South Bass, Royal Arch, and Elves Chasm Epic, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14169A, Backpack


  • Explore places of the Grand Canyon that are not usually frequented by backpackers
  • Hike to Elves Chasm without packs on a layover day


  • Camping near water every night
  • All meals from dinner on day one, and a possible cache along the way


DatesSep 26–Oct 3, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffBert Fingerhut

Trip Overview

Please note that the trip dates have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.

The Trip

Descending into the Aztec Amphitheatre via the South Bass Trail, we will explore the Royal Arch drainage. On our third afternoon we will reach “Toltec Beach,” where we will have a layover day. On our layover day we will day hike (without packs) downstream to explore Elves Chasm. Continuing upstream on the following day, partly on the Tonto Platform, we will camp at Copper Canyon, then move on to the South Bass drainage and eventually ascend the South Bass Trail to the rim.

This is a marvelous, roughly circular trip, part of which will explore places that are not usually frequented by backpackers. We will camp near water every night and we are hopeful that we can arrange to get a cache put in by a river company so our initial loads will be lighter.


The itinerary requires flexibility due to issues regarding permitting, terrain, weather, etc. Participant safety will be the first priority.

Day 1: We will meet at the McDonalds parking lot in Tusayan, Arizona, the gateway town outside the main entrance to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at roughly noon. McDonalds is on the right side of the road as you come from the south. You need to have a car lunch (or have eaten lunch) and have personal snacks for the ride out to the trailhead as the first Sierra Club meal will be dinner that night. Please have most of your water bottles filled.

It will take a couple of hours to get to the trailhead near where we will spend the night. This will require high-clearance vehicles.

Day 2: Our backpack starts right after breakfast as we descend the South Bass Trail to the Esplanade. After some zigzagging, we will arrive at the initial Supai ledges in the Royal Arch drainage, where we expect to find water. This will be our camp for the night.

Day 3: We will get an early start and head downstream. If you read some old trip reports on the internet there is a very exposed and crazy ledge that is talked about in the lower Supai ledges. We will be able to bypass this spot as in the last few years a new way has been found to circumvent it.  Depending upon the water conditions in the lower part of the Royal Arch drainage, this is a relatively easy day. As we descend, we will encounter boulders, ledges and narrow obstacles -- some that we will have to overcome as a group -- but this will add to the adventure we will share together. We will camp under Royal Arch, which is truly amazing.

Day 4: Backtracking upstream to a well-used trail, we'll eventually get to a 25-foot cliff that we will have to descend. It is easily “protected” and everyone will be lowered or can down-climb while being fully tied in and belayed by the trip leader. This will take a couple of hours. We then hike another hour to the Colorado River at a beach called Toltec. Toltec Beach is not named on the topo maps, but it is the beach at the river that descends from Toltec Point (on the South Rim). If things work out, we will hopefully have a cache of food waiting for us.

Day 5: This is a layover day with an optional day hike to Elves Chasm (one of the wonders of Grand Canyon) and an exciting exploration of Elves. It takes a little more than an hour to hike down to the mouth of Elves from our camp at Toltec Beach. Elves has the oldest exposed rocks in Grand Canyon. Late in the day, we will return to Toltec, where we will spend a second night.

Day 6: We will backpack upstream, leaving the river at Garnet Canyon as we climb above the tapeats formation to the start of what is called the Tonto Plateau and the Tonto Trail. We will hike to Copper Canyon, where we will camp.

Day 7: Today we will hike into the South Bass drainage. We will camp away from the river, but we will day hike (optional) to the South Bass beach after we reach our camp. Where we specifically camp will depend upon water conditions.

Day 8: With an early start, we will hike roughly 2,000 feet up to the Esplanade, which we'll cross. From there, our ascent is roughly 1,500 feet to our vehicles at the top of the South Bass trailhead. We should arrive at our vehicles by 1 p.m. and be back in Tusayan a few hours later.



Getting There

The closest major airport is Phoenix, but there are also frequent flights from Phoenix to Flagstaff (which is two hours closer to our meeting place than Phoenix). The trip leader has found that he can often get cheaper flights from San Francisco to Flagstaff -- with a plane change in Phoenix -- than just a direct flight to Phoenix.

Accommodations and Food

At our first dinner on Friday night, the trip leaders will put out a selection of trail mix, energy bars, Gatorade, and chocolate-covered almonds for personal snacks on the trip. We will have plenty of zip-lock bags for your personal use. It will be a “take what you want” table for the week. The leaders will distribute water purification tablets at the beginning of the trip to purify your drinking water.

