The Royal Arch Loop: The Grand Canyon’s Most Difficult Trail?

Last Updated on May 30, 2024 by foxintheforest

Every time I enter the Big Ditch I feel like I’m falling into a kaleidoscope. Ever-changing landscapes, histories, and wildlife always surprise you here. And nothing fed that feeling more than backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. This little-known, rugged trail is the most difficult of all the advertised routes that the NPS lets you to know about.

Their one-pager comes with a serious warning:

“This hike offers about a million ways to get into serious trouble in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.” – National Parks Service.

And frankly, they aren’t wrong.

However, if you possess the skill and stomach for this exciting route, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most incredible adventures this earth has to offer.

Royal Arch Loop: Practical Information

There are a lot of things you need to understand before tackling this route. First of all, there is a lot of scrambling, route finding, rock navigation, and even a technical rappel.

If those things aren’t comfortably in your wheelhouse, this isn’t the route for you.

However, I’m an alpine climber and I have tons of experience traveling cross-country in the desert along with a few technical slot canyons and desert towers under my belt. Therefore, these were HUGE appeals of the route for me.

This area is remote – like mega remote. We didn’t see a single soul along the trail aside from some river trips at Elves Chasm. There were moments when our isolation really hit us. If something as simple as a minor injury were to occur here, it was a self-rescue situation.

And as with all off-Corridor Grand Canyon trails, water was a huge concern.

Therefore, you need to be confident in your abilities to be self-sufficient out here.

Pro Tip: If you want more info about obtaining permits and driving info (including road closures) check out the bottom of this post.

A woman sitting on a rock at sunrise in the Grand Canyon

Trail Info:

Mileage: 36 miles including a detour to Elves Chasm
Elevation gain/loss: 6,500 feet (approximate)
Duration: 4-5 days recommended
Difficulty: Extreme. Only advanced backpackers with technical skills should attempt this route.
Terrain: Largely scrambling, bouldery, route-finding along cliff bands. Many exposed sections with steep drops on thin trails. Not well marked compared to the average National Park trails. Some sections of flat walking across cactus-ridden terrain. Intermittent trails unless you know what you’re looking for. Often steep sections where you will be using your hands, dropping/lowering bags, and navigating rocks.
Red Tape: Permit required. Permits are not issued during the summer months. Trailhead access is challenging.
Trailhead Access: The Havasupai Reservation has closed access to the South Bass Trail until further notice. 4×4 is required to reach the trailhead. Or an SUV with moderate clearance plus 14 additional miles of road walking round trip (not included above). See “Trailhead Access” for specifics.
Permits: Required. $15 per person, per night below the rim.
Dog-friendly?: No dogs allowed.
Start/end point: South Bass Trailhead

Here’s a look at my trip down the Royal Arch Route. See the show notes for a lineup of daily vlogs from the trail!

Need to know: Rules and Regulations

This is a technical route. You will need to carry a rope, tat, rap ring, some type of harness (we built one with a double-length runner to save weight), and an ATC in order to complete this route.

But aside from that, there are a few important things to know.

  • The trail isn’t always obvious. Expect to route find and scramble frequently.
  • No campfires are allowed in Grand Canyon National Park, this includes camping at the trailhead.
  • There are no services and no cell service.
  • You need a 4×4 vehicle to reach the trailhead.
  • Camping at Elves Chasm is not allowed.
  • You’re required to pack out all of your trash, including toilet paper.
  • SEND A REPORT TO THE NPS! This route rarely gets water and condition updates, so consider sending a quick message to the NPS (email grca_bic(at)nps.gov). Info such as water availability, trail conditions, and anchor conditions are really helpful.

Water Sources

There are two reliable water sources along this route. First is the Colorado River (which is extremely tough to reach in a day on this trail) and the second is the Spring in Royal Arch Canyon. Just know that this spring is past the turnoff for the official route and is found along the drainage to Royal Arch.

It hadn’t rained in quite some time before we embarked and we did find potholes with less-than-lovely (read: would need a pre-filter for bugs) water prior to the pour-off in the Royal Arch drainage.

Garnet Canyon also has water, but it is not suitable for human consumption. This should be pretty obvious – it was so mineralized there were crystals around the pools – but don’t drink it!

Pro Tip: It never hurts to contact the backcountry office to confirm water before you head out. Your safety is your responsibility.

A woman standing near a pothole in the Grand Canyon Royal Arch Route
We were surprised to see water before the Royal Arch Spring since it hadn’t rained in a long time, but these aren’t dependable.

The Royal Arch Loop Itinerary

There are many ways to slice and dice this gorgeous loop. I’m going to focus on what we did and what I’d do differently next time.

