Havasupai – Paradise Found
Havasupai. That beautiful desert oasis with the turquoise waterfalls. It’s been on my must-see-soon list since I first saw pictures of it on the Yonder app last year. I had an opportunity to go there last November with a college group but the logistics just didn’t work out for me then. So when my friend Bonnie asked me if I’d be interested in going there this year I was super excited to try and make it happen. I looked for plane tickets to Vegas to see if I could make something work for Spring break while my kids would be away visiting their mother in Florida and immediately jumped on a great deal on United to Las Vegas. Only problem was we didn’t have reservations for the campground there yet and they wouldn’t start taking them until February 1st.
Now if you know me, I’m a planner. I don’t usually like to fly by the seat of my pants. Especially when it involves travelling across the country. I like to make sure I have everything planned out and lined up before I start booking things. But the airfare was too good to pass up and I was too excited about finally being able to visit Havasupai to let my normal logic prevail. On February 1st I tried to call the Havasupai Tourism Office to make a reservation. So did thousands of other people. So I tried again. And again. And again. For 3 days straight. I saw some others posting on FB that they had gotten through and made their reservations. Day 1 went by and still no luck. Day 2 was more of the same. I was starting to get nervous. I had a very limited window to visit there because of the plane tickets and because I needed to be back in time to get my kids from their flights.
But I kept calling. Sometime in the morning on Day 3 I was finally able to get through, while driving of course. I was so shocked at first that I finally got through after about 1,000 calls that I almost forgot what I was calling for! So I quickly pulled my Jeep over and asked if they had any availability for my dates, and to my great surprise and relief they did! I was able to make a reservation for 6 and was totally stoked to be going!
We arrived at the Hualapai Hilltop parking area around 4pm and started to prepare for the 10+ mile hike down to the Havasupai campground. It had already been a long day, as most of us were up well before 2am (3 time zones ahead of where we were now) in order to catch our early morning flights to Las Vegas. Fortunately, our new friends Chris and Shaun were able to meet us at the airport and drive the 5 hours through the desert, but even with being able to relax in the truck we were all too excited for our upcoming hike to get any sleep. We loaded up our gear, took a few pictures from the top, downed some Monster energy drinks, and were finally headed off towards Havasupai.
The first mile or so is pretty steep and runs along a series of switchbacks before reaching the bottom of the canyon. Once down, it is a relatively easy walk along a gently sloping grade in most places. I tried to keep a good pace as I was eager to make it to the village before the visitor center closed at 8pm. I was hoping to be able to get checked in when we arrived instead of having to make the 5 mile roundtrip back there from the campground in the morning.
We took a 10 minute break every 2 miles or so and kept pushing on at a pretty strong pace. Everyone in the group was experienced backpackers and endurance athletes (Matt had just completed the 70+ mile Spartan Death race the week before!!), except for my 20 year old niece, Rachel. This was her first backpacking trip and she definitely hadn’t done the training that I recommended she do leading up to it. But she more than held her own as she kept up with me in the lead and didn’t complain a bit. We were maybe halfway there when the light started to fade and we broke out our headlamps. I love how the colors change in the canyons when the sun rises and sets.
It was fully dark by the time we neared the village. I knew we weren’t going to make it to the visitor center before it closed and the pace had slowed a bit by now and it was apparent that everyone in the group was getting tired. Rachel and I continued along up ahead as she was desperate for a toilet, which she didn’t make and had to go along the side of the road leading into the village, which, of course, was now only about 5 minutes more away. I laughed and handed her a Ziploc bag and some wipes to clean it up. Welcome to backpacking, Rachel!
