Overview2 Canadians, 2 Romanians and 2 Americans decend into the Grand Canyon....sounds like a good set-up huh? Well it turned out to be an amazing set-up for what turned into a 6-day jaunt into the seldomly trodden western portion of the grand canyon on a little known backpacking loop called the Royal Arch Route. Unique for trips to the GC, it starts and ends at the same place: the South Bass Trailhead. Inbetween are 45 miles of pure southwest American beauty, a 20 foot rappel, attacking rattle snacks, hot days, drinking from stagnant pools, arguing about which way to go, seeing (or skipping) the Royal Arch and Elves Chasm, trying to leave through the wrong exit valley for over a day, etc... but I'm sure all 6 agree the trip of a lifetime.
The Journey....For technical stuff, like getting to the trailhead, what to bring, what to be mindful of...see the ROUTE DESCRIPTION.
Here's our story:
Us: If you are considering this trip, you should know that we did it in early September (not optimal), and that none of us had backpacked in the Grand Canyon or done canyoneering before. That said we did have a ton of experience in many countries between the lot of us, including some mountaineering, technical climbing, and various trekking.
The Canadians (Brian and Walt), Romanians (Tudor and Stefan), and Americans (Ken and Ilan) met up in Vegas on Saturday to get 4x4s and get on the road.
First pit stop is Henderson where we have to go to REI to pick up food, gas and other small things. We get there, do the shopping and realize we are all extremely hungry – we stop at a tacos joint eat some burrito, drink some smoothie and it’s already around 3 PM. We are done but we need one more stop at Whole Foods to buy trail mix, dried fruits, real fruits (apples) and water….A LOT of water. We buy about 60 liters of water, enough for the first night on the rim, the first day of hiking and the last night on the rim (as much as it hurts your feet, your mind feels much better in the GC when your backpack is laden down with liters and liters of water…so carry a lot!).
We finally hit the freeway..it’s 4PM and we are way way behind schedule. this sets the tone of our adventure from now on. We start driving, trying to keep an average of 80 miles/hour…..the Jeep can’t keep up with this average so we slow down to about 70 miles/hour.
We drive for about 3 hours before we leave the freeway and turn towards the Grand Canyon village. Off in the distance (at the canyon?), we see lightnight striking down. We reach the GC National Park gate at around 8PM pay 25 USD/car to enter. Asking which way to the Royal Arch Loop or South Bass trailhead, we just get blank stares = kinda funny, kinda scary, fully exciting! After about 15 minutes we reach the Grand Canyon Village…..we drive on small roads and Stefan anounces that we already passed it…Tudor thinks it is still about to come and he is right.
First thing when we reach the village is to look for a place to eat – we find this big canteen, get it, and eat our last real dinner – some chicken, some soup, hot-dogs etc. We discuss of what to do, whether to stay in the village over night or start driving the off-road trail to the South Bass trailhead that night. Stefan, cautious as usual wants to stay and drive in the morning. Most of us want to wake up with the view of the Canyon and have an early head-start for our first hiking day……as we discuss Stefan changes to a different state of mind, starts smiling stupidly and he’s hyper and ready to start driving… Brian tells us it’s his other personality. That’s it, we decide to start driving and agree to stop and camp if we get lost on the way.
Out in the parking lot we see a couple of Rangers and ask them about the roads towards South Bass trailhead and The Royal Arch Loop…..they look at us like we are asking them about some Mars trails recently discovered by NASA…they have no idea what we are talking about, we thank them for nothing and hit the road. Tudor, Ilan and Ken are in the Toyota in front with the instructions and the satellite map towards the South Bass trailhead and Stefan, Brian and Walt are in the Jeep in the back. We know it’s a tough, rough, rugged, road….if you can call it road, considered and adventure in itself by the backcountry office very difficult even by day….and it’s pitch black (ironically this will become another feature of our adventure). We go around the kennels and find the road out which is still paved….but not for long. After about 1 mile it turns into dirt road. We drive blindly in the forest for a while until we see a sign: road 328 GREAT!! We are on the right trail. We continue to drive, hit 328A and then 328 again. 328 has even mile stones (sticks) all along. As we keep on driving, there are more and more signs with the following inscription: “This road is not maintained for low clearance vehicles – 4WD vehicles recommended”. Hmm….it already looks pretty bad…..how much worse can it get? A LOT WORSE!!!!! At one point the road turns into sort of a drainage and we have to drive on one side of it or the other. (Turns out the road was near as bad as it could have been...we read about some trips being turned away just by the road if it had rained recently, adding mud as an extra complication.) We hit a point at which we have to cross from one side to another…..car goes on 2 wheels, looses adherence, we push it and we cross over…..Ken hasn’t said much for quite a while but now he is dead silent....he already “enjoys” this trip to the max. We reach the Havasupai Nations’ Boundary and start driving through the Indian lands (nobody to ask us for money, not at that time of the night….it’s about 11 PM). We all feel like we don’t want to camp or stop here.
After a while we reach the exit from the Reservation and happily see the boundary to the GC National Park again. We stop at the “gate” to pee and read the advisory information at the park entry – the only thing mentioned is the South Bass trail and it is mentioned you need a permit to camp from here on….the one we have. We keep on driving, until at one point the road transforms into little more than a slightly large hiking trail with big stones and boulders…..we push the cars to the max, the Jeep does better here with it’s controlled 4X4 transmission and the higher clearance; the Toyota get very intimate with the rocks and sometimes sounds like "that’s it, we broke the oil pan". Everybody seems to think at every turn that this must be it cause it doesn’t look like we could go further….. tudor remembers from the picture how the “parking” at the South Bass trailhead looks like and tells all that we are not there yet. We finally reach it and it’s exactly like I imagined. It’s windy and a bit cold and about 12pm. WE’VE MADE IT TO THE TRAILHEAD THROUGH THE NIGHT!!!! Everybody is happy with our accomplishment, we set up tents and go to sleep as soon as possible. During the night it feels cold…..no wonder ….it’s +48F. Strange…..we were expecting 110F, but up on the rim it’s much colder. we end up really using those summer bags, altough those with lightweight bags just endure the cold up on the rim.