Our big focus was to avoid hauling water. We had one water haul for our night on the Tonto Trail – and a water haul is ALWAYS worth it on the Tonto (hellllllo stunning views!).

This itinerary was great because every day was a different flavor of the Grand Canyon. It spoke to the tremendous diversity here (and the different ways it’ll make you suffer!)

A woman hiking on the Tonot trail along the Royal Arch Loop

My experience

Originally I had planned to do the Royal Arch Loop with one of my close friends, but about 6 weeks before the trip, she tore her ACL. So my friend Allison from She Dreams of Alpine joined me. This was her third big trip into the canyon, but her first backpack trip (she had done the Rim to Rim in a day, twice).

We have been long-time work friends, but this was our first adventure together. This was shocking to both of us – why had we waited so long? Allison’s skill set lay more in the backpacking realm. She runs backpacking trips and courses in the Sierra. She’s thru-hiked the JMT and she’s got a lot more backpacking nights under her belt than me.

And I’m more of the high-flying type 2 fun-seeker. I’ve climbed and canyoneered a TON. I regularly scramble peaks and I’m an alpine climber. Also, I’ve done plenty of shorter backpacking routes in the desert butttt this would be my first multi-day backpacking romp in several years (cuz #momlife).

We both had climbing skills, which proved to be quite helpful, but this trip was truly a mind-meld. I relied on her for hacks to stay cozy, and she relied on me to talk her through the more exposed sections of this trip.

I had my heart set on this route after going on a rugged overnight trip to the Grand Canyon’s Horseshoe Mesa back in the fall (we spent a lot of time scampering on the Tonto Trail with daypacks). My partner and I only had one night, so it was an all-out hike-a-thon to see how far down the Tonto we could get, but I was hooked and more than ready (after many failed attempts) to get on a rugged route in the Big Ditch.

This place just resonates with my soul. I can just exist out here. Having backpacked all over the world, I found my one true love: the mighty Grand Canyon.

Day 0: Camping at South Bass

We awoke this morning in the stunning Valley of the Gods in Utah. We decided to split the drive from Colorado into 2 days to take a more leisurely approach to our trip. This gave us time to catch up on years of being out of touch as well as sneak in some stunning camping.

It was breakfast taco time and when we awoke, our camping stove didn’t work. We quickly switched to our backpacking stove, but we didn’t realize we could only use certain cookware and before we knew it, we broke that stove too.

red rock spires and cliffs in Valley of the Gods Utah at sunset in the desert
The view from our camp in Valley of the Gods, not too shabby so I had to show it off!

So we had a less-than-warm breakfast of bagels and decided to hit up the village store en route to the South Bass Trailhead.

Now owning 2 MSR Pocket Rockets, we hit the dirt and headed out.

We arrived at the South Bass TH at around 3 pm. It was disappointing to see another group camping at the spot we had a permit for – especially in such a remote part of the canyon, but we shared just fine.

They were too squeamish to take the spot right on the rim, so we pitched our tent with quite the view!

grand canyon south bass trailhead at sunset

Our neighbors were friendly and quiet, so it wasn’t too much trouble. We made quick work of organizing our gear. Allison even brought a cool gadget to weigh our packs. Mine was a whopping 38 lbs with water compared to Allison’s 32.

Buttttt, in true mom fashion, I had packed some heavier food items that could have been lighter if I wasn’t using what I had. I also had the rope and a more cozy pack. But I’m an alpine climber, so carrying extra weight while backpacking doesn’t really bother me.

Day One: Rim to Royal Arch

Mileage: 14 miles (12 on paper)
Gain/descent: 4,238 feet of loss
Camp: Royal Arch Canyon

We took guesses on which day would be the toughest, and my guess turned out to be right. I figured the first day would be the worst (Allison guessed the third). From previous desert experience, I just knew that 12 miles in the canyon, with more physical miles toward the end, would make for a rough day. I was not wrong!

We left at around 6 am, which was far too late given how hot it got. I had assumed we would make better time, but the going was slow past the Esplanade, and the mileage turned out to be a bit heavier than expected.

Travel down the South Bass Trail was quick and pretty simple. The trail was in great shape. Allison got the official Grand Canyon welcome when she slipped (her trail name is Baby Goat Legs) and full butt-first on a cactus.

After we got the needles out, we arrived at the South Bass/Royal Arch Route junction. We cached 1 of our 5 liters each here for the return journey.

An indian paintbrush flower on the rim of the grand canyon

Esplanade

The Esplanade walk was super mellow, but the temps were climbing. We busted out our sun umbrellas and made our way across the path. There was much more of a trail than I was expecting with the occasional small cairn to light the way.

Two female hikers walking on the esplanade layer of the royal arch loop in the grand canyon during the day.

