in a side drainage toward the back of Copper, where the Tonto crossed the canyon. They’d explored up & downstream, finding water in pools a couple hundred yards upstream from the camp. We also could now see Mt. Huethawali again, an old friend at the head of the canyon. We’d have to go around into Bass, the next major canyon, to actually get up there.

Tired, we all ate some and crashed for the night. My campsite was just barely the size of my tent, but it was enough. There looked to be a few more toward the other side of the creek that I spotted on the way out the next day, but I really hadn’t been in the mood to look the night before.

Day Five: heading back to the Esplanade.

On the trail the day before it felt like my pack kept getting heavier. Looking at it this day, I saw why- the lightweight pack had its waist-belt sewn to the pack, with no reinforcement to speak of. Now that join was failing. I put the pack on, feeling the extra weight on my shoulders, and took off.

We made good time up from Copper and around the headland below Tyndall Dome, hitting the trail junction to either head down to Bass Rapids or up toward the trailhead. We chose up. By here, my shoulders were killing me. Taking the pack off, Jennifer started experimenting and soon created a webbing splint for the waist belt, letting it take most of the weight of the pack again.

We continued up, eventually reaching the junction of the Tonto with the South Bass Trail. After a short rest most of the group followed; I stayed a few more minutes. I noticed then that I’d dropped my pack about 2’ from a pink Grand Canyon rattlesnake; he didn’t seem bothered so I didn’t either.

Continuing from here the trail heads uphill with little respite. It’s not terribly steep, but it does keep going. It’s tiring, but it’s not as much of a killer as many of the other trails. Again, this section of the South Bass shows the fine work that was done a few years back to rebuild the trail.
Eventually I reached the deepest penetration of the canyon, then turned on a switchback to continue uphill. Around here I was passed by a couple going downhill- a man with more, and heavier, camera gear than I carry, and a woman who was already struggling. They wanted to make it to the Tonto that night; I told him that they should camp at one of the several nice sites along the trail.

Going uphill I could see the last switchback before hitting the Esplanade, but I couldn’t really judge the distance. I pulled out my GPS to check it, and was surprised to discover that somehow I’d gone about 25 miles, and I was now near Wotan’s Throne on the north side of the Colorado. No wonder I was tired. I tried to let the GPS catch up, but gave up after 10 minutes.

I was extremely disappointed with my GPS on this trip. I had a new Delorme PN-60w with Spot Communicator. In the past I’ve carried a Garmin CX and separate Spot unit, but I’d liked the idea that with the paired devices I could send short text messages via satellite, instead of just “I’m ok” or “send help”. The reality wasn’t so good. The Garmin always did ok in the canyon, even in narrow spots like 75-Mile Canyon. South Bass, where the Delorme lost it completely, is pretty open. Beyond that, the battery life of the GPS when paired with the Spot was awful- only a little over a day with lithium batteries, not the 3-4 days I’d grown used to. End mild rant.

Around 5 pm I crested onto the Esplanade, finding the rest of the party spread out and setting up camp. It’s a great spot, though it was pretty windy, as is common on the plateaus in the canyon. You also have to keep an eye out for the large patches of cryptobiotic soil, a black crusty ground that helps keep the soil from blowing or washing away and is very fragile.

Day Six: hike out.

The last day we only had a couple of miles, and about 1200’ of elevation to go. Roger & I, up early, headed out at around 6. The trail meanders across the Esplanade before reaching the junction with the Esplanade Trail, heading back for Royal Arch. We discussed doing another loop, but decided that since the permit was expiring that we shouldn’t.
The climb up wasn’t that bad, though I took it slow. I got to the top to find Roger talking with a couple of new groups who were heading out, one to Royal Arch, and the other to explore the Esplanade. We both cleaned up, joined soon by Jennifer and Andrew, then headed back up Pasture Wash road to Tusayan, then on to Vegas.