Havasupai Falls | Arizona
“No! I can handle it myself!” proclaimed a girl in her late twenties. She was referring to her backpack, the size you would carry if you were to going to school for a day of class. Dangling from one of the straps was a stuffed animal. She was wearing cut-off jean shorts and a tank top. In one hand she held a lit ciggy, in the other, a disposable plastic water bottle. Her feet sported some old tennis shoes. I looked down at my own attire. Over the ankle hiking boots, two layers of socks (a liner and hiking socks), North Face capris, a quick-dry t-shirt, a 45 liter pack filled with gear, food, and two full 32 oz. Nalgenes. Either I was overdressed or she wasn’t going to make it.
Before any hiking began, we needed to arrive at the trailhead. Lacking a car large enough or sturdy enough to transport six adults plus backpacks to the Havasupai Reservation in northern Arizona, I had made reservations to rent a van. When we went to go pick up this practical and totally hip vehicle at the car rental place, there were only three cars in the lot, and none of them were vans. I walked in the rental building with my husband, Kelly, and my friend, Libby, interested to see where our van would come from. We filled out our paperwork and then the employee left to bring the car around. As he walked out the back door, another employee leaned over the counter to Kelly, as if to tell him a secret, and said, “_______ wanted to surprise you, but we had to give the van to a different location early this morning and they never replenished our stock. You’re getting an ESCALADE! Act surprised when he brings it around!” We would be driving an ultra-luxurious $50,000 vehicle with huge rims to go rough it in the bush. We laughed at the mismatch and blared rap music as we exited the parking lot.
To arrive at the trailhead in time to complete the 11-mile hike to the campground before nightfall, we left at 4:00am and ended up arriving around 11:00am. The last hour of the drive is through the Havasupai Indian reservation, on a newly paved winding road. There is no cell phone reception and car GPSs have no idea where you are. If you were to run out of gas or water, you would be at the mercy of passersby. We braked for a snake and a couple of malnourished horses. The road ends at a large parking lot on the side of a canyon wall. Parking spots were few and people were many. The packhorses and mules filed in and out of the trailhead; stray dogs wandered from group to group looking for shade, water, food, or attention. We waited for someone to leave, parked and began to make final preparations for the hike - sunscreen, bathroom and food distribution between packs.
With our final adjustments in place and the food distributed somewhat evenly between the people in our group, we snapped a photo and headed down the ledge, trekking down the switchbacks for about a mile to the bottom of the canyon.
A horse/donkey/mule train passed us about every half hour. Each time we’d move to the side of the trail, cover our faces with our shirts to avoid the dust and then continue on. The beasts of burden carried less committed hikers’ belongings down to the campground for them. Seeing one donkey’s butt rubbed to the point of bleeding by the strap that secured the goods on its back confirmed we had made the right decision to carry our own belongings.
The sun beat down on us. The sand beneath our boots surrendered to our weight with each step, demanding our legs to exert more effort to take the next step. It only took about two miles before we decided to stop under an overhang and rest to refuel our bodies with more-healthy-than-delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I gulped down half a Nalgene to help my saliva digest the 50 grain bread.
There we were, in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a canyon. Only a helicopter flying overhead interrupted the silence of the wilderness. With my backpack resting on a slanted rock behind me, I gazed up the side of the canyon wall opposite us. Hundreds of layers of sedimentary rock built upon each other over thousands of years to create the grand wall before me. The deep rust of the rocks contrasted with the sharp, clear blue sky.
The canyon walls eventually granted us shade, blocking the sun as it made its rotation in the sky. We welcomed the premature dusk, but also quickened our pace so that we wouldn’t have to set up camp in the dark. After eight miles of hiking, we heard water. We saw small streams first and then irrigation canals. We knew we were close when we saw a sign for “the village”, which is two miles from the campground. In addition to the shade, the trail to the village offered vegetation. Huge green cottonwoods and tall grasses lined the path. We had arrived at the oasis.