Eventually, we reached a small section where we had to descend down some rocky faces. It wasn’t too tedious, but it was the warm-up for what was to come.

We reached the initial drainage for the Royal Arch Canyon around 11-ish. The gentle slick rock canyon was so lovely – I see why groups break up the day here.

There were a few potholes and countless frogs. We say canyon tree frogs, red-spotted frogs, and a few others. Finally, we reached the pour-off and took a break under a shady boulder.

canyon tree frog sitting on a rock near a pothole in the Grand Canyon
We saw SO MANY frogs – little did we know they were going to have a rowdy concert later.

Wrestling Pebbles in the Royal Arch Canyon

I checked my water and I had drank more than I thought – I had about 1/4 liter left! The estimate to camp had us at around 2.5 miles, but it was more like 4 miles. And then the real fun began.

We were both singing and laughing as we made our way right around the pour-off through the famed rabbit hole. I even did a little rabbit dance. But our celebration was short-lived.

A woman walking along a cliffside in royal arch canyon.
Right before the Rabbit Hole – ignorance is bliss!

Our first downclimb awaited us and we realized that both of our GPS tracks took the more precarious left-side ledges. So we had to route find a bit to figure it out. But, we spotted a cairn and scampered down the cliff band and hideously hot scree pile to the bottom of the drainage.

At this point it was sweltering and I knew I was going to run out of water. Allison gave me a little bit of hers, but we needed to find the spring!

A red rock cliff with a narrow trail along the Grand Canyon Royal Arch Route.
Descending off of this steep hillside was the start of our tedious journey into the bowels of Royal Arch Canyon.

Unfortunately, the physical journey was upon us. Royal Arch Canyon is a series of never-ending truck-sized boulders to down-climb. We continuously took off our packs, lowered them, and zig-zagged across this canyon to find the path of least resistance.

This search added 2 miles to our day – something that your topo map won’t pick up.

There were a few pour-offs that we skirted high and climbed down. This quickly drained my water and wore me out. I also discovered that Allison and I moved at different speeds. So I would go ahead until I reached a point where it would be nice to lower a pack, have a spot, or go as a team.

Stop-start hiking has never been my go-to and wore on me mentally. I was quickly fizzling out – wondering where the heck this spring was. Nervous thoughts popped up – what if it was dry?

a woman walking along a cliff edge in the Grand Canyon
Working around one of the impassible pour-offs along the Royal Arch Route.

The Royal Arch

But eventually, I stubbornly scrambled down to a trickle of the spring and filtered about a liter when Allison came by. From the bottom, there was a very easy workaround from what I had downclimbed (facepalm). We decided to set up camp just a little downstream of the spring on some flat ground.

A woman getting water a spring in the Grand Canyon.
A whole world you didn’t know existed in the canyon!

Unknowingly we were about 5 minutes from the Royal Arch – we walked down canyon to see it after we had dinner. But our bodies just didn’t want to manage another heal-toe walk over a deep pool or bouldering with our packs on.

We took in the Royal Arch – what a magnificent landmark! The campsite there is pretty special as well.

The Royal Arch in the Grand Canyon
Pictures don’t do the Royal Arch justice! (The campsite is the tiny pile of pebbles – really football-sized rocks on a flat ledge just behind the leaning slabs of rock on the right side.)

Fully hydrated and fed, we were looking forward to hearing the trickle of the stream at night as we dozed off. But we were sadly mistaken.

As soon as the even light dissipated from the canyon, the canyon tree frogs started screaming. Literally. They sounded like dying goats. THOUSANDS of them began to sing and echo through the canyon. Needless to say, we got very little sleep that night.

It was almost laughable how bizarre this campsite was. Certainly, the most unique place I’ve ever camped.

Pro Tip: Before I get attacked for camping near water, we didn’t use the bathroom here and the site at the Royal Arch – although better for LNT, definitely isn’t 200 feet from water.

Day 2: Royal Arch to Toltec Beach via the Rappel with a Side Trip to Elves Chasm

Mileage: 5.7 rocky AF miles
Gain/descent: 2,182 feet of loss, 1,246 feet of gain
Camp: Toltec Beach

We “awoke” from our 4-hour nap at around 4 am. Honestly, I slept like crap because it was like being smack in the middle of a frog orgy til 2 am, with a few who wouldn’t quit all night.

I managed to boil water for coffee (needed) and scarfed food. It was already pretty hot and we decided that we would live by the desert’s rules for the rest of the trip.

The idea of scrambling back OUT of what we came down didn’t sound too appealing to me, but it went by rather quickly. Just a testament to how exhausted we must have felt the day prior. We worked as a team to get to the junction with the Royal Arch Route and crawled our way up a few hundred feet to the top of the Royal Arch Canyon.

