Rock Garden - Grand Canyon Routes

Royal Arch Route Description

Report: 9-11 Apr 1993


A one-way route starting at Bass trailhead, down Royal Arch Canyon. Although shown as a route on information maps, it is not described in any hiking guide in its present form. A route information sheet is available from the NPS.

The Route

Bass to Upper Royal Arch

From the Esplanade junction along the Bass Trail, follow the Apache Point Trail west. Much of the way is very easy walking, but the route is broken up a little between Toltec Point and Montezuma Point.

Into Royal Arch

The descent route into Royal Arch seems to be evolving. The greatest sign of travel heads down at a large cairn in the drainage just before Point Huitzil. But the marked route from here just contours southwest into the next drainage, just above a fall. In this very wet year there was a flow of water here. Going down the bed, an unexpected bypass goes left just at the next, larger fall. Crawling under/over rocks along this level leads to an easy slope back to the bed. Travel is easy down the bed until a major fall in the Supai layer at the 4200 foot line. A good camp is located upstream from the fall at a wider area where a drainage comes in from the east; an agave pit sits atop the strip between the join. This could be an objective for the first day.

Supai Falls Traverse

At the fall, the traditional (once thought to be the only) bypass follows a shelf left to a narrow spot. This ten-foot section of missing ledge has a 50 foot exposure. But the approach to the traverse is easy and parallel cracks offer good footing with big handholds. I dreaded this spot, but, after roping packs across, had no difficulty. Some people report making a belay here, but without a good anchor this seems to make the traverse more dangerous than going free. There are two more boulders to climb around along the ledge, leading to a wider shelf and passing on to an easy descent slope. The new alternate way is hidden in the ledges and boulders of the opposite wall. There is no exposure here, just some awkward passage with a pack, and may actually be more time-consuming, but less risky.

Redwall and Temple Butte Narrows

The bed soon turns north and drops into the Redwall narrows (3800 foot). A small chockstone requires lowering packs and a short rope makes up for lack of holds here. The largest barrier occurs at the Temple Butte transition (3600 foot). A high, exposed bypass along the left wall leads to a steep downclimb back to the bed, but the rubble filled channel just left of the fall is a far easier and safer descent, and the pools are not deep (2 to 4 feet).

Royal Arch

Typical boulder-hopping continues until a large side-canyon enters on the right. Just below the junction is the exit route up the east slope. Following the bed down over a boulder pile and a recent fall of Muav slabs leads to a reliable spring where the Muav is exposed. A few minutes farther and the trickle flows under the huge arch and past a nearby tower of Muav layers cemented to a travertine cap. The topographic map offers no hint of the dimensions of the arch, tower, and awesome vertical drop into the depths of upper Elves Chasm. A secure campsite out of the drainage is located above the east buttress of the arch. A tiny window in the Redwall rim can been seen to the east.

Travertine Rappel

Returning to the exit route, a short but steep track goes up to the top of the Muav bench and follows the level to another view down on the arch and tower, and then out onto the travertine platform. A rock pile near the edge of the travertine cliff matches a bench-mark from the Matthes-Evans survey of the early 1900s. The area is level and suitable for camp. The track continues across the slope leading down to the lowest point on the cliff, opposite Explorers Monument fault. Misleading tracks may go farther east beyond the descent; the site of the rappel is the peak on the second 'N' in NATIONAL (Explorers Monument 7.5min).

From here the route descends quickly and doubles back under the cliff, then goes almost vertically down a crevice to a ledge about 5 feet wide. This is all on firm rock with large holds and no real exposure, but packs should be passed over the steepest part. At the end of the ledge is the 20 foot drop to the next level. Harvey B. describes a boulder on this ledge used as a rappel anchor, but a better anchor is in use now: a loop of travertine through which to pass a sling and rappel ring. Over 3 hours were spent passing packs, setting the rappel, making 10 rappels, and lowering packs, but organization was casual and the task a bit unfamiliar. A few packs were damaged by the hostile rock and lowering packs turned out to be more hazardous than the rappel.

As noted in GCT-III, rockclimber types are known to go up this 20 foot pitch.

To Riverbank

Some 400 feet of steep, but not difficult, descent ends at the mouth of the drainage below Toltec Point. Here the route meets the Elves Chasm extension to the Tonto Trail.


GCT-I describes a somewhat different approach to the upper basin. Descending from Apache Point and going down the Supai directly toward the Arch, this route then apparently follows the Redwall rim to the bed of the creek. Havasupai restrictions on travel in the Great Thumb area may have made this way obsolete, but in a wet year (water in upper Royal Arch) this trek could be done from the bottom up. It might even be possible to visit the Arch coming over from Bass and returning the same way, but it could be tricky going back up the drops in the narrows.

As noted earlier, the descent from the Apache Trail into the east end of upper Royal Arch seems lacking in definition and it seems doubtful that it is necessary to go so far south to follow the bed. A more direct route could probably be found and properly marked.

Finally, for the really ambitious, GCT-III describes an extremely obscure, "perfectly safe" native route near Point Huitzil complete with log ladders, petroglyphs, and moki steps.


Water before the spring near the Arch may be doubtful except in very wet years. However, carrying a day-and-a-half supply to start will avoid the possibility of any problems.


Route conditions are rugged and difficult to follow in spots. This is perhaps the most technical hiking route in the Canyon. Rope is required (70 foot served well) to pass packs across the traverse, and for the rappel. Mistakes could be fatal.


I have never seen another place in the Grand Canyon like this one. The deeper hard layers of the Supai sandstones extend the upper canyon channels and create unexpected barriers. The more extensive Temple Butte limestone in combination with the overlying Redwall and underlying Muav form a lengthy and interesting narrows. Both these features differentiate western Canyon geology from areas upriver and add interest to visiting this part. The Arch and fall into Elves Chasm are spectacular as well and rarely seen due to difficulty of access. Finally, the technical aspects of the route offer their own reward of accomplishment.

Reference Notes: Grand Canyon Treks (GCT) series by Harvey Butchart


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