Date of Trip: October 2015
My summer job this year was at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. Over and over tourists would bring me a postcard that we sold of the stunningly beautiful Havasu Falls and asked where these waterfalls were. I would show them on the map where the remote Village of Supai was located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation making it a 4 hour drive and then a 10 mile hike down from where we were. Just as daunting is the fact that day hiking is not allowed so a permit and at least one night reservation is required which can take at least 6 months to get if one is very persistent (and lucky?).
I personally have never had the desire to hike down to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch from the North or South Rims of the Grand Canyon like many tourists do or worse yet, Rim to Rim. But I have long coveted the idea of hiking down to Havasu Falls. Havasupai means “people of the blue-green waters” and natural lime deposits in this area make the water a surreal turquoise color. Just looking at the famous photos of Havasu Falls made me want to pursue my dream to see them for myself.
The necessary reservation cannot be made on-line or by email but only by calling the tribe on a phone number that was never answered. After 3 months of frustration of trying it this way, I was able to get a Havasupai co-worker to make the connection I needed. She was traveling home for a family reunion in August and she took my money order for a deposit to see if there were any openings in October. So 5 months after I arrived at the Grand Canyon, I was going on this hike October 7th and staying overnight at the Havasupai Lodge in the Village.
While millions visit the Grand Canyon each year, only a few thousand make the trek to this smallest Indian nation in America. The only way to get there is on foot, by horse or by helicopter. These people have lived here over 800 years and at one time the tribe was forced by the US government to give up most of their land, but almost 100 years later much of it was regained even though it is now a National Park. Of the 650 member tribe 450 live here and are self governing and they do not receive any US government stipends. They now rely heavily on tourism although they seem to resent it. This is their home we are trekking into and they consider their land to be sacred. And so here is my tale of the good, the bad and the ugly in no particular order.
On Oct 6th I met a friend from Tucson in Flagstaff and we overnighted at the Supai Motel on Route 66 in Seligman, AZ. Leaving there at 5:30 the next morning, it was a 2 hour drive to the Hualapai Hilltop parking lot at the end of Indian Road 18 where the trailhead is located. There were plenty of vehicles parked but no-one around. There is no way to get water on this hike so we each had 2 liters of water, some snacks and just light backpacks for overnight. After a quick trip to the disgusting toilets we started off. The Village is 8 miles down with a descent of 2,000 ft. This is the only place in America where mail is delivered by mule train.
The first couple of miles are steep rocky switchbacks but we are still in the shade at that point. Just as we reach the graveled washes the sun is now with us. Luckily at this time of year it is not extremely hot as it would be during the summer months. But also to contend with are these mule trains and horses on the trail. Even though I stepped off the trail to let one of the mule trains pass, the last mule decided to detour towards me and it’s big pack knocked me over backwards. Then not long afterwards 2 riderless galloping horses came around a bend and spooked me enough to make me lose my balance and fall again. The sight of me laying on the trail in turn seemed to have spooked the horses, but in a good way as they stopped short rather than trample me. Eventually we got into a really beautiful shady part of the canyon with high red rock walls and trees but then had energy sapping sand to walk in.
Although I know I’m slow I do consider myself to be a strong walker, yet I was having a lot of difficulty with this hike. I had been having an inner ear problem that was made worse by having a cold a week before the hike and was having severe balance issues even though I was using poles. Of course dehydration makes this worse. We had hikers passing us going up and down the trail, but there were no signs to let you know how far is left until we got to an arrow pointing to Supai saying “you are almost there”, but came to find out later it meant 2 more miles. As we got closer to the Village there was the turquoise colored creek running beside us. Somehow I finally dragged myself into the village and collapsed at the tourist office completely out of water and utterly exhausted. I felt as though I could no longer put one foot in front of the other so my friend got the local police on an ATV give me a ride to the lodge at the other end of town. So after taking a cool shower, taking an Aleve, drinking several glasses of water, changing my clothes and shoes and having some food, I was ready to make the 4 mile round trip hike to and from the falls. This is why I am here. The first 2 falls we passed had turquoise water cascading down travertine terraces and are part of New Navajo Falls with a pool at the bottom that some were swimming in. The water temperature here is a constant 65-70 degrees. It certainly looked refreshing. But on we went a bit further to the Crowning Glory of Supai – the incredibly beautiful Havasu Falls dropping 100 feet into a pool. There just are not enough words to describe this sight. It was everything I had hoped for to see that magnificent color. I was truly in awe.
