Havasupai Indian Reservation, Arizona
If you enjoy scenic beauty, complete with towering red cliffs and spectacular waterfalls, than you must make the journey to Havasu Canyon. Located in one of the most remote and beautiful corners of the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Indian Reservation is the village of Supai, Arizona. This is your base for exploration of the canyon and its three fantastic waterfalls: Navajo, Havasu, and Mooney Falls. To get to Supai you must drive to Hualapai Hilltop which is located at the end of Route 18, 68 miles north of historic Route 66. Once at Hualapai Hilltop you still have 8 miles of traveling to get to Supai, but you are going to have to forget about driving from here on out. The 8 mile trail can only be navigated on foot, by horseback, or helicopter. We, of course, chose to hike the 8 miles of rugged terrain. Having already hiked South Kaibab Trail and Bright Angel Trail, both located within Grand Canyon National Park, we were prepared for a similar torturous, steep descent into the canyon; one that would fatigue every muscle to the nth degree, but happily this was not the case. Don’t get me wrong, the hike to Supai Village is no cake walk, but it was certainly no where near as taxing as the aforementioned trails. One decision that we made prior to hiking probably had a little bit to do with our comfort zone, and that was the decision to stay at the Havasupai Lodge. On previous canyon treks we had always camped, and of course that means carrying quite a few supplies. Loading a backpack with tent, sleeping bag, food, water, and whatever else desired, often means carrying around 45 pounds or more (especially with my camera gear added into the equation). That just didn’t sound appealing for this trip, so we opted to just grab a daypack, a few clothes, a camelback hydration system, and hit the trail.
We arrived at the Hualapai Hilltop parking lot at 11:16am and quickly began our hike. The wind was really whipping about on that blustery May 8th, and the temperature was unseasonably cold at 68 degrees. No matter, the sky was a beautiful blue and a few puffy white clouds dotted the scene. The trail starts out with a quick descent into the canyon via a series of switchbacks. In a little over a mile you will lose close to 1,000 feet in elevation, but the trail is not so steep that it is unbearable. In fact, it is really quite fun, kind of like the express route to the bottom. The wind was much better after dipping below the rim, but every once in awhile it would come ripping through the canyon sand-blasting everything in its path. Protecting my camera was no easy task, not to mention our attempts at shielding our faces from the onslaught. Nevertheless, the hike was fantastic. Beautiful canyon scenery abounds on the descent, and once you are at the bottom of the switchbacks you continue your journey by hiking along a wash. The beginning of the wash offers some incredible views of red rock country. All along the trail are huge sandstone boulders in varying shades of red, each one just begging to serve as the perfect lunch spot. Then the trail under foot soon turns from a sandy rock mixture to toe torturing gravel. You definitely want to have sturdy hiking shoes for this section of the trail. The further you get into the wash the less scenic the trail becomes, this isn’t because the surroundings aren’t beautiful, but more to do with the height of the canyon walls. You are now within a narrow canyon, thus lacking open vistas. At times this part of the hike can become monotonous, but just at the right moment a blooming cactus, soaring raven, or desert lizard catches your eye breaking up the boredom.
We were making good time on our hike, arriving at the 4 mile marker at 1:53pm. Several times along the way we were passed by mule trains carrying supplies or hiker’s packs on their way to the village. In addition, the roar of the helicopter would often break the silence as it made its way to Supai. All supplies to the village are transported by horse or helicopter, making the trail a rather busy place for such a remote area. But at least you always knew you were going in the right direction. The best part of the hike down comes when you get your first glimpse of Havasu Creek.; peeking out through green underbrush is a clear fast-flowing creek whose color is indescribable! The closest description would be to call it a turquoise color, but you just have to see it with your own eyes to appreciate the uniqueness of this water. The Native Americans who call this paradise home derived the name of their people from this wonder of nature. Havasuw Baaja or Havasupai, means “People of the Blue-Green Water”. And it wasn’t long before we came to a foot-bridge that crossed that blue-green water; bringing us even closer to Supai. It was such a relief when we spotted the first buildings of the village and the ever-present rock spires known as Wii’igliva, or the watchmen, because we knew our hike was coming to an end, and the adventure to the waterfalls would soon begin.
