Havasu Falls

Paradise in the Desert

One of the most breathtaking sights in northern Arizona is a series of waterfalls including Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls which is located outside of Grand Canyon National Park on the Havasupai Indian Reservation.  Havasu ’Baaja (meaning the-people-of-the-blue-green-waters), are well-known for being the only permanent inhabitants in the Grand Canyon, where they have lived for over 800 years.  The Tribe is very proud of its blue-green waters and enchanting waterfalls, both of which have brought hordes of tourists from all over the world to their small community.  Overall, only a small percentage of people get the opportunity to view the falls because it is not an easy place to get to.  It’s not even close to an Interstate exit! 

This is where our adventure onto the lands of the Hualapai and Havasupai Indians begins.  From I-40, exit at either Seligman or Kingman (depending on which direction you are coming from) to the two-lane old U.S. Route 66 (a fun trip in itself) for about 1-2 hours to the town of Peach Springs where you will find the Hualapai Lodge on the Hualapai Indian Reservation.  This is the nearest lodging to the trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop.  We thought it would be good to support the Tribe by staying in the lodge and try to learn more of their culture.  The lodge is fairly new and the employees were friendly and helpful. 

While checking in, we were offered free ear plugs.  This seemed odd until we realized that a double set of mainline railroad tracks ran right behind the lodge with trains passing at least every 20 minutes blowing their whistle for the nearby crossing.  Apparently, there are a lot of people who don’t like train sounds but that didn’t bother us, because we are also train fans!

After a good meal in the restaurant, we did some shopping in the gift shop and bought some locally made items at very reasonable prices.  There was also live entertainment in the lobby provided by some Tribal members who were singing and dancing while dressed in traditional tribal garb.  We listened and watched for a little while before deciding it was time to call it a night so we could get a good night’s rest. 

An early start was needed and we were up and out of bed by 4:30 a.m.  This was enough time to gather our gear, check out of the hotel and start the one hour drive to the Hilltop parking lot.  Not far from the lodge we turned onto Indian Highway 18, a narrow paved road running 68 miles north off of Route 66.  There are no services on this long and winding road and it is the only paved road to the parking lot at Hualapai Hilltop.  We ate a nutritious breakfast of food bars and fruit while we rode in the car.  The road was still very dark and it took two sets of eyes to watch for cattle or other animals that might wander into the roadway.  We didn’t want to start the day with road kill! 

There was not much to see upon reaching the parking lot other than pack horse sheds and the helicopter pad.  Unless you’ve made arrangements for a short helicopter ride to the village or rented a horse to take you down the trails, you should have your backpack and camping gear ready for an 8 mile hike to Supai Village.  The gear in our packs was everything we would need over the next couple of days.  We had to pack our own water since there are no services available at the parking lot or on the trail.  After finding a place to park, making a potty stop, stretching our muscles a bit and taking a couple of photos, we grabbed the packs and made for the trailhead.  I quickly looked at my watch.  It was 6:00 a.m. sharp and we were on the way down!

This hike is considered to be moderately difficult.  Heck, after last year’s rim to rim hike across the Grand Canyon, we figured we can do anything!  The trail started off with about 1 ½ miles of some pretty steep switchbacks.  About halfway down I tripped over my own feet skinning my knee and the palm of my hand.  What a klutz!  I found a big stick and used it to balance myself over the rough, rocky trail.  Hmmm . . . maybe I should look into getting some hiking poles.  We were hiking in the shade most of the time which was pretty comfortable, except for the sting in my kneecap.  Once the trail started to flatten out a bit, I left the stick by the side of the trail for someone else who may need it. Havasu Canyon

The sun was not quite full on us as we hiked on the Hualapai Trail through Hualapai Canyon in a dry river bed.  The canyon narrowed and we stopped a few times to rest, drink, and check our feet, reapplying the glide stick to make sure we didn’t get blisters.  There were large boulders supplying occasional shade in the rocky wash.  We were passed by a group of tourists on horseback heading back up the trail towards the trailhead where we started.  That looked like fun!  We’ll have to keep that in mind!   

Sacred DaturaThe Sacred Datura plant, with its beautiful white trumpet-shaped flowers, was everywhere.  Soon the trail joined with the Topocoba Trail coming out of Havasu Canyon.  The ground changed to red sand and the sun was beating down on us.  We came to a sign pointing the way to the Village, but we still had a good bit of hiking ahead of us. 

