A stream of turquoise water ceaselessly rushes onward.
Underneath a canopy of massive cottonwood trees, it winds through a jungle of willows covered in vines. At first glance, it looks like you’re in the Amazon. A longer look reveals massive canyon walls that soar hundreds of feet above on either side. Over the course of many millennia, this tiny creek has forged quite a path. Downstream, the water explodes over a 90 foot drop off. The vibrant blue water creates quite a contrast to the deep red rock of the sheer sandstone walls.
But this is Havasupai; an anomaly. A true oasis in the desert.
Due to some luck and a seemingly dysfunctional reservation system, I managed to procure a last minute permit to visit the falls over the weekend. Even better, I convinced my girlfriend of less than a month, Glenna, to join me! It would be a memorable trip. After a long day of work, we hopped in the Dew Mobile and made the 5 hour drive north to Hualapai Hilltop. Since there is no nearby campground, everyone sleeps in cars at the gravel lot near the trail head. Between cars pulling in late and people talking next to us, sleep was hard to come by. A bit drowsy, we packed our stuff and began our hike.
It was a chilly morning. Being in Phoenix for the last year and a half has really spoiled me. The initial steep descent down to the dry wash warmed us and we were soon shedding layers. The 8 mile hike to the village of Supai is pretty unremarkable. The gravel wash contains little vegetation and its red walls are not yet that high. Early on in the hike, we met another awesome couple from Salt Lake City. We talked for a while and decided we would try to meet up with them again later on. Then it was on to the village of Supai.
This tiny village is the residence of more than 500 Havasupai tribe members who have called this area home for over 1,000 years. Their existence has always depended on the beautiful water of Havasu creek and the lush green valley of the canyon. Even their name is derived from this: Havasu means blue-green water, pai means people. They are literally “the people of the blue-green water”. Nowadays, tourism is their biggest asset; over 20,000 people visit Havasu every year. We accounted for two of those. We paid our dues at the reservation center, grabbed our permit, and continued on toward the falls.
Clouds were still thick as we approached the first set of falls. Dropping 50 feet from a ledge full of brush, Upper Navajo Falls (also called New Navajo) is the newest of the 5 waterfalls. The falls were created in 2008 during a huge flash flood that moved insane amounts of rock and gouged out new channels for the river. The flood caused the river to choose a new route and bypass the original falls. Supai village was evacuated and more than 400 people had to be rescued during the flood. Less than 100 yards away is Lower Navajo Falls. With a shorter drop, only 35 feet, but a wide base of almost 100 feet, this falls is much more picturesque. It has a stunning backdrop of sheer canyon walls and a beautiful blue pool beneath to swim in.
Havasu Falls is the Havasupai’s gold mine. It is the sole reason so many people flock to this remote location. Recognized worldwide, this striking waterfall is a photographer’s heaven. Even those completely inept with a camera can take some impressive shots. You really can’t mess it up! We stared in wonder from above as the clouds parted and the sun finally made an appearance. Wow!!! We scurried down to the large sandy beach, threw our stuff on a picnic table, and hopped in… burrrrr! Swimming in the beautiful water was chilly, but exhilarating. We jumped into several different pools and then made our way down to the campground. We found a spot right along the river and set up the tent. To warm up, we hiked back up to Navajo Falls and did some more swimming! The rest of the afternoon was spent napping and talking with our new friends- we found their spot only a short walk away. They were an awesome group of people and we planned on hiking together to the Colorado River the next day.
Being on vacation time is the best. No phones, no watches, and no annoying alarms to rule your day. Eat when you want, sleep when you want, and wake up whenever feels right. Our first order of business was climbing down to the base of Mooney Falls. During the late 1800’s, this area was the location of a small-scale mining operation. The series of tunnels, chains, and ladders that bring visitors to the base of the falls were first constructed to serve the mine. It is a slippery descent, as the falls are constantly soaking the cliffs in spray. It is easy to imagine how the man whom the falls are named for, a Mr. James Mooney, died while trying to descend. With a drop of 190 feet, Mooney Falls is by far the tallest of the falls in the canyon. The falls upriver may be more famous, but Mooney Falls is honestly more impressive.
The Confluence of the Colorado River
It was another chilly day, by Arizona standards, and the clouds drizzled rain on us for much of the walk. The way to the Colorado cannot be described as a trail, rather a series of paths. It involves much crisscrossing of the river, sometimes via flat wooden ladders, other times requiring wading through the water or hopping boulders across rapids. Near Beaver Falls, we even had to climb down a rope. The place is a bit like an obstacle course! Many different user paths going separate ways tends to cause some confusion as to where exactly you should go. The one constant is the river.
The closer you get to the junction with the Colorado River, the higher the canyon walls seem to rise. Below the sheer walls, the path winds through vine-covered willows, cottonwoods, and other vegetation not typically associated with a desert ecosystem. Around another bend, the little Havasu creek finally poured into the true canyon carver- the Colorado River. Here, the turquoise water briefly mixed with the green of the Colorado before being swept away. I chose to wade through the wonderful narrows that lead up to the Colorado, though I did come to regret it… it was freezing! We rested for a bit, nibbling on trail mix and other snacks, before making the long trek back.
After a nice long nap, we went and played cards with another fun group we had met earlier. They were also from Phoenix and had come down for the weekend. Instead of sticking with the traditional tent set-up, they had strung tri-level hammocks up some nearby trees. It was one of the coolest set-ups I had ever seen! That night, from inside our tent, we listened to the sweet sounds of Havasu; the churn of the creek, small blow of the wind, chirping of the birds… and loud slapping of a pool toy noodle on the water??? The convenience of the mules to haul gear and access by helicopter creates a weird mixed atmosphere. On one hand, the minimalist backpackers like us; on the other, Glampers at their finest with impressive spreads of food, Ipod players, strings of light, toys, and even laser pointers. We watched as another group put on a laser light show along the canyon walls, chasing a small green dot with a much larger red one, zigzagging up and down and back and forth. Oh the joys of camping!
On our final day, the sun was out bright and beautiful. It was a perfect day for some Cliff Jumping! After packing up the tent, we headed up to Lower Navajo Falls. The plunge into the crystal clear water was exhilarating and refreshing. The air seemed to be cooler than the water and the only way to stop shivering was to jump in again! We did a couple of leaps and then started the trek out. It was a good hike and we made good time- Glenna’s a machine! The final ascent up the switchbacks was tough, but nothing we couldn’t handle. Back in Phoenix, we rewarded ourselves with some brats and a movie. What an amazing trip… I can’t wait to go back!!!
For some truly incredible photos, check out Glenna’s awesome new blog: She Who Travels.