As we hiked into Supai the first place that caught our eye was the Sinyella Market where they advertised cold soda! We stopped in and bought three colas for $3.00…not a bad mark-up considering the effort it takes to get it to the bottom of the canyon, and boy was it cold! Second on our agenda was to get checked into the lodge, and everything went smoothly there and we were in our room by 4:00pm. The room was very rustic but nice. It consisted of one lamp on a nightstand, 2 chairs, 2 double beds, another nightstand and a bathroom with a warm shower; it even had heat/air conditioning. What more could you ask for? Satisfied with our room we rested our legs and doctored our feet for a few minutes, and then we decided it was time to head for Havasu Falls. It had taken us just under five hours to hike the eight miles to Supai, and there was still good light to be had for photographs of the falls. So off we went with great enthusiasm and anticipation. As I mentioned before, there are three waterfalls within the canyon and I am going to describe the hike to each one later in this journal. For congruity purposes the photo gallery for each section will appear below each break in the write-up, so let’s start with the photos from our hike down to the village.
We began our first hike to Havasu Falls at 5:19pm on May 8th, 2003. The splendor of Havasu Falls is just 2 miles from Supai, and along the way, at 1.5 miles in, you pass the trail that leads to Navajo Falls. Mooney Falls is the furthest away from the village at 3.0 miles, but our exploration of Navajo and Mooney Falls would come on our second day in the canyon, for now we just wanted to see Havasu Falls. You catch the trail that leads to the waterfalls by making a left at the village church, continue down the sandy road and you soon come to a fork in the trail where a sign advertising a “restaurant” is nailed to a tree. The eating place is known as the Lincoln Residence, and it truly is a local’s residence, where you can get great food including hamburgers, French fries, sodas, and a terrific item called a Supai taco that is made out of fry bread, refried beans, hamburger, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. To get to the Lincoln Residence take the left fork, cross the bridge, make another left down a trail and look for the house with the American flag out front. To continue on to the falls stay to the right at the fork. As you hike along you can hear the rush of Havasu Creek and you will cross it a few times on foot bridges. The views of the creek and the canyon walls are really spectacular along this trail. At 1.5 miles you will see a sign pointing to Navajo Falls and you can see the falls across the canyon in the distance. It isn’t far now to Havasu Falls; just past Navajo you start to descend a rocky trail that leads to the base of Havasu. You know you are close when a high cliff wall rises up on the left of the trail and a steep drop-off starts to come into view on your right, it is here that you get your first view of the falls. The site is truly jaw-dropping; the beauty of this waterfall is beyond words. All you can do is say “Wow!” over and over again. The strange travertine formations that make up the red wall behind the waterfall look like petrified curtains, and the white water of the falls drop 100 feet into a blue-green pool surrounded by lush trees, exquisite natural terraces, and a reddish-brown beach. It is in fact magnificent, and it only takes about 30 minutes to hike the 2 miles to the falls. Once at the base we set up the tripod and snapped some photos, then we picked a boulder to sit on and admire the fantastic scenery.
The next morning, after an interesting night in the lodge thanks to a resident scorpion (don’t worry, it just stayed on the curtain the whole night), we prepared for our hike back to the waterfalls. This time Navajo Falls was our first cascade to conquer. Finding the route that leads to the falls can be slightly confusing. The trailhead is plainly marked with a sign, but as you hike along the trail you need to pay attention or you will miss the side trail that leads down to the creek, if you miss the side trail you will continue along and end up back on the main trail to Havasu and Mooney Falls. The side trail is a steep, rocky, section that leads down to Havasu Creek. If you find your way to the creek your next question will be, “How do I get across this to the waterfall?” The answer is: you either ford the creek, and it is pretty deep and fast-moving in spots, or you locate the convenient fallen tree that serves as an excellent bridge. We decided to go the fallen tree route, but there are sections where the creek can be pretty easily crossed. The falls, as viewed from across the creek, appear to be a hidden treasure of beauty and wilderness. An entanglement of vines and branches obscure the view of Navajo Falls from the prying eye, but the area beckons to be explored. Pick was the first to cross the 30 feet over to the hidden paradise, and while she made her way across the log I photographed the experience. I watched with curiosity as she waded out onto the terraces into the turquoise water to film the scene. I wondered what she was seeing and decided it was time to find out for myself. Crossing the log with a backpack full of photo equipment made me think twice, but I thought what the hell, if I fall in I fall in! All I can say is that the risk was totally worth it! Once the view is no longer obscured by trees the true magnitude of this falls is revealed. Measuring in at 75 feet tall, Navajo Falls cascades down a red rock tower in several veil-like ribbons; each one ending in a deep pool forming a perfect swimming hole.