A woman climbing up a big boulder in a rocky canyon.
Working our way out of the Royal Arch Canyon floor on boulder at a time.

We were perched on a small trail a few hundred feet above the canyon floor. Often we had to skirt cliffs and really watch our step. Allison was not a fan of this – especially first thing in the morning – but I reveled in it. I love a good thrilling trail and my spirits were high because we were done wrestling pebbles on the canyon floor.

Crossing above Royal Arch really gave you a sense for how huge this natural bridge is (it’s the biggest in the Grand Canyon).

Looking down several hundred feet to the Royal Arch.

There was one point where we had to cross over this gap. And the scrambling move happened to have a cactus right where you hand wanted to go. It looked intimidating coming up to it (I hate spaning gaps) but it wasn’t as bad as it looked.

The Rappel

We left Royal Arch to traverse over towards the rappel station in the red wall layer. There were so many blooming flowers and stunning views. We could just catch a glimpse of the river and were eager to make it to our camp.

We only had to haul our packs 2.5 miles to Toltec Beach from the Royal Arch and I was happy that the morning was almost over. But even at 8 am the temps were soaring and I was sweating a ton.

We scrambled down to the rappel anchor, cautious about lowering our packs. We secured our gear since we weren’t descending into the gully below and losing our packs would spell disaster.

A woman setting up a rappel along the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon

I quickly set up a rappel. Our 50-foot rope did great and I had to do some shenanigans with limited gear to safely get into the anchor and manage everything.

Never did I think I’d rappel off of a harness made with a double-length runner or create a PAS with a wire gate and a third hand, but there we were.

Allison went first, then I hip-belayed the packs down on an existing rope that had hand loops in it, and followed down on our rope.

A woman rappelling in the Grand Canyon
What a place to be on rappel!

Although the rap was simple, quick, and put you on solid ground, the remote nature of what we were doing really struck me here. I’ve rappelled countless times off of wayyyyyyy sketchier anchors, but this one really hit me. Here I was on the side of the freaking Grand Canyon, hopping down a rope attached to a nylon runner without a-n-y-o-n-e around.

What a trip!

Safely on solid ground, I pulled our rope, packed it back up, and traversed over towards the rocky path to the beach.

Reaching Toltec felt like a huge accomplishment. Our tiny slice of paradise had a huge tree for all-day shade and a sandy beach to dip our feet in.

A tent camped along the beach at the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
Our cozy beach camp with soft sand for our weary feet.

Elves Chasm Hike

The sun was climbing and the shade was disappearing so we made quick work of arranging our day packs and heading to Elves Chasm.

On paper, this 3-mile round-trip detour looks flat. It’s not. This is yet another physical trail where you scramble your way up and down and in and out for what feels like forever.

The trail to Elves Chasm
A look at a nice section of the trail to Elves Chasm. Don’t be fooled – most of this was scrambly terrain, but solid!

After we got through the first bit of scrambling, Allison was moving slow in the heat (understandable, I have a super-human ability to move quickly down through hot terrain). So I went ahead.

The mean limestone gnashed its teeth and gauged my kneecap. I got cut up pretty badly. I kept aiming for beached river boats and eventually made it to Elves Chasm with a little bit of trial-and-error at the end.

The river group was leaving when I arrived. I quickly shed my clothing and hopped into the freezing water totally naked. Thankful for a chance to bathe for the first time in 4 days.

The frigid spring water created a gentle cool breeze that felt like an air conditioner.

Another rafting group showed up (so many people yikes!) and the tourists all wanted to know how I got there. Since the only way was by ropes, they were very confused (women doing things without men OMG! *rolls eyes*). But the rafting guides offered me some snacks and gave me an update on the weather reports which was great.

Right at about the point where I was starting to get concerned about Allison, I started walking back on the trail to find her and she popped up just around the corner.

We had hours of solitude at Elves Chasm and spent the day enjoying this absolute wonder!

Elves chasm in the Grand Canyon

Toltec Beach Camp

Towards the end of our day, another self-supported rafting group showed up and showered us with snacks. We decided to leave, assuming there would be shade on the tedious walk back to camp.

At around 4 it was the heat of the day, but we still had to set up the tent and wanted to relax by the river. HUGE mistake!

It was hot and sun-beaten, and the black, rocky terrain scorched our very souls. It was the most unpleasant 1.5 miles I’ve ever walked in my life – and I’ve got a pretty high tolerance for heat.

Again, I dipped ahead of Allison (we could communicate with our Garmin inReach Minis) and set up camp.

We limped into camp exhausted and battered by the heat.

But the soothing sounds of the water let us get through our camp chores and fill up on food.