By the time we reached Havasu Creek, a tributary to the Colorado River, we had dropped about 2000 feet in elevation.  Being used to the dark, muddy waters of the Mississippi River and the surrounding swamps of Louisiana, we were in awe of the clear, blue-green waters running in the creek next to the trail.  A newly-built wooden bridge allowed us to cross the creek and we noticed that there were a lot of fallen trees with muddy branches, the result of a recent flash flood we were told about. 

The red walls of the canyon were soon towering high above us and we got our first look at the Wii'igliva (pronounced wig-leeva), a Havasupai godWii'igliva and goddess that watch over and protect the village.  We followed the trail into populated areas near ranch houses where small plots of ground were marked off for gardens or horse sheds.  Occasionally, we saw a horse grazing in a corn patch.  Makeshift fences had been erected along the trail to keep people from wandering onto personal property and most of the buildings and homes were small, simple structures. 

As we made our way into the village, the trail evolved into the main road of the village where many of the Havasupai went about their work on ATVs and small tractors.  Our first stop was the tourist office where we checked-in for the campground, picked up our permit, and took a short rest.  I checked my watch.  We made the 8 mile hike in four hours.  Not bad!  We inquired about renting horses to ride out in a couple of days and, although renting two horses was fairly reasonable, we would have to hire an extra horse for our backpacks.  Then we were told that for ten dollars more per person we could take the helicopter and there was no extra charge for our backpacks.  Now that sounded like a good idea!  We’ll keep that in mind too!

Supai VillageThis was the heart of the village.  Looking around, we saw the helicopter pad, the café, the grocery store, the post office, and the school.  The post office in Supai Village holds the distinction of being one of only two places left in America that still uses the Pony Express.  Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, is the other.  The lodge was set back a bit behind the school and tribal offices near the church.  It didn’t look like a bad place to stay, but it would still be a two mile hike to Havasu Falls and we already had plans to camp below the falls.  Overall, the community looked poor, but the school buildings were the exception.  The school was a brick building with a basketball court and fencing all around it.  In spite of the hikers moving through the village, the Tribe continued its daily business of getting children to and from school, working on road and maintenance projects and other activities a small community would normally be involved in.  Signs were posted for the hikers to stick to the main road and not wander off into other parts of the village.  Out of respect for the Tribe, a hiker should remember that they are guests in Supai and observe the rules of conduct on an Indian Reservation.  

As we hiked, we could hear the sounds of Jamaican music coming from several houses and small farms.  It struck us as odd to hear Jamaican music on an Indian Reservation.  The sights and sounds of the village quickly fell behind us as we headed for the campground.  A group of pack horses passed us with a few dogs trailing behind.  Most of the residents we saw, silently watched us pass.  We were told the flash flood that swept through Havasu Creek the previous week washed out a few of the trails.  A couple of workers doing trail repairs advised us how to pick our way through.  We heard the sound of water and thought it was just the creek rushing nearby, not realizing that we just missed the side trail to Navajo Falls, the first in the series of waterfalls. Oh well, we would either have to hike back tomorrow or catch it on theHavasu Falls way out.

The sun was high overhead by the time we reached Havasu Falls.  The heat was getting the best of me and I was more interested in finding a rock to sit on in the shade while Mike was taking pictures and oogling over the magnificence of the falls.  The trail comes around the top side of the falls and we were looking over and down at the falls and the pools of blue-green water below.  There was a cool mist in the air from the force of the falling water.  Once I recovered, I grabbed my camera and soaked in the sights.  The canyon walls under the waterfall were lush with greenery growing out of the travertine walls which are created from the lime deposits in the water.  The terraces at the bottom are created by the lime deposits, sticks, and mud that get trapped in the deposited travertine and are built up to make pools.  We wanted to get down there and play in the water, but first needed to find a spot to drop the backpacks, pitch the tent and make camp.

After searching the camping area to find an area that was dry and level, we found a good spot to pitch our tent that was near a picnic table and under a tree.  A rope hanging from the tree was useful in hanging our food bag.  We put our water bottles into a mesh bag and tied it to a tree root at the edge of the creek.  While tossing the bag into the creek, I slipped between the roots of the tree and ended up hip-deep in the cold creek.  That was unexpectedly refreshing!  After the hiking and setting up camp, we were pretty tired and decided to rest through the hottest part of the day.    

