the Grand Tour

with Joe Hudson

Early morning in Grapevine Canyon. March 1995.

Why backback the canyon?

Well, why not? Just a few of the things you will do if you go:

Get stabbed in the shin by an agave plant. Lose the trail. Scrub your Sierra cup clean with sand. Pop a blister. Dig a hole and defecate. Watch the bats flit around at dusk. Worry about those clouds rolling in. Take an afternoon nap beside a stream. Wonder how you'll ever make it back to the top. Watch little lizards scurry about.

Check under rocks for scorpions. Wonder how bad you smell. Tell stories at night. Run out of liquor halfway through the trip. Get sunburned. Eat more dried fruit than you thought possible. Hike by moonlight. Crave a cheeseburger, or a Coke. Reorganize your pack, again. Smell the sagebrush. Smell a skunk. Look for water. Pump water. Boil water. Drink water. Ignore the book you brought.

Marvel at a twisted old juniper. Slide off your sleeping pad in the middle of the night. Study the habits of a pair of ravens. Explore a side canyon. Get rained on. Flick ticks off your clothing. Put off getting up to pee at night. Watch for rafters, who might give you a beer.

Wish for a patch of shade along the Tonto Trail. Wonder if you're lost. Lay your gear out to dry. Look and listen for rattlesnakes. Eat cheese that has turned greasy. See cactuses in bloom. Get sand inside your camera. Wade in the cold, cold river. Watch the stars come out. Hear and owl hoot and a coyote howl. Forget that you really live somewhere else.

Jessica; Lloyd; Barb; and Stan at Hance Rapids. March 1990.

Meet the Grand Canyon Junkies

It all started in August 1972 when, fresh out of high school, I hiked to the bottom of the canyon because a buddy of mine wanted to. Three and a half years later, I returned with a different friend, Jim. The next year, Jim returned with his friend Stan. The year after that, Jim, Stan and I all went, and this whole thing was already snowballing.

Backpacking the canyon is now an annual spring rite for several of us. Stan has done it 16 times, even though he has never lived within a thousand miles of the place. I am not far behind, with 13-rim-to-river hikes. There are others who are just as hopelessly hooked. Some of the regulars:

  • Stan. Periodontist and hockey player in Eugene, Ore. Deft hands are good for tying knots and rolling cigarettes for others in group. Eats alfalfa pellets to help his arthritic right hip.
  • Barb. Dental hygienist and speed-skater in Eugene. Became Stan's wife in ceremony on South Rim in 1993. Entertains group by reading cowboy poetry and old trail journals.
  • Marlene. Dental hygienist and runner in Eugene. Former GI; hikes in her old Army boots with new Vibram soles. Wants to hike Zion next year instead of the canyon -- say what?
  • Lloyd. Insurance agent and triathlete in Aurora, Colo. Brother of Stan and dedicated father of four girls, one of whom hiked the Escalante Route with us when she was just 10.
  • Loretta. Dental assistant and mom in Eugene (yes, a whole lot of flossing goes on when this group gets together). Most-improved hiker in 1995 -- we ate her dust on the Tonto Trail.
  • Jim. Educator in Lincoln, Neb., and Junkie emeritus. Hasn't hiked with us since '86 but was a key force in early years. Founded annual University of Nebraska canyon trip in '78.

crude canyon map

Grand Canyon Map

Trailside scenes and notes

South Bass-Royal Arch Route

The Royal Arch; the blue speck is Barb. March 1994.

    It takes a four- to six-night trip in order to comfortably complete this 45-mile loop. Two factors make this a tricky route: the often-impassable road west to the South Bass trailhead, where this route begins, and the need to rappel during your descent. Your reward, though, is the spectacular lower Royal Arch Canyon, one of the most beautiful places in the canyon we've been.

    Unlike most other canyon routes, this one does not make a beeline down to the river. That was a relief for our aging muscles and joints when Barb, Stan and I did this route in March 1994. You descend the South Bass Trail for only about 1,200 of vertical descent, then exit onto the level and scenic Esplanade trail and head west to Royal Arch Canyon. The map that comes with the Backcountry Trip Planner shows where the trail enters Royal Arch Canyon. Be sure you mark the spot on whatever map you carry with you. We didn't, and we wasted 90 minutes trying to descend the wrong arm of Royal Arch Canyon.

    The trail down Royal Arch Canyon generally stays in the dry streambed, but the route is indistinct and difficult. You're boulder-hopping, not hiking, much of the way, and finding a safe passage often took extra time. At several points we had to stop to hand down each other's packs. Then we hit the really dicey part -- one we weren't expecting. The route description from the backcountry office says that "a large drop blocks the way. This can be passed on the left side via a trail with some exposed climbing. A belay may be desirable."

    "May be desirable"? Unless you can cling to rock like a lizard, you should instead take the advice someone scratched in the rock at this point: "No gear -- Don't go." One slip, and you fall 30 feet straight down. After much discussion, we got out the ropes we'd brought for the next day's scheduled rappel and did an unscheduled one here. Someone's going to die at this point unless the Park Service revises its route description. We've brought this up with the backcountry office, to no avail.

    Colorado River at Royal Arch Canyon. March 1994.

    A few hours farther down, the trail leaves Royal Arch Canyon about two miles short of the Colorado River. A huge cairn marks the eastward exit. But don't leave Royal Arch Canyon just yet: A side hike down to the arch is a must. Follow the drainage about three-quarters of a mile. Just short of the arch, the canyon narrows and the creek emerges from the ground, creating a lush, green oasis where you'll want to stay awhile. The arch is not far from the river and Elves Chasm, but a 200-foot dropoff blocks the way. So back up the drainage you must go to the exit point.

    The trail climbs out of Royal Arch Canyon and onto the Tonto Plateau. A rappel of less than 20 feet is required in the cliffs on the way down to the river. The trail reaches the river at the Toltec drainage, which is a good camping spot. An extra night here will allow you an easy day hike west to the pools and waterfalls of Elves Chasm, which is off-limits to camping. It's about an hour-long hike each way. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the jagged travertine limestone boulders you come in contact with along the way. And take a water bag to stock up on creek water; unless it has rained recently, you'll probably be drinking river water at Toltec.

    The Tonto Trail east of Garnet Canyon. March 1994.

    The hike east to Bass Canyon is typical Tonto Trail hiking: into a side canyon, then out onto the plateau. Side canyon, plateau; side canyon, plateau; over and over again. The plateau, with its broad vistas and stunning views of the Colorado River more than a thousand feet below, is as rewarding as the side canyons are grueling. Eventually, you reach Bass Canyon for the climb back up to the South Rim. Pray that it hasn't rained up top during your stay, because the road through Pasture Wash can swallow up jeeps when it's muddy.


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