We stopped for a good 15 minute rest at the first house inside the village. The owner was kind enough to welcome us and to let us use his picnic table to take a much needed break. He said it was too bad that we came in at night and weren’t able to see how pretty their home of Havasupai was while walking in. He was right, and we wouldn’t fully realize what we initially missed until we hiked back up the next morning. The rest of the hike down to the campground was the most difficult for us. We had pushed hard to reach the village and after making it there the adrenaline seemed to finally wear off for all of us and the exhaustion began to fully set in. The next 2.5 miles were a grueling downhill plod on tired legs through the sandy roads and trails leading down to the campground. As we trudged along we could hear the sounds of the river and the waterfalls off to the sides of us but we weren’t able to see any of it in the darkness.
When we finally reached the campground we desperately looked for someplace to setup camp for the night. All of the sites that we could see in the beginning of the campground were occupied and as we made our way further in it didn’t get any better. Finally we found a pair nestled up on a little slope that would fit the two tents and two hammock campers and we quickly went to work setting up camp. It was now after 10pm and we were spent. We choked down some protein bars and trail mix as no one felt like cooking a meal. I stopped a group of campers that were passing by to ask where the nearest restroom was. They were a bit disoriented in the dark, but figured the nearest one was over the river and through the woods and they kindly walked us over to it. Which wasn’t all that easy to find when we woke up in the middle of the night to use it again. Turns out, there was one maybe 50 steps from our campsite in the opposite direction that we easily saw once the sun came up. But I suppose that’s the price you pay for setting up camp in the dark.
The next morning we woke up and could start to see how beautiful, and how peaceful, Havasupai was. We made breakfast and then went to scout out a more suitable campsite. I found a perfect spot along the river and the guys with their hammocks found one a little further up that they wanted to use. So we picked up our tents and carried them across the river to the new sites.
I’ve camped in a lot of really pretty places before but this spot was off the charts gorgeous. It sits right along Havasu Creek near this super cool little foot bridge. There were two trees perfect for hanging my ENO Doublenest Hammock and plenty of space for the tent and it even had two picnic tables. My only regret was not being able to spend more time here as I was off adventuring so much that I hardly got to enjoy the campsite.
After we had the sites set back up we started our hike back up to the Supai village. The wind was really beginning to pick up now and the forecast was calling for 50mph gusts. There were a whole bunch of campsites that had just gotten totally trashed by the wind. We stopped to right the first few tents that we came across and to better secure them and the gear that we could gather up as much as possible. But then we hit some of the group sites that were part of some guided tours and just gave up as there was just too many of them flown all over the place. I would seriously expect a guided tour to be better prepared for the wind. One of the things that I noticed was all of the tents that were blown around had been using the cheap and flimsy tent stakes that come with the tent. They are all but useless in the wind, especially in sand. They are also garbage when trying to hammer into rocky soil as they just bend in half on you. The first thing that I do when I buy a new tent is replace the stakes with MSR Groundhogs. I’ve been using those for a few years now and have never had one break or bend and have never had one come loose. Needless to say, our camp held up to the crazy high winds just fine throughout our stay.
When we made it back out of the campground we started the climb up to the village and that’s when we got our first real glimpse of the magnificence that is Havasupai. Havasu Falls is just a short hike up from the entrance to the campground and when you come up over the rise and are able to take in the view it will absolutely take your breath away.
“What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The rest of the hike up to the village had more views of Havasu Creek and a bunch of smaller, but beautiful in their own right, waterfalls, including the Little Navajo Falls. There were a bunch of people jumping off of the cliffs and swimming here and I would have loved to join them but we had to get up to the village and check in.
When we made it up to the Supai village everyone was in the mood for a cold drink and some snacks. The Havasupai Trading Company is the village’s little general store and here you can buy whatever staples you need for your trip, including Monster energy drinks, sandwiches, and even ice cream bars. They’ve also got some patches and postcards for souvenirs and the people working behind the counter are very friendly. There’s a small café across the way with public restrooms and more prepared food and drink available as well. Make sure you stop in and say hello and purchase something, as the tourism industry is the primary means of earning a living in Supai.