It was too hot to be in our sleeping bags/quilts at night, but exhaustion took over and I slept like a rock.

Two women camped on the beach of the Colorado River.
Smiling for shade! Egos bruised, but not shattered!

Day 3 ALTERNATE: (For when I do this route again)

When I do this route again, I’ll spend two nights at Toltec Beach. I’d do my first day the same (except I’d carry 5 liters of water instead of 4 and start at about 4 am) because I feel like an additional water haul just wouldn’t have been worth breaking up the first day.

But having a chill 1/2 day in the shade of the trees at the beach camp would have been great. It would have allowed Allison to air out her feet (which had developed gnarly blisters at this point) and let us have a day to read, relax, and chill.

The full rest day would have been perfect for day hiking over to Elves Chasm and the whole day would have felt a little less rushed.

Our Actual Day 3: Escaping the Maws of Garnet Canyon and Basking in Tonto Goodness

Mileage: 11.3 miles hauling 10 liters of water each
Gain/descent: 2,200-ish feet of gain, 600-ish feet of loss (my watch died)
Camp: Tonto Tail

Up and at it at 3 am and left camp around 4:20 am. We broke down camp by headlamp and prepared our bodies to haul an additional 20 pounds of water with us that day.

We each decided to take 10 liters since the plan was to dry camp along the Tonto Trail. I am no newbie to water hauls – and I hauled 16 liters on my last Grand Canyon adventure – but that didn’t make the first part of the day suck any less.

Hiking in the Grand Canyon at night by the Colorado River
Goodbye Colorado River!

I woke up and felt like I was in someone’s armpit. The air was still and the heat oppressive. Getting out of the Vishnu crap pile was not simple by headlamp. Ghost cairns (read: not actually cairns) gave us quite a bit of a run for our money.

We found some mineral-laden pools prior to Garnet Canyon. I knew it would be a little itchy and salty, but we were so desperate for a break in the stifling heat of the morning, we dipped our shirts in the brackish water to get some relief.

Pro Tip: Dipping your sunshirt in water makes it feel like an air conditioner!

I knew that the Tonto Trail would bring us sweet, sweet relief from the never-ending rock maze, but it felt like we were taking one step forward 2 steps back.

A woman with her tongue out sweating carrying a heavy pack with a rope on her back in the Grand Canyon
Crawling our way out of Satan’s a$$hole. Dripping sweat at 5 am and not stoked about it.

Garnet Canyon

I have since renamed this slice of hell F*ck You Canyon. At first, the going was really easy and the way was well-marked. But at some point, we got off-route here.

The micro terrain wasn’t helping and although the canyon isn’t huge, it sucked pretty bad. We got suckered into more ghost cairns and ended up in a boulder field that reminded me of climbing the Grand Teton, except I had 55 pounds on my back instead of a light trad rack and the temperatures were in the 80s at 6 am.

Oh, and I was covered in a grimy layer of salt from our previous shirt dip. (#worthit though).

I started to get straight-up pissed at this point, I could see the Tonto Plateau, but this canyon really didn’t want to show you the way. Everything looked like a cairn and ended in a class 5 – but doable – option.

I refused to believe we had to do a bouldering problem to exit the thing, so we kept hunting in our sweat-soaked clothes.

It turns out we should have stayed low in the canyon for quite a while before climbing out some brittle sandstone ramp.

I am sure there are a few adventurous ways to get out of here – we saw some certainly man-made cairns in laughable locations, but after 2 straight days of scrambling I was ready for some smooth sailing.

We were racing the sun and both of us were fried at this point. But we found the weakness in the canyon walls and pulled onto the official start of the Tonto Trail.

Garnet Canyon at sunrise in the Grand Canyon
I didn’t take any photos of getting out of this dumpster – I mean Garnet Canyon – but it was very unfun with plenty of friable rock. The exit was just beyond the left side of this photo.

The Tonto Trail

I hooted and hollered, nearly kissing the ground when the lovely Tonto Trail beckoned us with open arms. Allison had a cry, just allowing herself to feel the emotions of the challenges over the past few days.

She had done this thing completely off the couch, and that’s a tall order!

(I had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro about a month before, so I was in shape, but not exactly energized so I felt her pain). And after days of having her head get fried with exposure and navigating rock, she just needed a release.

I gave her a hug and assured her that the Tonto Trail wasn’t going to be as angry as the beast we just battled.

A woman hiking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Indulging in the luxury of shade on the well-defined Tonto Trail.

Once we were moving along the Tonto, Allison grinned – I had been talking about how great this trail would feel and how scenic it was for days.

We enjoyed cruiser walking with our sun umbrellas and were finally making good time. Our biggest concern was navigating cactus gardens, a much-needed change from worrying about hanging our asses (and weighted packs) off of exposed sections of rock.