We easily found the visitor center and checked in. Thankfully, they take credit cards, so there is no real need to carry in cash. They gave us each a neon orange tag for our backpacks as proof that we had paid for two nights stay at the campground. Employees of the park patrol the campgrounds regularly so I would advise against trying to mooch a free night’s stay!
Many of the residents of Havasupai village have horses, mules or donkeys. The protruding ribs and spines of these horses, mules and donkeys were a bit of a shock to me. I quickly realized that these hoofed beasts were not pets; they were alive for a purpose and that purpose was work. Havasupai, in this regard, is quite like a resort location. It is stunningly beautiful and at the same time the lives of the locals and the lives of the tourists contrast starkly. However, in Havasupai, there are no fancy resorts for the tourists in which to recede. Quite the contrary, one must walk directly through the middle of the village in order to arrive at the falls.
If you’ve ever hiked to a waterfall before, you know that you hear the falls before you see them. Being someone who struggles to enjoy the journey instead of the destination, the noise of crashing water is a welcome indicator that I have almost accomplished the goal. On hikes with no waterfalls, the arrival is anticlimactic in comparison. I don’t know that I am getting close, there may be false summits, and I have to mentally push myself to the finish. With a waterfall, I have a cheerleader that roars louder and louder as I approach. And in Havasupai, the falls awarded me with breathtaking turquoise blue waters thundering over rust colored rocks to pools below.
The trail takes everyone first to New Navajo Falls, then Havasu Falls and at the very end of the campground is Mooney Falls. Honestly, by the time we arrived to New Navajo Falls, we were exhausted and ready for dinner, except for the fact that we were going to have to prepare it ourselves. It was in passing New Navajo Falls that I thought, “I should have trained more. Or packed less. Or both.” The fifteen steps it would have required to leave the trail and take a photo of New Navajo Falls were just too much at that point. Anyway, I knew New Navajo Falls were not the headliner.
We reached Havasu Falls a half a mile or so later. Again we heard the rushing water and then to our right, the earth dropped off abruptly, the trail narrowing, and we saw Havasu Falls dropping into the crater below us. Now this was worth taking a picture. Sweaty and with low light, we all took turns taking pictures of each other with the falls as our backdrop.
Another half a mile and we made it! Newly energized by the beauty of the falls, I jogged through camp scouting for a flat area to set up our three tents. There are three awesome things about camping in Havasu Canyon: 1) Almost all of the campgrounds have Havasu Creek bordering one side or the other, 2) Most campsites host picnic tables (what a luxury for all of us backpackers!) 3) Fern Spring offers treated spring water for all who have made the journey down. There is no need to bring a water purifier or iodine tablets – this spring water is waterfalls better than what you could get on tap in Phoenix.
While jogging with my 40 lb. backpack still on, I happened to catch the eye of a ranger. “Hey!” he yelled out, “the best camping spot here is still available. It’s down there, almost to Mooney Falls. Go check it out!”
‘Yes!’ I thought. I hollered a “thanks” and picked up my pace to a gallop. I saw a couple across the creek who had obviously also heard the rangers advice and it was a race. The only advantage I had was that I was already on the same side of the creek as the campsite. With only enough energy left to win, I found it. I triumphantly laid down my bag and waited for my fellow beyond ordinaries to arrive. I triumphantly sighed - relieved, exhausted and content.
Tomorrow would only bring more adventures and exploration. The important thing was that we made it. And surprisingly, so did the girl with the stuffed animal attached to her backpack.
Cost to Camp: $35.00 per person entrance fee; $17.00 per person per night to camp. These costs double if you do not have a reservation – while it is great to be spontaneous while traveling, you’re better off planning ahead on this one! Our cost (2 nights camping): $69.00 per person.
WHAT TO BRING
Water bottle (2 L min pp)
Hat with brim
Ziploc for trash
WHEN TO GO
Spring or early fall
WHAT TO READ BEFORE YOU GO
what to watch before you go
(2007) starring Nicholas Cage, Julianne Moore and Jessica Biel. Why? Because it's a Nick Cage film which will provide quotable entertainment during your 11 mile hike in and part of it was filmed on location in the Havasupai Indian Reservation.