In the middle of the afternoon, we grabbed a snack and a couple of water bottles and hiked back to the trail leading down to the shore at the base of the falls.  It was amazing! There was quite a bit of shade on the large pool but the water fall was still in the sunlight as it continued to thunder its way 100 feet down into the travertine pools below.  After putting our things down in a dry spot, we waded into the cold water making sure to stay in the lighter areas.  The darker areas of the pools meant deeper water.  We swam a little and then went back to shore to get our cameras before making a precarious balancing-type walk across the tops of the pools.  The ledges were narrow and slippery but we wanted to explore the mini-falls where the water drops down to the next lower level into the creek.  The sun was clear of the canyon walls and there wouldn’t be much daylight left.  We headed back to camp to make some dinner and prepare the campsite for the night.

Travertine Pools    Travertine Pools    Travertine Pools

Patty - Havasu Falls    Travertine Pools    Mike - Havasu Falls

The canyon walls tend to hold the heat for a long time after sunset.  The night itself was uneventful, but we were hot.  At one point, we were both stripped down to our underwear.  In the hours just before dawn, the air finally got cool and we would wake up intermittently and put a piece of clothing back on.  By dawn, we were fully dressed again! 

New Camp SiteA large group was camped at the edge of the creek when we arrived and this morning they were packed up and heading out as we were exiting our tent and moving about.  While having our breakfast of peanut butter and jelly on tortillas, we were overcome with “campsite envy.”  We were on high ground, but a large area next to the creek was now available.  There were only a few other groups in the campground, but we couldn’t wait much longer if we were going to make a move.  We discussed it for about 5 more minutes before picking up our tent and carrying it over to the new spot.  We looked like a couple of cats moving in circles trying to find the “perfect” spot to settle in.  Should we be close to the big rock?  Which way should the tent opening face?  We even inherited a lounge chair and a couple ofRelaxing inflatable pool toys from the former tenants.  Cool!

The morning was very quiet and we took advantage of the cooler temperatures to hike almost a mile to Mooney Falls, named after D.W. “James” Mooney, a prospector who fell to his death in 1892 while attempting to reach the bottom of the canyon.  Legend has it that his mining partners, who could not reach his body at the time, buried his lime-encrusted remains on an island near the main pool once they were able to reach the bottom of the canyon about 11 months later.  After a flood exposed his remains, he was reburied on a ledge on the west side of the canyon by tribe members.  The location of the grave is unknown.

The hike was easy and the trail meandered alongside of the creek.  Before we knew it, we came upon the falls from the top.  The water was cascading almost 200 feet to the large pool below and the travertine “drapes” on the walls were lush and green with ferns and vines growing out of them.  The trail continued down a couple of short switchbacks and we were trying to figure out how to get down to the bottom when we turned and saw the tunnel with a sign to “descend at your own risk.”  OK . . . since it looked like that was the only way to get down, we ducked our heads and headed down the steps notched into the travertine.

When we got to the other end of the short vertical tunnel, we poked our heads into the sunlight and looked almost straight down at a series of chains, footholds and handholds on the outside of the travertine drapes.  We would still have to manage that before we would touch the sandy ground again.  This is no place to be if you have an unconquerable fear of heights!  Looking straight out, you have a great view of the falls as if to provide incentive to make the climb down.  At this point, you turn your body to face the cliff wall and hold onto the chains that are staked to the wall as you climb down.  The last section was on an aluminum ladder that was precariously anchored to the wall.  Finally, we were at the bottom!  As we turned to take in our surroundings, we gasped at the magnificence of the falls.  Standing at the edge of the pool at the base of the falls, we were awestruck!  We decided we were going to spend the majority of the day here and, luckily, we had some snacks, fruit and water to sustain us while we swam and played.   

 Descend at your own risk    Mooney Falls   Mooney Falls    Rescue

Before we walked off to explore the area away from the falls, our attention was drawn to a group of 3 hikers descending from the tunnel.  One of the girls was having trouble with the height and she was trying to come down the steps facing out.  She was frozen to the spot and her friends seem to be unable to get her to go up or down.  She was crying and freaking out.  Mike went over and climbed about halfway back up to get close enough to her to speak in a very low, calming voice.  She wanted to continue to come down and he was able to get her to turn around to face the cliff wall as he helped her put her feet in each of the footholds on the way down until she got to the ladder.  Her friends came down after her and they were all very happy and excited to be at the bottom together.