Wildflowers blooming in the Grand Canyon.
Cruising along the Tonto Tapeats soaking in the views.

Shady Troll Cave

At about 9 miles in we made it to our destination – Copper Canyon. The Tonto Trail doesn’t offer much in the way of shade or water, but we found an amazing rock right near the trail that provided us with all-day shade in April (GPS: N 36.23152, W 112.38019).

This was the best and most convenient option we saw all day. I had big plans for my rest day. I was going to eat, drink, and finally get a chance to read the book I had downloaded.

A woman with camping gear hiding under a shady rock on the Tonto Trail.
Our cozy desert troll cave. The view isn’t shabby either.

But instead, I took a nap, dreamed about what I was going to eat once we got out of the canyon, stretched, and watched hummingbirds go by.

When do you ever get 6 hours to be unplugged and do absolutely nothing? As a toddler mom, the answer is never, so I took full advantage in our cozy cavern.

It felt like we had hit our stride. Suddenly, things had locked into place. We were existing in the rhythm of the canyon instead of fighting it like we did on day one.

We had just smashed out 9 grueling miles with 55 pounds on our backs and after a quick nap, neither of us was tired or sore. The challenge of the morning simply meant the reward of our desert troll cave would be that much sweeter.

It was almost like we had unlocked a different plane of being. I reveled in our desert troll cave. It was easy to just tune out and tap into the canyon.

A woman with feet covered in blisters.
Allison’s feet were so wrecked at this point. Although she hardly complained. Apparently, they look worse than they felt!

The Camp of Dreams

Eventually, the power of the sun waned and we set out for our final couple of miles to camp. We were aiming for a small plateau that jutted out off of the Tonto Trail just past a cone-shaped hill.

Hiking along the Tonto Trail for the golden hour was pure magic. I feel like this layer of the canyon hosts some of the best views. It’s like watching a real-life big screen. You can’t always see the top, but you can’t always see the bottom either.

A woman backpacking on the Royal Arch Loop of the Grand Canyon.
Clouds, evening light, and views for days. It doesn’t get more magical than this!

You get such a sense for how giant and incredible this landscape is here. So I was super stoked to find incredible camping along this trail. It was the canyon’s gift to us for traveling into her bowels and back again.

We found the perfect spot right along the trail to set up camp, relax, and take in an AMAZING sunset.

Allison was all smiles and said “I finally get what you’ve been going on and on about!”

(I think that was code for doing the Gems Route next trip!)

We fell asleep shortly after the sun went down and the afterglow of the canyon fadded. The temps were (finally) cool enough that we could actually use our sleeping bags.

Sunset in the grand canyon's royal arch route.
I live for moments like these. And the Tonto sure does deliver!

Day 4: Tonto Trail to Rim via South Bass

Mileage: 7.8 miles
Gain/descent: 3,000-ish feet of gain, 400-ish feet of loss (my watch died)

It was so tough to wake up at 3 am this morning. I just didn’t want to leave the comfort of this magical place. But, we didn’t want to end up in another sun-beaten, uphill situation, so we begrudgingly got up and left camp at around 4:45.

The Tonto was a little tough to follow in the dark, but we managed.

Today felt noticeably cooler (and more clouds) than the previous days – much more like what I was expecting for this time of year.

It didn’t take long before we reached the Tonto/South Bass Junction via a smaller side trail that avoided unnecessary elevation loss.

The rising sun lit up the canyon walls in a heavenly way.

a woman hiking in the grand canyon along the South Bass Trail.

Yesterday’s mid-day break had us feeling like we had a fresh pair of legs. We were moving quickly and enjoying the cooler temperatures.

I thought things would get a little hairy crawling out of South Bass, but aside from one steep, semi-bushy section, the trail was very easy, just steep at points.

We listened to music, chatted, and gnawed on the last of our snacks as we made our way back to the cache.

I felt in the zone on this day, like I could spend another few nights out here without issue. It’s amazing what your body can do once it adjusts to a place.

Once we reached a red sandstone layer (Supai Group?), we spotted an awesome dry campsite that would be good to keep in the back pocket for future trips. I really can’t wait to take my daughter here. So much grandeur, adventure, history, and sweet-sweet solitude.

A view of the Grand Canyon from the South Bass Trail.
Earmarked this sweet spot for another trip. What a stunning view!

We got a message once we reached our cache that snow and rain were moving in. Our plan was to take a long break, but we shortened it up so we could make sure we were off of the dirt roads before they became impassible.

Allison and I had gotten good at knowing each other’s paces, so I skipped ahead and scampered back out of the canyon.

