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The Havasupai are a Native American tribe that live in the bottom of a spur of the Grand Canyon.Their name means people of the blue-green water. The Havasupai´s tribal reservation (also known as Havasupai) contains some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the United States if not the world.
On February 1, 2018 I successfully got my permit to Havasupai through the online permitting system. My permit was for two people for two nights over the Good Friday/Easter long weekend. A week before the trip was to start, my friend bailed on me. After asking around on Facebook, I got a response from my friend Suzi who not only just ran the LA Marathon but also works in the building next to me. Logistically, this was a perfect fit.
On Thursday March 29th, we drove out from El Segundo towards Arizona. Unfortunately, traffic getting out of the Los Angeles was horrible and it took us 6 hours (including a quick dinner break at the original Del Taco in Barstow) to reach the Arizona state line. At 12:30 am we finally got to Kingman where spent the night in a motel.
March 30, 2018: Havasu Falls
The next morning, we drove east along Route 66. Almost immediately lost cell coverage.
After an hour on Route 66, we turned north onto Indian Road 18.
For the next 60 miles, we saw nothing but empty roads and livestock. Other than the road itself, there was no sign of human civilization. Eventually the road cut its way into a gully. All of a sudden the gully ended at the edge of a cliff above a huge expanse: the Grand Canyon.
There was a parking lot, but it was so full we had to park about a half-mile from the end of the road which doubled at the trailhead to Havasupai.
At the trailhead, we checked in with the Tribal ranger. The ranger was exceedingly nice and even gave us a free map. He told us it was 7 miles to the start of town. 1 mike through town and 1.5 miles to the campground which is next to Havasu Falls. There would be a total net elevation loss of 2,400 feet.
For the first two miles, the trail steeply dropped into the canyon. 70% of the elevation loss occurred in these first two miles.
Then we worked our way through a narrow red rock canyon that got more and more spectacular as it went. Every 5 minutes we would hear the buzz of a helicopter transporting hikers and goods.
Somewhere around mile 3, I heard what sounded like hoofs and all of a sudden 10 horses came charging at me. They were followed by an Indian cowboy who appeared upset we were in his way. I later learned that horses always have the right of way- if we got trampled it was our own fault.
As we climbed deeper and deeper into the canyon, the trail kept getting more dramatic. Eventually there were red Navajo sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet high on each side.
3 hours of hiking in, we wondered if there was really going to be a town and water. Suddenly, the canyon opened into a larger canyon that was flat and had a strong stream running through. The water was an impossibly bright blue-green (caused by lime in the water). We followed the stream for about a mile and eventually reached the town of Supai.
It was quite strange to see houses, a Mormon church and modern building materials in the middle of nowhere. A few houses had trampolines! Everything must have been flown in by helicopter.
I checked in at the tourism office. The people were exceptionally chill as they checked my permit and gave my ID a cursory glance. Then they gave us each a purple wristband to wear- sort of like at an all-inclusive resort. We were then free to roam the reservation and camp anywhere in the campground.
We noticed at least 70 people hanging out in town. I asked why everyone was hanging out in town and they said they were waiting all day for the helicopter. It was $85/person for the 5 minute ride to the top. Based on the line, it was probably faster to walk since it was at least 10 minutes in between rides.
Before heading out, we stopped for lunch at the air-conditioned cafeteria. It was a mix of tourists and locals- I suppose that due to the permitting system, this town is swarmed by tourists every day. How strange!
The cafeteria was quite bare inside, but did have a large mural on one wall and a water fountain. There was also a framed New York Times article about a legal battle the tribe won over researchers at Arizona State University who wanted to study their DNA.
I ordered fry bread from the very relaxed cashier. Nobody seems to be in a hurry in this town. The fry bread took 15 minutes or so to make, but was delicious.
I then went over to the US Post Office to send postcards. This post office is the only one in the country that delivers mail by mule. The lady working there said she was very excited to be going to Phoenix to an Arizona Diamondbacks game. He daughter lives in Phoenix and bought her a ticket to fly to Phoenix (I’m not sure how the logistics worked out since it is a long way to any airport from the top of the canyon). I said that there were going to be a lot of people at the game- tens of thousands. She was in disbelief- the most people she had ever seen at one time was 200 people- the population of the tribe. She said the tribe only gets together for funerals. Unfortunately, there was going to be one tomorrow. I was going to pass by the wake en-route to the campground. I then paid to ship some postcards out.
Leaving town, Suzi and I continued down the canyon past the wake. The trail dropped down a lot of elevation past two small waterfalls with the most unbelievable blue-green color.
Eventually we crossed a bridge and then I saw it: Havasu Falls and its 100 foot drop into the most incredible water.
Rather than stay at the falls with our backpacks, Suzi and I decided to drop our bags off at camp.
Stumbling into camp just 50 yards past the falls, we noticed two very muscular men with Maori tattoos eating fry bread. One of them turned around and said in a chill surfer voice “welcome to paradise”.
