Royal Arch and Elves Chasm Loop, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14043A, Backpacking


  • Hike to exquisite views in a remote area of the Grand Canyon
  • Explore waterfalls, swimming holes, and Colorado River beaches
  • Enjoy Royal Arch and Elves Chasm


  • Good camaraderie and adventure
  • All meals and cooking equipment
  • Permits and guidance on trails


DatesApr 12–19, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffDaniel Pettit

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Applications for backcountry permits are not accepted until December 1, 2013 because of Grand Canyon National Park rules, so the dates and/or itinerary may be altered to obtain the needed permit. Our itinerary and dates will be confirmed in early January 2014 once the Park Service issues our permit.

The Royal Arch and Elves Chasm are spectacular oases in the Grand Canyon. Our journey to visit these Canyon jewels is on a remote and infrequently traveled route off the South Rim, with the trailhead located near the Havasupai Indian Reservation.  The entire Royal Arch drainage is situated in a dramatic wilderness area called the Aztec Amphitheater. We will enjoy broad sweeping vistas, narrow shady canyons, and sandy beaches on the Colorado as we make our way along this route.

There are a couple of obstacles that make for a little adventure on this route. The first has been referred to as "The Ledge," which is about 15 feet long and 6 inches wide, with a 100-foot drop below. However, we will take a look at The Ledge, then proceed along an alternate route that avoids this obstacle -- it still makes for some challenging hiking, but without any death defying drops. The other obstacle is a 20-foot vertical rock wall on our route to Toltec beach, where participants and their packs are lowered, separately, by one of the leaders. The leader and assistant have both been certified to belay participants down this obstacle and have been belayed down themselves on prior trips.

There are some long days on this journey, but there will also be time to contemplate this vast and magnificent wilderness. It is usually dry this time of year so rain is not a frequent problem, but it can be very windy. It is often warm during the day, with temperatures in the 80s in the Inner Canyon. Nights are typically cooler, with temperatures in the 40s. On the rim temperatures are considerably cooler; 60s during the day and 30s at night. Canyon weather can vary dramatically, and be hotter, cooler, windier or wetter than expected, so plan for the unexpected.

About 13,000 years ago, humans made their first impressions in the Grand Canyon area. Tools, figurines, petroglyphs, pictographs, baskets, pit houses and other archaeological artifacts have been found sprinkled throughout the Canyon, including the areas we will visit.  John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Colorado River in 1869 led prospectors, railroad men, and promoters (like William Bass) to dream of ways to exploit the wonders of the Grand Canyon to amass personal fortunes. Yet not until after World War II did tourists and hikers began to seek out the area's beauty and solitude. Harvey Butchart and his family came to Flagstaff during the postwar period to teach mathematics at Northern Arizona University. Intrepid backcountry hikers like us are indebted to him for the 40 years he spent exploring and writing in his free time about the trails and routes of this fabulous wilderness.

The geology of the Grand Canyon is appreciated around the world because of its many colorful strata from Kaibab limestone to Tapeats sandstone. These upper layers record our earth’s history to the beginning of the Cambrian Period 545 million years ago. In addition to journeying through all the layers, we will also hike on the Elves Chasm Pluton, which is the oldest rock formation in the Canyon. It dates to over 1.8 billion years ago, representing a third of our planet’s history. The Canyon has an incredibly rich and diverse range of plants and animals because of the many ecological niches -- from the Canadian life zone on the North Rim to the Great Basin, Sonoran and Mohave deserts that converge in the Inner Canyon. Spring is a great time to enjoy the abundance of wildflowers that occur in the many niches and life zones of the Canyon.


Day 1: Meet at 6:30 a.m. on April 12 at the Backcountry Visitor Center to caravan to the South Bass Trailhead. After a brief trailhead talk, we will hike down the South Bass Trail about one and a half miles to the Esplanade, which is about a 1,500-foot descent on good trail, although often steep and with areas of scree.  Near a train junction, we’ll drop a food cache that contains our final lunch and dinner, lightening everyone’s load by about two pounds. From here we will continue west to our campsite in the east arm of the Royal Arch drainage, where there is usually a modest amount of water from ‘potholes,’ which requires scouting and patience to find.  Hiking along the Esplanade is mostly level and easy along great sheets of rock. Around side canyons the hiking is more arduous as we have to hike over rubble and boulders to get to the opposite side. Distance traveled: roughly nine miles.

Day 2: We’ll wake up at sunrise to pack, have breakfast, and then begin a gradual descent down the east arm of the Royal Arch drainage. The route down is relatively easy and there may be shallow pools of water, where we can fill up along the way. Just before the main Royal Arch drainage, we come to a large dry fall, which we avoid by taking an alternative route (see "The Ledge" described above).  Once in Royal Arch drainage, also called the Redwall Gorge, the hiking becomes harder.  We’ll be boulder hopping and descending slowly, sometimes passing packs as we navigate over, under, around and down some large obstacles. Fortunately, the canyon is narrower here providing some welcome shade as we break a sweat climbing on Nature’s jungle gym.  We come upon a well-fed spring about a half mile from the Royal Arch, which provides us with plenty of water for camping. Distance traveled: about five miles. 