The trail wasn’t as easy to follow going up as it was down, but you never felt like you were totally lost.

By the time I popped up to the car, it had gotten quite cold and cloudy. Once I reached the trailhead, I felt a huge sense of pride, but also sadness.

Two women on top of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon smiling.
Success! What an incredible adventure! Now time to hammer pizza!

I didn’t want to leave the canyon (but I did want to eat an entire pizza). I only get one kid-free trip out here a year and I was sad knowing I wasn’t going to return until the following year.

However, I was so proud of Allison and I. This route was NOT a gimme and it certainly challenged us, but we had an incredible time. We both topped out saying we would absolutely do the entire thing all over again!

Getting Grand Canyon Backcountry Permits

Permits for the Grand Canyon have changed over to a lottery system in 2024 and getting permits for the Royal Arch Route required some thought and planning.

First, enter the lottery for your given time. Both of us entered the lottery and took the timeslot that was closer. It’s $10 to enter the lottery, but if you DON’T get a timed spot, there is a special window you can snag your permits before they open up to everyone.

Next, you’ll need to fill out a Hiker Information Sheet and send it in prior to your timeslot.

You cannot book permits for the Royal Arch Loop without speaking to a ranger.

During your permit time slot, you will need to call a dedicated line to reach the backcountry office and book your itinerary.

I didn’t get too much guff from the ranger, other than the rez closure (more on that below), but I’ve done a lot in the canyon and I have a lot of technical experience with ropes in the desert.

From there, they will walk you through a confusing process to book your itinerary.

We had one of the last timed slots for the permit period and didn’t have any issues getting the dates we wanted. This area doesn’t book up quickly (although the South Bass Zone can). This process is more geared towards making sure you understand what you’re getting into and you’re qualified experience-wise to be out there.

The South Bass Trail with blooming flowers in the Grand Canyon.

Reaching the South Bass Trailhead: Updated for 2024 Closures

First, Google Maps will NOT take you the correct way to the trailhead! For whatever reason, it stops reading FR 328 as a road from Homestead Tank. DO NOT USE GOOGLE MAPS TO NAVIGATE TO THE SOUTH BASS TRAILHEAD OR THE HAVASUPAI GATE.

You will be driving 25 miles down the dirt. These roads will become impassible if wet or snowy, so do not attempt to drive these roads in inclement weather.

It takes around an hour and a half to 2 hours to reach the trailhead from the pavement.

In order to reach the South Bass TH you used to have to pass through Havasupai Land. They have since closed and locked the gate and don’t plan on opening it anytime soon.

This issue has been brought up by the Grand Canyon Hikers Association and they are working towards a solution. However, because the roads travel through National Forest, private, and National Park land, the trailhead access issue is a bit tricky.

You have two options to reach the South Bass Trailhead

  1. You park at the Havasupai gate and walk a boundary “road” to Pasture Wash Road.
  2. Take the workaround route proposed by the Grand Canyon Hikers Association.
Spring blooms in the Grand Canyon.

Walking the boundary road

Take FR 328 until it ends at the Havasupai Gate. Park here and walk 7 miles one-way to the South Bass TH. This road is suitable for most SUVs. Past this you need a 4×4 vehicle.

You will walk a 2-mile boundary “road” (not a road, and not currently open). This will intersect with Pasture Wash Road. Head away from the Havasupia Reservation (right) on Pasture Wash Road and go through a gate. This road terminates at the South Bass TH.

Note: You will need to make a plan for water if this is your proposed route. This is what the National Park recommends you do. There is no water at the South Bass Trailhead. You can plan to cache at the trailhead but please do not abandon caches.

This adds 14 miles round-trip to your journey, but the terrain is very manageable and quick to walk.

Pro Tip: The boundary road is technically closed and illegal to drive. Are people driving it? Yes. You will need high clearance and 4×4 capabilities with low gears for several steep sections.

Drive the proposed workaround

This is the preferred way to get to the trailhead. The Grand Canyon Hikers Association has worked hard with private landowners and the NPS to come up with this workaround.

It is exceptionally tedious and very out-of-the-way. You’re winding down narrow tracks of forest with plenty of hidden obstacles. You’ll want a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance.

Google Maps refuses to take you here, so you will need to navigate via a different method to reach the trailhead. Here are rough instructions.