After finding a spot in the very busy campsite we hung out at the falls all afternoon. Given the remoteness of the place, there were a lot of people there- maybe 100. The crowd definitely had more than its fair share of Instagram influences. There were floaties everywhere and tons of people posing for pictures in yoga attire. There were also some people actually swimming including a few local kids. Despite everyone’s various reasons for visiting, everyone was in awe of the place.
The campground was packed. I was surprised by how diverse the place was: in addition to the Instagrammers and the stereotypical young outdoorsy couples, there were guided group tours with semi-permanent luxury campsites, Indian tourists (from India), Mormon families, and not-outdoorsy people who randomly drove up from LA for the weekend. For dinner, I got an Indian taco (frybread, beans, meat, lettuce, chopped tomato, cheese) from the frybread hut in the campground.
The sun set around 7:30. At that point, there was nothing to do but go to bed.
March 31, 2018: To Beaver and Back
After 12 hours of sleep, we woke up around 8:30 in the morning. The sun was shining. It was going to be a beautiful day.
We ate breakfast and around 10am, headed down the canyon with day packs. Just past the campground, we stumbled upon Mooney Falls. At 200 ft. in height, Mooney is double the height of Havasu Falls and undeniably more impressive in every way than Havasu Falls. For some reason, Mooney gets almost no love from the Instagrammers and the articles.
Perhaps one reason it is so much less popular is that getting to the base of Mooney is very difficult. The journey involves climbing through manmade caves before descending a series of chains and ladders.
Unfortunately, descending the ladders is very time consuming and there was a long line. We waited almost an hour before climbing down. The climb down was definitely intense and was made even more difficult by the incredible mist from the falls that made the chains and ladders permanently damp.
Eventually, we made it to the bottom of the waterfall. There, we were greeted by a guy named Mark “from the border of South Gate and Downey”. He asked if he could join in on our trek to Beaver Falls. We said yes and set off.
From there, the single track trail sneakily made its way down the deep, steep and narrow canyon.
Thrice, we crossed the blue-green river. The first two times, I timidly tried to avoid getting wet, but by the third crossing I realized that getting wet was inevitable, removed the soles from my boots and waded through the river. The temperature was perfect!
As we neared Beaver Falls, the trail got gnarlier and we had to climb a few ladders. Eventually we reached the falls, which were set in a remarkably beautiful section of the canyon. The red walls extended vertically hundreds of feet up from the bright blue-green river. The trip to Beaver from Mooney took about 90 minutes. Beaver Falls marked the end of the Havasupai reservation. Down canyon beyond this point was Grand Canyon National Park.
At Beaver, we swam in the beautiful pool underneath the powerful 25 ft falls. About 50 people also made the trek here, so it was far from peaceful.
We hiked a bit quicker on the way back and reached Mooney in just 60 minutes. It was now around 3pm and the crowds had largely disappeared. A group of girls was taking pictures while flashing the falls. Once the coast cleared, Suzi and I took pictures with Mooney. It was so pretty!!
Then we climbed up the ladders wait-free to reach the campground. I was now hungry from a day of hiking, so I stopped by the frybread shop in the campsite. After ordering, I chatted with the husband of the woman making the frybread.
The frybread-maker’s husband was about 50 and smelled like livestock, which is to be expected when you ride horses every day. He asked where I went and I said Mooney and Beaver. I asked him when the last time he went to Mooney was and he said about 30 years ago on a school trip. This shocked me since Mooney Falls are only a 10 minute walk from where we were standing and where he conceivably went to work every day. With only two directions to go- up canyon and down canyon- there are very few places to go in Havasupai. I asked him if he wanted to walk over with me and he said “I only ride”. I took this as a no.
Again, we went to bed early because tomorrow we had to head back to LA.
April 1, 2018: The Long Journey Home
Today was going to be an extremely long day. We woke up at 4:30 AM packed up our tent and started hiking at 5:30 am. It was still dark as we headed up the trail, but we were able to see Havasu Falls quite clearly due to the nearly full moon.
At 6:15, we reached town. It was packed with at least 100 hikers waiting to put their name on the helicopter list including Mark from yesterday. The first-come-first serve list opens at 7, but rides don’t start until 10. We hoped to beat the first helicopter to the top.
Even though it was 7 miles of nonstop uphill from town to the top, Suzi and I kept up a strong pace. We were both surprised by the large number of hikers coming down.
By 8:30, we were just 2 miles away and could see the top. However, the final 2 miles had 80% of the elevation gain. We struggled, but eventually made it to the top by 9:20, a full 40 minutes ahead of the first helicopter flight.
We then headed to the car and drove back into Kingman to celebrate with the obligatory celebratory beer. Finally, we drove back to LA and made it back right around sunset.
Havasupai is definitely an effort to get to in terms of both planning and the physical journey. However, all that effort is well worth it- the falls are so incredibly beautiful. The journey also gives a glimpse into a culture that few people get to experience- a Native American tribe living in an incredibly remote location. The combination of natural beauty and the culture makes Havasupai a truly unique destination.