After breaking for a snack and checking our messages and social media, since the village is the only place with any reception, we got ourselves checked in and headed back down to the campground. We had barely left the village when I got a call for work that I had to take so everyone went on ahead without me. I hate having to take calls when I’m adventuring but it does pay the bills after all and it also gave me the ability to stop and take some more photos on the way back without holding up the rest of the group. When I got back to the campground I found that the squirells had gotten into my pack and gorged themselves on a good portion of my food including all of my tortillas, a pound of trail mix, and a few cliff bars. Fortunately they didn’t get into my dehydrated meals or my protein bars. So it wasn’t a devastating loss, but a good reminder that the squirrels can be just as troublesome as bears. So I handled them the same way I handle the bears and threw some paracord over a branch to “bear bag” my backpack. I was more annoyed with myself, as I should have known better, than with the squirrels, although they did eat all of my peanut butter M&M’s. I joined the others for lunch and warned them about the squirrels (who would later attack Bonnie’s pack in the other campsite twice) and then we all headed down to Mooney Falls.
Mooney Falls is about a half a mile north of the campground and used to be called End Falls as it marked the traditional end of the Havasupai reservation because no one could find their way past it. It is now named after a miner who fell to his death here in 1882 before they were able to blast out some tunnels and set iron spikes in the cliff side. The climb down is still rather nerve wracking as it is very steep and the spray from the waterfall makes everything slick and you need to scurry down on your backside in places and climb down wooden ladders in others, all while holding onto the metal chains that are tied into the cliffs. It is definitely not for the faint of heart or those with a serious case of acrophobia. But it is doable for most, and my niece, who has a healthy fear of heights, but not a debilitating one, made it through just fine.
The waterfall is absolutely amazing! It was too cold for us to really play in the water for more than a minute or two but it was well worth it. There’s a couple of picnic tables down here, including one in the water in front of the falls and another fully submerged a little downstream of them.
Make sure you take the time to explore the area below the falls. The creek splits in two here and both sides are worth exploring. There are some really cool limestone features and smaller falls to the right hand side and the trail to Beaver Falls runs down the left hand side when facing out from Mooney Falls.
It was getting late and we were all hungry so we headed back up to camp for dinner. I had brought a couple of homemade dehydrated meals with me including chili, fajitas, and breakfast burritos. They all turned out great and I was super excited to be getting some more use out of my dehydrator. After dinner we played a long game of Cards Against Humanity that Chris had carried down with him, which had us all cracking up hysterically throughout the evening. It was definitely a great addition to the trip. After the game we headed to bed to get ready for another long day of exploring the many wonders of Havasupai.
The next morning I was awake well before dawn and couldn’t get back to sleep. The sky wasn’t too cloudy so I decided to take a walk down to Mooney Falls and see if I could catch the sunrise over the falls. The direction of the rising sun would have been great for it but the falls are too far below the upper canyon walls for the sunrise to hit it. But it was still nice to have some solitude there regardless. I made my way back to camp to join the others for breakfast and to try and recruit them to join me in my planned adventure for the day. As we were finishing breakfast I asked if anyone wanted to join me for the 16+ mile roundtrip hike down to the Colorado River and back. Even the crickets went silent. They all decided to take it a little easier and head down to Beaver Falls and then back up to the village that day. So I packed my daypack and quickly headed out as it was already after 9 and it was going to be a long day on the trail. So much for wanting to get out fast. I encountered quite the logjam at Mooney Falls when I had to wait on a very slow group trying to make their decent just ahead of me. At least the last lady in line was nice of enough to take my picture as we waited.
When I finally reached the bottom of Mooney Falls I made a beeline for the trail on the left that leads down to Beaver Falls and then eventually all the way down to the Colorado River. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this trail as I knew it followed Havasu Creek all the way down and that there would be a few creek crossings here and there. But I really wasn’t prepared for how amazingly beautiful the entire length of the trail would be. The turquoise waters stand in such stark contrast to the reds and tans and dark greens of the surrounding desert that it just pops out at you every time you round another corner and get a glimpse of another section of the river. I don’t know how many times I paused to take a picture or to take a little side trek to see a different view throughout the day. The view was just absolutely stunning every where I looked.