It really made me realize how lucky we were as this area is very prone to flash floods and just a couple of weeks before this the water coming over the falls was brown. Even a couple of days before we came it was raining here. As challenging as I found this hike, I can’t imagine having to deal with it in the rain yet too. As inviting as the pools below looked, my friend admitted to being pretty wiped out by now too, so instead of carrying on further down, we opted to hike back to the town. Because the hike that I expected to do in 5 hours took me 7 hours we did not have much time left and wanted to eat at the cafe before it closed. One really should not truly count on anything. Things close early. There are food shortages as everything has to come down by helicopter or mule. Just like the sudden flash floods, power outages can and do happen. The 24 room lodge was adequate with a good shower and 2 comfortable beds. No TV & certainly no hospitality, but in my opinion better than the campground option 2 miles away. The lodge room with tax was $165 whereas camping was cheaper but would have required pack mules & horses to bring down the gear for an additional $45 +tax each way. Altho the campground is near the falls, it is then a 2 mile hike back to the village. The permit fee per person to be anywhere on the reservation was $35 plus tax. It all seems high, but again, all supplies need to be hauled down and all trash hauled out. Supai is made up of many small houses, a cafe, a store, a post office, police station, church and an elementary school. The dusty trail winding thru the town was alive with stray dogs and children running about, yet it looked quite derelict, much like a small Mexican town. Some of the fenced in horses had some serious bony ribs showing.
I was quite distressed to see so much litter along the trail on the way down, especially the beer cans. No alcohol is allowed on tribal land and it showed such disrespect. We found these people to not want to make eye contact and not talk with us at all. We were treated as intruders and certainly not welcomed even though we were paying for this experience. There is no such thing as customer service and it was difficult to find out much information at all.
Which now brings me to our getting out the next day. We opted to take the helicopter and that is another challenge. No reservations are taken, they fly only on certain days, just have to sign up in the morning by the helipad, tribal members and vendors are served first, then tourists. The cost is suppose to be $85 each but was charged $90, probably again some kind of tax. Then just wait around as 6 go out at a time and it takes 15 minutes to get to the top. We signed up about 9:30 am and waited until almost 1 pm to get on a helicopter. If you are not there when they call your name, you may not be going at all. But I found it to be a good time to be talking with other tourists who were waiting. The flight out is awesome looking down at the trail we had hiked the day before and seeing the mule trains from above.
So was it worth a 12 mile hike in one day? Absolutely yes! Would I do it again? Maybe not. If I could have gotten them on the phone I could have tried to get a date to work with helicoptering in and out or tried for 2 nights so more time could have been spent at the falls. There are 2 more falls we didn’t go to. Mooney Falls has tunnels, chains, metal handholds and ladders to get to the bottom and then to go to Beaver Falls further on requires wading thru water.
I am trying to save judgement on the Havasupai people. Indeed they are not friendly. I have worked in Appalachia, Haiti, Mexico and been to many developing countries and know that we just have to accept their cultures and their way of life. We are the visitors.
I have been to some amazing waterfalls, Iguazu in Brazil/Argentina, Niagara in Canada, Yosemite Falls, Victoria in Zimbabwe/Zambia. I think waterfalls can make even the hardest hike worthwhile. Havasu Falls are indeed impressive and I feel so lucky that I got to see them.