Mooney Falls is the third and furthest waterfall from Supai. If you want to see this 200 foot waterfall it requires a 6 mile roundtrip hike from the village, and a harrowing descent down the side of a cliff via travertine tunnels and chains bolted into the sheer face of the rock. You can see the waterfall from the rim above the cascade, but most people want a closer view. Pick led the way down through the travertine towards the man-made tunnels that would give us access to the base of the falls. I was fine with this whole process until I came to the chains; I took one look at the steep route and decided there was no way I was going to make it to the bottom. Pick, being the brave one, decided to push on. Unfortunately, I forgot to give her the camera, so we don’t have any pictures from the bottom, but here is how Pick describes the descent: “I decided to go down the chains facing the rock and the further I got the scarier it became due to the lack of foot holds. I think this was because I was just too short to reach them. I then came to a spot where I actually got stuck and had no idea how to get down any further. I was about to turn around when two guys were making their way towards me from the top, I got over as far as I could and they passed me by. They asked how I was doing and I told them I was at a loss of how to get down, so they helped me by pointing out where to put my feet. To get to the foot hold I literally had to just grab the chain and slide down the face of the cliff until my foot hit the right spot. After I had managed to get past that point it was just a few feet to the wooden ladder that led to the bottom. Coming back up was much easier and even though it was a scary experience I would do it again.” Once Pick managed to climb back up the chains I asked her what she thought of my staying behind, and she agreed that it was probably a good idea. I have a pretty healthy fear of heights while Pick does not, but she even conceded that her fear factor was up pretty high. That made me feel a little better about wimping out, but now I wish I would have just toughed it out….maybe next time.
Staying in the village of Supai for a few days was a really neat experience, it was cool to have a room where you could relax after your hike, and there was also a courtyard with picnic tables where you could sit in the sun. We met several people during our stay and it was a great pleasure to get to know them for a brief period of time. The local kids are very curious and they loved my camera equipment, I let a few of them hold my camera and look through the eye-piece; they were fascinated by the zoom lens. One boy, whose name was Red, even took a pretty descent picture of yours truly. We were also lucky enough to meet another group of five hikers who were staying at the lodge; Mike, Lisa, Anita, Tinker, and Eti even shared a table with us at the Lincoln Residence where we were able to compare hiking adventures. It was really fun talking with them and sharing experiences; we always meet the nicest people on our adventures.
Our adventure was coming to a close and it was time to think about the 8 mile hike out of the canyon. At this point in our trip we had already hiked about 18 miles and my feet, as usual, were pretty torn up with blisters. The thought of hiking out on that pointy gravel was enough to make me wince, so much so that we considered taking the helicopter back to the rim. It is only a 10 minute flight from Supai to Hualapai Hilltop, and that sounded a lot better then a five hour hike on injured feet. Unfortunately, we missed the last flight out of the canyon by about 5 minutes! Oh well, we are Natural Born Hikers after all…better live up to that title! The night before our hike out Anita and Tinker were kind enough to make sure that I had enough mole skin to doctor my feet, I assured them I was prepared and thanked them for their offer. The next morning, after a restful night’s sleep (the scorpion was gone), at 7:48am we dropped our room key in the night box and headed out on our return journey. We had read that it takes about 5 hours to get back to the top, but we were determined to go as fast as we possibly could, and we did a pretty good job arriving at the rim at 11:30am, just 3.5 hours after leaving. Pick actually made it to the top in 3 hours and 15 minutes, but she walked back down a couple of switchbacks and relieved me of my pack…what a great friend! We hiked the rest of the way together and then took one last look back into the canyon before heading to the car, it had been a great vacation and we are planning to return someday. If you have a chance to hike Havasu Canyon don’t hesitate to do it, you won’t be disappointed.