Havasu Creek is littered with waterfalls. From the massive Havasu and Mooney Falls down to the hundreds of smaller cascading falls there are literally too many to count. I would have loved to have more time to explore down here and to play with the slow shutter app on my iPhone.
I got down to Beaver Falls and I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was here. I was almost tempted to cut my hike short, setup my hammock, and just chill here for the day. There’s a picnic table up on the cliff which overlooks the falls and the trail is steep and cut into the rock with some steps and a ladder to get down. And while not the hair raising descent of Mooney Falls it is still pretty cool. The falls themselves are not massive like Mooney and Havasu but are a series of cascading falls with some ladders to help you climb from one to the next. It really would have been a fantastic place to spend a lazy afternoon playing by the waterfalls. But I still had 4+ more miles to get to the end of the creek and the confluence with the Colorado River.
Just below Beaver Falls is a little campsite where one of the Supai tribe sometimes stays to patrol the area. For this is the boundary of their reservation. Once you pass this point you are entering part of Grand Canyon National Park.
Past this point the trail is barely maintained at all. There are no ladders to help you climb up and no planks to keep your feet dry when crossing the creek. The trail is even hard to find in places and I was forced to backtrack a bit in at times, especially when having to enter the creek. There were two other guys hiking down here near me and we leapfrogged each other a few times and made it a point to draw an arrow in the sand at any confusing crossing spots to help each other out. The only thing that I did notice to assist hikers was some yellow ribbon tied to a tree at the bank near two places where the trail was hard to find. The trail was difficult in places but not overly so and the scenery was certainly no less spectacular than what I had become accustomed to in Havasupai.
As I got closer to the end of Havasu Creek I started to see some of the Colorado River rafters hiking up to take some pictures and the kayakers playing around in the small falls. It was pretty neat to hike all the way down here and to meet up with people who had come here via the Colorado River. Some were out for a 24 day trip, which absolutely sounds like an amazing adventure and is now just one more thing I’ve scrawled onto my ever growing bucket list.
And then I climbed up onto the last ledge and there it was. The mighty Colorado River cutting through the Grand Canyon. Fast and cold and green. And at the confluence, where the two rivers joined, there was this beautiful swirl of the bright turquoise waters from Havasu Creek mixing with the darker green waters of the Colorado River.
I took a break here to have lunch and to just relax and take it all in. The sound of the river rushing by, the majestic beauty of the canyon walls towering above me, the warmth of the sun on a cool spring day. I was at peace. I knew that I didn’t have long as it was already getting past 2 in the afternoon, but I wanted to linger here for just a while longer. To enjoy it and to reflect on my journey here and the journey ahead. Not so much the day’s hike, as that was too rushed, but of the journey of my life in general, which all too often seems to be too rushed as well. And in a world where instant gratification is becoming the norm, and where much of my life has been stuck in an unknown state lately, where I’m ready to make plans and move on but forces beyond my control are keeping me stuck in limbo, I realized that sometimes you need to just slow things down a bit and be patient. That I need to just trust in the universe and have faith that what is meant to be will be. So I sat and enjoyed the moment, and appreciated the beauty before me that the patience of nature had made possible.
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The hike back was much the same as the hike there. I paused often to take a picture, missed a few turns in the trail and had to backtrack (but saw some more incredible sights as a result), and just thoroughly enjoyed my time out here alone. One of the turns in the trail that I missed was the steep climb back up to Beaver Falls that was marked by a yellow ribbon at the edge of the creek. But by missing this I was able to hike further up stream and see where Beaver Canyon meets Havasu Canyon and also a pretty cool small waterfall and pool at the tail end of Beaver Falls from a completely different perspective.
