Backpacking Havasupai, The Turquoise Water of Your Dreams
Cascading waterfalls flow into aquamarine pools (YES, the water is that blue) framed by burnt orange canyon walls. Havasupai Indian Reservation, next to Grand Canyon National Park, is a backpackers dream vacation destination. Permits are coveted, expensive, and booked well in advance. With that said, all the preparation and expense is worth the trek to the magical falls and campground of Havasupai!
Acquiring permits is a difficult and expensive process. On February 1st at 7 am, bleary-eyed and hopeful, we logged onto the website and joined the queue. After many hours of trying and failing to get through to the site, a member of our group was fortunate and tenacious enough to get permits for Memorial Day Weekend. At $125 per person per night (with a 3-night minimum stay), these are the most expensive backpacking permits I have ever bought.
Once permits are acquired and backpacking equipment packed (tent, sleeping bag, food, cameras ... etc.), then you just need to focus on the 10-mile hike to the campground. Starting at Hualapai Hilltop, the trail quickly descends along switchbacks to the level rocky riverbed in between grand red-walled canyons. After several miles along the riverbed, Havasu creek greets and leads you into the village of Supai.
Expecting a quaint village by the creek, Supai leaves much to be desired. Trash and debris litter the trail, as well as the yards of houses and businesses. As you walk through the village, the eyes of its' residents follow you. I did not feel welcome by the Havasupai tribe, despite having paid a large amount of money to stay in this remote location. Eager to move on from the village, the campground is just another 2 miles down the trail.
The entrance of the campground features one of the most photographed falls, Havasu Falls, boasting a narrow 98-foot tall stream into its' stunningly blue pool. Natural minerals in the water are responsible for the electric blue hue, more reminiscent of the Caribbean than Arizona. These same minerals leave a milky white residue on camera lenses, which buildup if not cleaned constantly. At all hours of the day, the falls teem with life; hikers swimming, sunbathing, and, of course, picture taking. If you can drag your eyes away, an idyllic campground awaits.
The campground follows the creek with campsites dispersed along the creek's edge, on islands with makeshift footbridges, and along the sides of the canyon. Cottonwood trees provide shade through their sage green leaves and a place to hang a hammock, food, or wet clothes. When storing your food, be mindful of the voracious squirrels. Bold and relentless, the vermin will bite through a backpacking backpack for a bit of toothpaste!
Finding a nice campsite with plenty of shade and space is a challenge on a holiday weekend. Getting to the campground in the morning is key. There were a few hikers, arriving in the afternoon, desperately searching for a campsite to place their burdensome packs. Luckily, we found a site right next to the creek's edge. During the day, the babbling creek brought peace and at night a lullaby of nature sounds.
At the edge of the campground is an outlook of Mooney falls, a narrow rushing stream of water crashing into the pool below. Even at the top of the falls, a cacophony of rushing water echoes in your ears. Getting down to its' pool is not so much a trail but a climb. Just before crawling into the caves leading to the pool is a helpful sign "Descend at your own risk." Being a bit of a daredevil, I didn't think much of it. However, if you are not a fan of heights or climbing down a rickety chain, then I suggest enjoying the view from above.
During the descent, spray hits your body, camera equipment, and the surrounding walls, which leaves footholds and handholds slippery as you climb down. Also, only one person can climb up or down at a time, causing a line of hikers clamoring to get to/from the falls. When your foot finally touches down on the solid ground, elation courses through your body. All your climbing efforts are rewarded when you turn and see the dramatic falls undulating the pool at its' feet. If you continue walking away from the end of the climb down, through the creek and across the small island, you come to a rope swing with a pool below. To continue onto Beaver Falls, stay on the creek side where you just descended and follow the dirt path.
The 3-mile hike from Mooney Falls to Beaver Falls is filled with lush green vines, overhanging trees, dozens of small waterfalls, and multiple river crossings. For this hike, I'd recommend wearing good water shoes for hiking, a camera (with water protection), and some snacks. Traveling along the creek, you pass a variety of landscapes including cactus-filled outcroppings, fields of green vines, and the smallest waterfalls. All of this beauty leads up to the multiple cascading waterfalls known as Beaver Falls.
While these falls are beautiful, they are also crowded with hikers trying to get the perfect Instagram-worthy shot. It is a sight to see! For the adventure seekers, there are multiple spots to jump into the pools and enjoy swimming in the pure blue. After playing in the pools and getting the perfect shot, the 3-mile hike back to Mooney Falls awaits. Along the way, you may see Big-horned sheep and even more falls that you just have to get a photo of.
After spending 3 nights in Havasupai campground, the daunting task of hiking 10 miles back to Hualapai Hilltop was upon us. Going out is a lot tougher than heading in. Not only are you tired from hiking to the surrounding falls, but on the way back the trail ascends! If hiking back with all your gear is too daunting
a task, you can opt to have the mules or a helicopter take your gear and you out of the canyon. We opted to backpack ourselves and gear the same way we came in (minus all the food we ate). The last 2 miles were by far the hardest due to the steep incline and switchbacks, but we made it! Now for a beer!
While the waterfalls and canyons are among the most beautiful I have seen, there is a darker side to Havasupai. The sheer expense of staying the night in a remote campground here is the same as a 4-star hotel, without any of the amenities or politeness. Our fellow backpackers were courteous (unless you got in the way of their perfect shot!) but some of the Havasupai residents didn't seem to appreciate the tourism. Overall, the beauty and adventure of Havasupai were more than I expected. If you are longing for a fun and memorable trip, consider visiting Havasupai, if you can get a permit ;)