We wake up around 6 AM and start packing and organizing stuff. Tudor feels it’s too hot and starts without socks liners and only with the shorts. In the rush, he accidentally leaves the zip on pants in the car, instead of putting them in his backpack...big mistake as he would later learn from the cactus whip-marks on his legs. Around 8AM we are all packed, we had breakfast we filled all our water containers and we are ready to go. Ready, steady, go…….wooooh!, go back to steady….these damn backpacks are heavier than we are. Each of us carries an average of 7-8 liters of water.
We finally manage to lift them up, take a group picture at the trailhead and we start the descent on South Bass trail. Tudor goes first, Brian goes last. As we go down the sun is shining on the Canyon walls creating breathtaking views…. Luckily we are all the time in the shade. We stop all the time to take pictures. Further down we see some nice Indian ruins. we take pictures again. We are going in a nice pace and soon we reach the junction with the Royal Arch Loop, all beautifully marked (so far). The junction is a very nice T made of stones. We turn left and leave the South Bass trail to our right….see you in about 4-5 days….hopefully. (Turns out it would be 6.)
It’s already 10 AM and we are now out of the shade. The heat is not too bad though. We are still hiking in between trees which provide occasional shade. We try to keep on our plan to stop for food every 2 hours. This time we find some trees and rocks and as it is about 2 hours since we started we stop for a short power break. We eat fresh apples, trail mix and attemptpower bars.
In retrospect, some thoughts on FOOD: it's so damn hot that very little sounds appetizing. But this can be dangerous considering how important it is to eat and get calories/salt in addition to water. We packed out most of the power bars we brought. if you have to, bring cliff instead. we packed out a lot of unused trailmix. it gets gross and warm. DO NOT add m&ms! they don't just melt in your mouth! Ilan's classic is peanut butter and honey on tortillas. Don't bring ilan's classic. What helped many of us eat when we didn't want to eat anything was: dried apricots, real apples (true delicacy!), beef jerkey (suprising, but true), and making soupy dinners (we used the MountainHouse freeze dried food).
We keep the break short, about 15 minutes and haul ass again on our trail. We hike and take pictures in the same time and the heat is now upon us. Is getting close to noon when we decide we have to think about a lunch break. We stop and Tudor and Brian continue for a while without the backpacks to figure out where we are. They see a huge cliff on our left and assume that is the entry from Point Huitzil into the Royal Arck Loop. On the way back they see a nice formation of rocks providing good shadow for the entire group.
We move together to the rock formation for lunch break. Everybody finds a nice place in the shade, and have lunch. Tudor tastes the Slim Jim sausages…too spicy so gives them to the others. Ilan even opens his pad and takes a nap. We all lay down on rocks and take a nap or relax. To our pleasant surprise, we see clouds forming on the North rim and moving fast towards us. We decide to take the break until the clouds reach us so we can hike under their protective shade. At one point Tudor looks at his brother and sees some water leaking from under his backpack. "What’s that?!" and Stefan says: “My Dromedary is broken and it leaks”….. Tudor almost faint but is calmed down when Stefan explains he was joking. he was just sitting on the mouth pipe and opened so it leaked a bit…. very nice joke stefan!!!
After about two hours the sky is covered with clouds and we have replenish our batteries and we are ready to go. We all pack and get ready to start. Tudor prepares to put his 70 pounds backpack and to do this rests it on a rock…..after about 1 minute he puts his hand on it and feels something wet…..the entire bottom of the backpack is soaked and the rocks around are covered in water….he feel lightheaded, and knows what happened…..exactly the same thing that happened to his brother, stefan….the mouth pipe got squeezed on rocks and the water leaked out. he opens the zipper to the water compartment and….it couldn’t be worse – the entire Dromedary, 6 liters of water, is EMPTY!!!! left with only 1 liter of water in his Nalgene…..he relates what happens and all assure tudor that in between ourselves we have enough water even if we won’t find water until we hit the river which should happen sometimes in the afternoon of next day……we have no idea how wrong we are and that even this event in itself it could have coasted us dearly.
Anyway, we hit the trail again and have a nice hike for a few hours without the sun bothering us. It’s still quite hot but it’s OK. The trail takes us over a few drainages and we see very interesting rock formations. We find our pace, adapt to the weight and feel like we can hike forever. Ilan however shows signs of tiredness in the afternoon. Later in the afternoon we stop again for some water and food. We decide we are behind schedule but not too much….nothing compared to what is waiting for us in the next days. During this stop Stefan and Brian argue over whether or not we will find water in the Royal Arch drainage. Brian is hopeful we will find water and Tudor agree with him. Stefan thinks we won’t find…..they argue and Tudor says he don’t like it a bit – "I know we don’t need any kind of misunderstanding between ourselves if we want to make it out of here." As a consequence of this episode Stefan takes his backpack and starts hiking in front of us…Tudor tells him to wait for us but he doesn’t listen. Brian follows him and so do we all. Ilan looks really tired and Tudor stays behind with him. Ken is somewhere in front of us and the rest are way ahead.
As we enter the Royal Arch drainage, Ilan trips across some rocks and starts to tumble out of control down the slope over sharp rocks and boulders, in front of Tudor. The weight of his backpack and his level of exhaustion makes him loose control. He finally stops and ends up sitting on his butt. almost sure