Pre-dinner appetizer:

We are requesting that each trip member bring along an appetizer for the entire group for one meal. We encourage everyone to use their imagination, but possible appetizers include different kinds of mixed and flavored nuts, Corn Nuts, Pringles, specialty canned fishes with crackers, etc.  Please do not bring anything in glass. We will consume these appetizers as we gather around waiting for dinner to be prepared. (Some of our group may even be consuming private beverages brought especially for this time of day.) Appetizer quantity should be limited: this is not a replacement for dinner. This will result in different appetizers before each dinner.

Trip Difficulty

This is an adventure with obstacles and there is some exposure on this trip and those with a fear of height need to talk with the leader. While previous Grand Canyon experience is not a prerequisite for this trip, it would be helpful. And certainly, trip participants must carefully and honestly understand their abilities as leaving the trip in the middle would be extremely difficult.

As with any backpacking trip, you should be in good physical condition before attempting the trip. Aerobic conditioning is a huge plus. You should have experience adapting to the unexpected. We will have large elevation gains and losses. Based on mileage (not a very useful guide for telling you much about a trip in canyon country) and terrain and time on the trail each day, this is not an extremely hard trip and the leader strives to get everyone into camp by midafternoon each day.

The thing that makes this trip more difficult is that there is considerable exposure and extreme caution will be necessary during the first couple of days.

Equipment and Clothing

We will likely have several stream crossings as we descend deeper into the Royal Arch drainage, so lightweight water/beach shoes may be helpful. You need to have the capacity to carry five quarts of water. If your have a dromedary bag, please bring it. A very lightweight day pack for the layover day and the hike to Elves Chasm will also be useful. If you have a climbing sit-harness, please let the trip leader know.



The following USGS 7.5 maps cover our trip: Explorers Monument and Havasupai Point. Maps can be purchased from Map Express 800-627-0039 or

If you want to learn about using GPS backcountry navigation, please bring your GPS. Additionally, there are iPhone apps (that probably work on other smart phones) that let you download individual 7.5 minute maps and can tell you exactly where you are. The specific maps must be downloaded prior to your going into the wilderness via a Wi-Fi connection. The trip leader uses the Endicott Topo Map App on his iPhone and finds it fun and useful (he also brings a small four-ounce GPS).


  • Ranney, Wayne, Carving Grand Canyon. Grand 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 Geology. Grand 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 Ecology. Grand Canyon Association, 1996. A brief primer on the complex web of life in the Canyon.
  • Coder, Christopher M., An Introduction to Grand Canyon Prehistory. Grand Canyon Association, 2006. A short overview of the early people of the Grand Canyon area.
  • Huisinga, Ann, Lori Makarick & Kate Watters, River and Desert Plants of the Grand Canyon. Mountain Press Publishing, 2006.



There are numerous conservation issues regarding the Grand Canyon and the surrounding area: among others, these include noise from sightseeing aircraft, air quality over the park, uranium mining threats, operation of  the Glen Canyon Dam and its effect on downstream resources (beaches, endangered fish, etc.), visitor management (including backcountry use) and, most recently, a proposed tramway from the rim on the Navajo Reservation down to the beach where the Little Colorado River joins the Colorado River.

The Sierra Club, along with its conservation partners, has a long and extremely strong and impressive history of protecting the natural and historic cultural values of Grand Canyon; we will talk about some of these issues.

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.



Bert Fingerhut’s first encounter with Grand Canyon was over 40 years ago and he has been leading National Sierra Club Outings in Grand Canyon and Southern Utah for 30 years. He admits to having spent over 700 nights beneath the rim of Grand Canyon and has travelled widely in other remote wilderness areas. He has extensive experience with outdoor wilderness medicine (past wilderness EMT) and wilderness search and rescue (a member of Mt Rescue Aspen for close to 20 years). He also served as a director of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). He has been active in conservation issues around the Colorado Plateau for much of his adult life and is a past Board member of several national and regional conservation organizations. Bert currently lives in Palo Alto, California.


Mike Wise participated on several Sierra Club Trips into the Grand Canyon, which inspired him to become a Sierra Club Leader. He led the North Bass trip last year in the Canyon. Mike was on one of the exploratory trips with Barry to develop this route in the fall of 2010. He looks forward to the reward of helping others experience the same joys of backpacking he experienced and the importance of preserving our wilderness areas. Mike is from the Midwest and had completed the Sierra Club National Outings Training Program and is certified as a Wilderness First Responder (WFR).

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