Day 3: We linger for a couple hours to enjoy this beautiful spot and then ascend a steep route marked by cairns to leave the Redwall Gorge. We then make our way along a path to Toltec Beach, next to the Colorado. Along the way we will come to the 20-foot vertical rock wall where the leader will lower everyone on a climbing rope (see above). It’s only three miles to Toltec Beach from Royal Arch, but negotiating the 20-foot rock wall takes about three hours, so we will take lunch at the wall before/after the belay, depending upon conditions.

Day 4: Today is a layover day to allow us to hike about 1.5 miles down the Colorado on a poor/fair trail to Elves Chasm. We will linger in this beautiful oasis, exploring the several waterfalls in the area. After our return to Toltec Beach, there will be time to relax and enjoy the scenic beauty of our spot along the Colorado river. Distance traveled: about four miles.

Day 5: We’ll load up with water (six quarts) in the morning and head out for an early start.  Our route takes us near the Colorado to Garnet Canyon, where we connect with the Tonto Trail. This is the westernmost point of this maintained trail that traverses the Tonto Plateau from the Hance trail far to the east. There are some great views and relatively easy hiking along the Tonto as we continue to Copper Canyon and set up camp on the plateau for the night.  We’ll cover eight miles from Toltec Beach to Copper Canyon. The only accessible water near camp is the occasional pot hole roughly two miles from camp in Copper Canyon, which we will scout out after dropping our gear.

Day 6: We start early and continue along the Tonto Trail for about three miles. From there, we'll descend a steep route into Bass Canyon and continue roughly two miles to a lovely beach at the convergence with the Colorado to make camp.  We’ll arrive early enough to enjoy a leisurely lunch, swim, and nap and explore remnants of Bill Bass’ cable car that ferried ore, people, and mules to support his mining activities in the day. It’s a picturesque location that will surely be a highlight of the trip.  Distance traveled: about five to six miles.

Day 7: We break camp before sunrise for the steady and then steep five- to six-mile ascent to the Esplanade (~3,000 vertical feet) along the well maintained South Bass Trail. Because we started so early to avoid the midday heat, we arrive at camp at the foot of Mt. Huethewali around noon. Everyone will be carrying six liters of water, since we dry camp this evening. After retrieving our food cach, we’ll enjoy lunch and a long siesta. Those interested can hike onto the Grand Scenic divide for some truly spectacular views of the Canyon.  Distance traveled: ~six miles with packs (plus three to four miles without packs for day hikers).

Day 8: Those interested in climbing Mt. Huethewali can wake up just before sunrise to pack and then hike two to three hours (round trip) for incredible views of the vast region we traveled.  After returning to camp to retrieve our gear, we finish with three to four miles of fairly easy hiking along the South Bass Trail (1,500 feet of elevation gain). We should reach the trailhead and cars around noon. 

Note: The exact itinerary for the trip may vary from the description above, depending on weather, water availability, and the strength and preferences of the group.  



Getting There

Please arrive in time to attend the mandatory 5:00 p.m. trip briefing on Friday April 11th, 2014.  We will meet at the Maswik Lodge (Dan/Vince’s room) for introductions, provide further information on our plan for the coming week, and distribute the commissary. Make your lodging reservations the same day you sign up for the trip as this is a popular time of year at the Canyon and reservations can be cancelled well in advance, if required

The Grand Canyon National Park is about 75 miles from Flagstaff or 180 miles from Phoenix, AZ. Regular flights are available to either Phoenix or Flagstaff and ground shuttles are available from either city to Grand Canyon Village. Alternatively, fly into Las Vegas and then schedule a flight to the Tusayan airport just south of the Park entrance.  

We need to traverse 30 miles of dirt road to the trailhead. The road is in pretty good condition until the last 10 miles, where it becomes increasingly rutted and requires a high-clearance vehicle (a mid-size SUV with 4WD or AWD will suffice). It will take us about two hours of driving from the Backcountry Visitor Center to the trailhead. We will be charged $25 per vehicle (not included in the trip price) to cross two to three miles of the Havasupai Reservation to access the trailhead.

Accommodations and Food

Our first trip meal will be lunch on Saturday, April 12 and the last meal will be breakfast on Saturday, April 19. Trip meals will include some meat, but vegetarians can be accommodated. Trip participants share in meal preparation and clean up. We try to bring enough food so everyone is satisfied, but also want to keep our packs as light as possible. We try to make the food appetizing, but fairly simple to make. Everyone will likely be more than satisfied. 

