Trip Date: November 22-26
Location: Grand Canyon National Park
Miles: 34 (+14 for the road walk)
Start/Finish: South Bass Trailhead
Permit Required?: Yes; $10 + $8 a day per person. More info here.
Season: October-April. Due to the heat of the inner canyon, June-September is not recommended for this section of the Tonto Trail.
Directions: Found here
The Canyon never disappoints. With a couple days off work for the holiday weekend we headed south for warmer temperatures in the best winter backpacking locale I know, Grand Canyon National Park. No matter how many late fall/winter trips I take here I am always amazed at the climate changes one experiences descending 5,000' down to the river. Our plan was to explore the Shinumo Ampitheatre by descending the North Bass Trail and exiting via the Burro Route up Modred Abyss/the NW Fault Ravine. Upon reaching the North Rim and turning onto Forest Service Road 22 I quickly realized that wasn't going to happen. The day before I had called the Backcountry Office to ask about road conditions, it is obvious that the staff there works the South Rim, they informed me the road out to Swamp Point should be accessible because they hadn't received a major snow storm yet. No mention of the six plus inches of snow covering much of the dirt road immediately after turning off the pavement of Hwy 67. We tried it for a couple miles, our car nearly bottoming out on the bigger drifts, before turning around at a particularly large ice/mud/water pit covering the entire road. Bummer. I couldn't be mad though, I knew this was late in the season to be anywhere on the North Rim besides the Visitor Center or the lower elevation trailheads further to the West. The real bummer about this was the six hour/212 mile drive we would have to make in order to get to the South Rim, which we were looking at from Bright Angel Point.
While making the drive, we decided to head to Royal Arch instead, despite even more questionable road access due to our car not having high clearance. The South Bass Trailhead is also fairly remote, 25 miles of dirt road lead through the Kaibab National Forest and Havasupai Indian Reservation. Once crossing over to the Havasupai Indian Reservation the roads quickly deteriorate, so we parked the car and walked the final seven miles to the trailhead where we spent our first night out up on the rim. A frigid breeze forced us in the tent early and the temperatures would drop well below freezing.
The Royal Arch Route starts by descending the South Bass Trail through the Toroweap, Kaibab, and Conconino Formations before a side trail splits off west once reaching the Esplanade. It was good to get some more experience hiking along the Esplanade. This is the main access for exploration further down canyon, as the Tonto Platform ends at Aztec Ampitheatre and doesn't reappear. The Esplanade sits at a higher elevation than the Tonto, and cliffs above blocked the warmth of the sun for most of the way out to the east arm of upper Royal Arch Canyon. Most of the potholes along the first 10 miles of the route were frozen, or soon to be, but we were surprised by the abundance of water once in the east arm of Royal Arch Canyon. Skirting the 200' dryfall to right, we soon found ourselves in the bed Royal Arch Canyon. Another mile of walking led us to the spectacular spring feeding the creek that flows beneath the arch. The setting really is awesome. A ribbon of water cascading into small pools underneath the largest natural bridge in the Canyon. A 250' foot cliff blocks further progress down canyon immediately after the arch, but presents some vertigo inducing views through the lower reaches of Royal Arch Canyon. We set up the tent on a perfectly flat slab of sandstone on the edge of the cliff. A party of three (the only other people we saw the entire trip) would show up just after sundown and camp directly underneath the arch. We didn't mind the company though (this place isn't exactly a secret), and it gave us a good opportunity to talk to them about possibly using their rope & harness to get down the 20' rappel that we would encounter the next day, should we decide we weren't comfortable down climbing it.
The next day we arrived at the rappel site and found the fixed rope that we were told may be there. The rappel is short, but the cliff is vertical with a slight overhang at the bottom. Many people just "batman" down this and had this been our only option we surely would have, but with a safe rappel right behind us I chose to just wait for the other party to arrive. We rappelled using the munter hitch which was a first for both of us, and a great tool for the backcountry considering you don't need to carry the extra hardware. Thanks Peter and Co. for helping us down!
We skipped Elves Chasm this time around, having been there just a year prior and headed up to Garnet Canyon to search for "Mystic Cave" which sits at the head of the drainage. We followed the canyon bottom through a pretty good set of narrows in the Tapeats, but the day was coming to an end as we began getting close to the end of the bay and eventually conceded to setting up camp short of the cave at another superb sandstone bench just above the narrows. This was our warmest night of the trip and we took advantage by playing gin rummy outside (as opposed to crouching uncomfortably in our tent) under the light of the full moon until nearly 9pm (a late one).
Heading back out on the Tonto we were treated to a fantastic day of walking. The morning had started with overcast skies, but by the time we rounded Fiske Butte things were beginning to clear and a mix of blue sky and clouds would hover overhead for the remainder of the day. This section of the Tonto is some of my favorite with incredible views across the Colorado into Shinumo Ampitheater. Along the way to Bass Canyon we met up with a herd of 15 or so Bighorn Sheep, a cool encounter this far away from the hustle and bustle of the corridor trails.
We filled up with water from a large pothole in Bass Canyon and continued down to Ross Wheeler Beach. A large pour off at river level makes this beach especially secluded, and space is fairly limited making us feel especially lucky to have it all to ourselves. We relaxed, reading a bit (I finally picked up The Emerald Mile) and soaking our feet in the river. After sunset we found ourselves standing alongside the rushing water of the Colorado watching the moon light filter through the clouds still overhead thinking how fortunate we are to have the willpower and means to make trips like this happen so often.
The hike out went smoothly, the final stretch of trail leading back up to the Esplanade is quite scenic with a straight shot view all the way back down Bass Canyon. After rimming out, the seven mile road walk back to the car gave us plenty of time to debate where we were going to chow down back in Tusayan or Flagstaff. Spoiler alert, we went to Albuquerque and had an amazing carne adovada sopapilla Christmas style at Mary and Tito's. (Highly recommended)