We had a blast while at these falls!  We found a rope swing, lots of pools to swim in and several more travertine ledges making mini-falls as the water continued through the creek on its way to the last waterfall.  Beaver Falls is reached by continuing on the trail past Mooney Falls for another 2 miles.  You have to cross the creek a few times which could be as high as waist deep.  We chose not go on to Beaver Falls, so we’ll have to do that next time and possibly continue the rest of the way to the Colorado River.

Upon returning to our campsite, we were met by a stray dog who seemed content hanging out with us.  Mike napped on top of the picnic table and “Buddy” napped under the table.  Meanwhile, I took some photos before trying to get some rest in the tent.

 Dragonfly in Flight    Sacred Datura    Havasu Creek
We returned to Havasu Falls for the remainder of the afternoon.  The pools were shaded and we walked across the travertine ledges to a sunny spot on the far side of the falls.  We tried to go behind the falls, but the force of the water was too strong.  We played in and out of the water until the sun was past the top of the canyon walls and it was time to get back to camp.

With a bit of daylight still left, we thought it would be fun to get the blow-up pool tubes and sit in them and float down the creek.  That was a stupid idea!  There was plenty of current to carry us along, and we started further up the creek so we could float down to our campsite, but our butts got bumped along the terraces, we got snagged on tree roots, and got turned over a few times!  Whitewater rafting in a pool toy is not a good idea!

Our canine friend, Buddy, met us back in camp and became our protector.  Some other dogs came sniffing around while we were eating and he growled and barked at them to run them off.  Of course, he was rewarded with our leftovers.  When we went into the tent for the night, Buddy laid down near the tent opening.  Sometime during the night, he went off to investigate a noise and commotion elsewhere in the campground and we didn’t see any more of him.  The weather during the night was windy as if a storm was brewing nearby.  The trees swayed in the wind and it cooled off pretty quick, but it didn’t rain. 

The morning dawned clear and bright.  I had been nursing a cold and woke up with a heavy chest, so we decided to pack up our gear early and hike into the village so we could have breakfast at the café and check into taking the helicopter out.  Once again, we could hear the sounds of Jamaican music in the air.  On reaching the heart of the village, we were able to put our names on the list for the helicopter and went to the café.   The food was good and the helpings were big.  We’d been missing our morning coffee and were enjoying the first cup we’d had in a few days.

We have a nice conversation with a tribal member at the café while we were waiting for breakfast.  He told us about the Gathering of the Pai’s Festival (pai meaning ‘the people’) that is held every year between the five tribes and the Peach Festival held there in the village each year.  We just missed the Peach Festival by a few days.  He talked about the visit of Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy Marley, to the village many years ago and how Bob Marley’s music is still very popular with the people.  That explained why we heard so much reggae music as we walked through the village.  The man told us that in the “old days” they used to get movies and show them outdoors on the side of a building.  The actors, like John Wayne & Clint Eastwood, would become heroes to the people who would pretend to be the characters.

The helicopter company that takes the people out of Supai first services the needs of the tribe before shuttling any passengers.  The hikers are the last ones to get shuttle service.  It was neat to get an aerial view of the terrain we hiked coming in and we were able to see a few hikers on the trial below us.  It gave us the opportunity to see how deep and long the canyon is and it was only a 5 minute ride to the rim!  Good thing we found out about that!  Now we would have almost a whole day to spend exploring historic Route 66 west of Peach Springs!

Helicopter Pad    Aerial View of Havasu Canyon    Aerial View of Trial

We will return to Supai and the land of the blue-green waters in order to visit Navajo Falls, which we missed on the way in, and to hike to Beaver Falls and maybe further to the Colorado River.  This was a great trip and the hike down was easy enough to do again.  Hopefully, we’ll have friends or family with us when we return to share this paradise in the desert.  In the meantime, we continue to learn about various Southwestern American Indian cultures and gain respect for their customs and their history.

Mike & Patty Poupart
(Date of Hike: August 30 - September 1, 2006)

Helpful Links:

Havasupai Tribe - http://www.havasupaitribe.com/home.html
Hualapai Lodge - Peach Springs, AZ - http://www.destinationgrandcanyon.com/lodge.html
Destination Grand Canyon West - http://www.destinationgrandcanyon.com/indexe.html

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