Trip Difficulty

We cover approximately 40 miles with packs on this trip and have over 10,000 feet of elevation change, considering our descent into the Canyon and our hike back out. In between there is plenty of more minor up and down hiking that will keep our heart rates up. Our average daily distance is less than seven miles. We will also do several miles of day hiking without packs during the week.  Some of the hiking is easy, but there is considerable arduous hiking as well. The hiking is surprisingly varied, with stretches of easy flat hiking on the Esplanade that alternate with stretches of continuous boulder hopping. About a half to two thirds of the trip is off trail, but is still on a well traveled route, and the remainder is on excellent trails; the Tonto and South Bass Trails. All backpack trips are physically demanding, but Grand Canyon backpack trips can be especially demanding because of dramatic elevation changes, exposure to the sun, and potentially hot conditions. This trip would be appropriate for an experienced backpacker in good physical condition. There are a number of places along the route where there is considerable exposure, so this trip is not well suited for those with a fear of heights or vertigo.

Equipment and Clothing

Pots, stoves, and Sierra cups are provided (bring your own spoon/spork).  We will distribute about 12 to 14 lbs. of group food and gear at the beginning of the trip for each participant to carry. Group water will be purified with Micropur chlorine tablets or boiling. 

NOTE: Micropur tablets are the preferred method of water purification for personal drinking water, but they’ve been in short supply the last few years and participants may need to purchase their own (to be confirmed in January 2014). 

Bring enough containers to carry 6 quarts of water and have them filled when we meet for our Friday trip briefing. Carrying a heavy pack, which means more than 45 lbs. fully loaded, is very tiring. The leaders are happy to work with you before the trip to choose functional lightweight equipment that will help make your trip much easier and pleasant. The pack weight of each of the leaders at the beginning of the trip will be 50 lbs. or less, including 6 quarts of water, 12 to 14 lbs. of group food and gear, and all personal gear (sleeping bag, clothes, camera, etc). 

A specific equipment list will be provided after you have signed up for the trip.



  • The following USGS 7.5 minute series maps will cover our route; Explorers Monument and Havasupai Point. Maps can be purchased from Map Express 800-627-0039 or


  • Ranney, Wayne, Carving Grand CanyonGrand Canyon Association, 2005. Read about how the Grand Canyon may have come into existence.
  • Osborne, Sophie A. H., Condors in Canyon Country: The Return of the California Condor to the Grand Canyon Region. Grand Canyon Association, 2008. An epic attempt to save a great bird.
  • Childs, Craig, House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest. Back Bay Books 2008. A non-fiction cultural adventure about the Anasazi.
  • Price, L. Greer, An Introduction to Grand Canyon GeologyGrand Canyon Association, 1999. An accessible book with plenty of illustrations and photos about Grand Canyon geology.
  • Anderson, Michael F., Living at the Edge. Grand Canyon Association, 1998. About the colorful people who explored and settled in the Grand Canyon.
  • Houk, Rose, An Introduction to Grand Canyon EcologyGrand Canyon Association, 1996. A brief primer on the complex web of life in the Canyon.
  • Coder, Christopher M., An Introduction to Grand Canyon PrehistoryGrand Canyon Association, 2006. A short overview of the early people of the Grand Canyon area.



There are numerous conservation issues regarding the Grand Canyon: the introduction of condors, noise from sightseeing aircraft, air quality over the park, control of the Colorado River by the Glen Canyon Dam, and visitor management, including backcountry use. However, the biggest issue is water use in the West by burgeoning cities, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson. These cities largely depend on the Colorado River for their water and are running it dry.

Trip Price: The trip price does not include the cost of transportation to and from the South Bass trailhead or the $25 fee to cross the Havasupi Reservation.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.

While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.

Sierra Club National Outings is an equal-opportunity provider and will operate under a permit from Grand Canyon National Park.



Dan Pettit has lived in the Chicago area for 18 years, affectionately known as the swamp given its flatness, but travels west at every opportunity to experience deep canyons and soaring peaks. An avid backpacker for 20 years, Dan became enamored with Sierra Club Outings program in 2006 and recently completed his 15th Sierra Club trip including leader training in July of 2010. Dan has a deep interest in and passion for the world’s diverse cultures having biked solo across Eastern Europe in the early 90s and trekked in Tibet and Nepal. His interests lie closer to home now as he looks forward to helping other explore North America’s natural wonders through Sierra Club outings to help protect and preserve these fragile places.


Vince Jones is a relatively recent convert to the splendors and adventure of the Southwest. He's led several trips in the Southwest, including trips from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to Thunder River, Deer Creek, and Kanab. Although Vince lives in Florida, he is a desert rat at heart. While he enjoys the physical demands of a backpack trip, he finds the beauty and tranquility of the wilderness and the camaraderie with other trip members especially rewarding.

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