When I got back closer to Mooney Falls I spent a little more time exploring the area just below the falls. It really is a magical place down there. I probably could have spent all day just hanging out in this area too.
It was 6:30 by the time I made it back to camp and everyone was just getting ready to eat. They were all tired from their day’s adventure to Beaver Falls and back up the village (apparently everyone has a Monster addiction). Chris surprised me with a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup, which was the next best thing he could find since they didn’t have any peanut butter M&M’s. That totally made my day! I went and took a quick bath in the cool river water and then cooked up some dehydrated chili which totally hit the spot. Everyone looked pretty tired which was just as well as I was looking to make a quick exit from the table so I could get some much needed sleep after a long day. Turned out that they all stayed up and played another round of Cards Against Humanity after Rachel and I hit the hay. Had they busted it out sooner I probably would have tried to stay awake for it, but the sleep was much needed.
The next morning I was up early again and quickly set about breaking down camp. Chris came by to let me know that everyone else was still asleep. So we took a walk up to Fern Spring to refill our bladders and my 6 Liter Platypus Collapsible Water Tank. I’ve been using this tank for a few years now and it is an absolute life saver when there isn’t an immediate water source available. We headed back to camp to finish packing up and to eat breakfast while the others got up and moving.
It was soon time to leave and as we made our way back up towards the Supai village I paused one last time to take in the beauty of Havasu Falls and to give thanks to the Supai Tribe for keeping this place as nature intended it. For it would have been easy, and quite profitable, to commercialize it and build hotels and casinos down here. And that would most certainly have resulted in this wonderful paradise being lost to man.
“The human spirit needs places where nature has not been re-arranged by the hand of man.” ~ Anonymous
The hike back out was definitely going to be tougher than the hike in as we were all a little tired and sore from the adventures of the previous 3 days. We stopped again at the trading post to load up on some Monster before saying goodbye to Havasupai. The first part of the hike out was nice and we all settled into a pretty good pace. It was nice to see this section of the trail in the light of day and we made pretty good time for the first portion of it.
The switchbacks were tough, especially on Rachel. But she pushed through it like the rest of us, without complaint. For her first ever backpacking experience she handled it incredibly well. Her feet and ankles got beat up pretty bad by the boots that she failed to break in properly before hand, but she was able to tough it out and borrowed my sandals to ease the pain on her chafed ankles after the first day. She is a remarkable young woman and I couldn’t be prouder of how she handled herself on this trip. I truly hope that this will only further inspire the wanderlust that she has so recently been struck with.
When we all finally made it to the top we were exhausted and relieved, if not a bit sad as well for having to say farewell to this magical place. There was another group that had just finished up before us and they offered us a shot of Basil Hayden’s Whiskey to celebrate.
It was going to be a long ride back to Las Vegas and as we were all getting ready to nod off just a few miles down route 18 it began to snow. Well this got us all excited to see snow in the desert so we had to get out and play (and pee) in it for a bit.
I spent the rest of the ride back reflecting on the adventure that had been and the one that was hopefully yet to come. It was an amazing journey with new friends and old and one that I won’t ever forget. Thank you to Bonnie, Matt, Chris, Shaun, and Rachel for being such awesome adventure partners and for sharing in this incredible experience with me. I hope that our paths will cross again someday soon.
Pros: Beautiful Turquoise Water, Multiple Waterfalls, Slot Canyons, Desert Oasis, Colorado River Confluence, Bucket List Adventure.
Cons: Reservation System, Crowded at Times.
Overall: Havasupai is truly one of the most beautiful places in America and without a doubt should be added to every adventurer’s bucket list.
I was fortunate enough to spend 3 nights here, which certainly didn’t seem like enough time, and look forward to visiting it again as soon as possible. Until next time. Namaste!
Here’s some more pictures from my adventure in Havasupai