  • From Homestead Tank
  • Past roads at the tank down 328, from Homestead Tank, head approx. 1.35 miles.
  • Turn north (right on NF2512 to Seven Mile Tank)
  • Turn right at 36°04’38.2″N 112°21’39.2″W
  • Straight through the first fork 36°04’42.3″N 112°21’41.7″W
  • Right at the second fork 36°05’39.9″N 112°22’02.8″W, approx. 1.27 miles from turn on to NF2512
  • Straight through the third fork (the road will turn abruptly and the fork looks like it backtracks) 36°05’48.0″N 112°22’03.5″W, approx. 0.17 miles from the second fork pin
  • Should be turning northeast – looking like you are backtracking
  • Left at the next fork 36°05’58.2″N 112°21’38.4″W, approx. 0.47 miles from third fork pin
  • Should reach Sevenmile Tank (work around a few trees) 36°06’17.9″N 112°21’23.6″W, approx. 0.62 miles from previous fork.
  • The road gets squirrely, windy and tough to follow, but according it’s been driven and sees use and is better than what you see on Google Earth.
  • Pop-out into an obvious junction, head north (right) 36°06’33.9″N 112°23’31.3″W, approx. 2.77 miles from pin at sevenmile tank +/- .25 miles.
  • Go through the intersection 36°07’12.3″N 112°23’27.1″W, approx. 0.78 miles from the previous junction
  • Go north at the next fork 36°07’48.9″N 112°23’38.6″W, approx 0.74 miles from the intersection
  • FINALLLLLLYYYYY you connect with Pasture Wash Road.
  • Stay on this road until you reach the TH: 36°11’01.5″N 112°22’36.4″W, approx 4.1 miles

Note: I used Google Earth to approximate distances. The GPS coordinates are more accurate.

The South Bass Trailhead in the Grand Canyon at sunrise.

The Best Time to Backpack the Royal Arch Loop

The Royal Arch Loop permits are available fall through spring, but the best time to backpack in the Grand Canyon is October through early November.

Snow can (and does) fall here – especially November through mid-April and you can extend that by a few weeks along the south rim.

We went the last week in April and it was ungodly hot. Seasonally around 7 – 10 degrees warmer than normal. This was my first spring backpacking trip to the Big Ditch andddd I’m not sure I’d repeat that. There’s just more shade in the canyon during the fall. Not to mention, the canyon tree frogs were LOUD the first night.

We did have 90-degree weather and within 24 hours it was snowing, so being prepared for everything is key here.

In my experience, the desert weather is a little less predictable and windier in the spring than in the fall months.

Winters are cold at night, but if you prefer chiller temps, this can be a good option for you. Just keep in mind if you plan to visit from November through March, trailhead access can stall your trip before it starts.

The ranger recommended late April to me – saying it was better to battle the heat than risk not being able to go because of trailhead access.

How Many Nights Do You Need?

Most people tackle this route in 4 nights. We opted for 3 nights and it was doable, but we didn’t have any chill days – something I quite enjoy when I backpack.

We opted for 3 nights because I have a toddler at home and had limited time away. Also, I wanted to limit water hauls. Most people split up our first day, but you’re hauling water if you choose that itinerary.

When I do it again, I’ll plan a 4-night trip. I’ll let you know where I would add my 4th night below.

What to Pack

Aside from your standard backpacking kit, here’s a look at a few additional things you’re going to want to bring with you.

  • Food protection. Mice here are a thing. Allison used her UL bear can and I used odor-proof bags with a dry hang bag. Hanging in the trees was fine.
  • Sun umbrella. Honestly, this was worth the weight. Ours were pretty light but we used this more than a few times on this trail.
  • Sunshirt. I would never venture into the Grand Canyon without one.
  • GPS and emergency device. A GPS is a must-have to navigate this route. Our Garmin InReach Minis were also a must-have. A rescue here would easily take days if you’re not near the river.
  • Pool floatie. We didn’t need one because we got a recent trip report, but there are a few swims in bigger potholes that can hold water for a while and a pool floatie will keep your bag above water.
  • Tweezers. You’re in the desert and cactus happen.
  • 50-foot of rope (carry it out, do not leave ropes in the canyon it’s littering), 10 feet of tat (if the anchor needs to be rebuilt), a rap ring, and a double-length runner. I also found a third hand and a wire gate helpful for being redundant at the anchor (falling here wouldn’t be great) and attaching the bags to the anchor while you work your rope magic.
  • A sit pad or Therm-a-rest Z lite. We used these constantly! Perfect for napping in the shade and having a nice place to sit.
Picture of Meg Atteberry
Meg Atteberry

Meg is a long-time Colorado local and outdoor industry professional. She's spent the last 15 years hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and canyoneering all over Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada in search of the best views. She's written for Outside Magazine, REI, Backpacker Magazine, and appeared on the Weather Channel.

Hi There!

Meg Atteberry standing on a mountain sticking her tongue out

Meg aka Fox is a 30-something who's born to explore. Toddler mom, queer, and neuro-spicy her favorite things to do are climb in the alpine and camp in the desert. Her mission is to get you out on your greatest adventure.