3 days in paradise!
My sister Kristine and I backpacked to Havasu Falls near the village of Supai in the Grand Canyon last week. This has been a trip on my bucket list for quite some time. I had a horse-packer friend who did the trip to chronicle the delivery of mail - this is the last place in the US where mail is delivered by horseback. His photos and stories were amazing and I've always wanted to hike it myself.
This trip requires advanced planning. It's not a day-hike - you must stay down in the canyon either at the lodge or the campground. We opted for the lodge, since it was only 8 miles to and from it, and I knew the last day hiking out of the canyon would be a doozy. Plus, my sister isn't much for sleeping in tents. But we still carried all our food and means to cook it, our clothing, and our personal items. I carried a tarp and 2 person space blanket just in case. The weight difference between this and other trips I've done wasn't much. This is a remote and unforgiving area so best to be prepared.
On Monday I drove to Prescott and met Kristine and Joe at a Mexican restaurant. They had been in Scottsdale all weekend watching Padres spring training games. After dinner we said goodbye to Joe and Kristine and I drove up to Seligman. This is a charming little town on Route 66. We stayed at the Supai Motel and made some last minute packing decisions before retiring for the night. In the morning we were off - the first leg of the trip to Supai is the 90 mile drive to the trailhead from this closest town. The drive is beautiful - we saw pronghorn antelope, a Golden Eagle, and a Red-tailed Hawk. First you are in wide-open grassland, then rolling thickly forested hills cut with deeply incised canyons, then back to wide open grassland. In only the last couple of miles do you get a sense that you're heading towards the canyon - you don't really see it until you're on the rim.
At Hualapai Hilltop there are horses and dogs running free, horses and mules working to take mail, supplies and people in and out of the canyon,a nice composting toilet, a small trailer office where you can make transportation arrangements, a big parking lot, and a helicopter landing pad. No water, so bring your own. There won't be any water on the trail until the last mile.
On the trail
The first mile and a half of trail you'll descend down down down. There are a series of tight switchbacks and you'll likely have to move to the side many times to allow mule trains to go up and down. Sometimes the mules are all strung together, sometimes they run free, apparently knowing where to go. For all except the mail mule trains, we saw one or more dogs following. We found everyone on the trail to be quite friendly.
oh what a view!
Once you've descended into the wash, it's mostly flat and overall slightly downhill all the way to the village of Supai. The walking surface is mostly gravel which you sink a bit into and it makes a whooshing sound. At first it's pleasant enough, but soon you'll be happy wherever you see dirt trails. Sometimes there are multiple ways to go, but just as long as you stay in the main canyon heading downhill you'll be fine. After about mile 3 there is plenty of shade under overhanging rocks and small oak trees. It was about 70 degrees for our hike down which was perfect.
Mail Mule Train and Bear Rock
Kristine and I took our time on the way down - we started about 10:30 and stopped to eat a nice lunch near a big overhanging rock which we called bear rock. It took us 5 hours to reach the town of Supai - hikers who don't dilly dally could reach it in 3-4 hours.We both found the village to be quaint and charming. I'd heard a myriad of stories and warnings about the trip. In 2006 a foreign woman was murdered down here by a villager high on drugs. Backpacker Magazine ran an article soon afterwards that didn't have many nice things to say about the village. My horse-packer friend didn't have a good experience, one villager said that he would steal his horse. So I was a little on edge.
Turns out it's like any other Native American town I've ever experienced. There is some poverty - but most of the homes seemed decent enough, especially when you kept in mind that everything these people have comes in by mule or helicopter. There were tons of kids toys and bikes strewn in every one - it reminded me of my own backyard. There were cute kids everywhere and they all seemed happy. Kids on bikes and horses going to and from school, and after school having fun. It's definitely a family-centered community. The school, churches, community center, market, and cafes looked nice. There was some trash, but I blamed that mostly on the dogs who we saw raided trash cans. But we didn't see any mal-nourished dogs. We saw a few horses who appeared to be elderly who could have used a little more food, but most of the horses we saw appeared to be fed well and taken care of. On part of the aqueduct, which we later learned gets destroyed every year in monsoonal floods, there was graffiti. We saw a lot of men working on the aqueduct, which one villager said they have to clean every year. Overall we had a pleasant experience, so I was glad.
When we reached the lodge we checked in at the front desk and were given a key to our room. The lodge building was nice but inside the room looked like any other cheap hotel room anywhere else in the US. For me, it was luxurious, as I'm used to a tent and sleeping on the ground when I go backpacking! The bed was comfortable, the flush toilet and shower were very much appreciated, and I thought the expense was worth it. Plus I didn't have to hike another two miles down that day, or the last day.
The lodge could use a little maintenance as we found a window that wouldn't open, a light bulb missing, and no plug for the tub. The last was important - we wanted to soak our feet at the end of the hike. But my sister found that a trashcan in the room served the purpose just fine. I asked if there were jets and that sent us into a fit of giggles. Turns out it was a good idea to bring all of our food. The market had food, but it was expensive (of course). The two cafes had food but it was reported to be so-so. That night we had tacos and made all our lodge mates jealous as we ate it out on the picnic table on the deck. We watched the sun go down, listened to the doves cooing, and then turned in early. I slept like a log.
In the morning we packed our lunches and sandals and headed down to the waterfalls. It's about 1 mile to Navajo Falls, 2 to Havasu, and 3 to Mooney. There is one more waterfall,Beaver, that we didn't see - and you can also hike all the way to the Colorado River. Maybe next time. For us by the time we did the down-climb to Mooney that was a good turn-around spot.
So Navajo Falls is the first waterfall you see - it's beautiful as it is wide with so many travertine terraces. Once you get a little below Navajo you look up and see another waterfall above it - I think they call this Little Navajo. We were very impressed, but we knew it would just get better.
You know when Havasu Falls is coming - the canyon gets steeper and seems to drop away, and you hear it echoing off the canyon walls. You can almost feel the noise vibrating and I was so excited. When it appears it is stunning! We were both in awe. We wanted to spend time there, but I said we should keep going to Mooney to see it, then on the way back up we could take more time at Havasu.
Havasu Falls through the trees
Turns out that was really good - because getting to Mooney isn't so easy.Well, you can see the top of Mooney from the trail. But to get to the base you have to climb down a series of caves, cliffs, and ladders. Chutes and ladders, Kristine said. It's not technical, you don't need to be roped in, but it's definitely not for the faint of heart! The first cave has steps carved in, and you go down backwards holding on wherever you can. Then you are on a balcony of sorts with a gorgeous view of the falls. From here on down it's slippery because of the spray from the waterfall, which adds to the difficulty. There is one more cave then it's an almost vertical drop. Here there are chains and bolts that you will have to grab. And make sure you wear good boots with good grippy outsoles! Go slow and most people in decent shape will be able to do it. There was a group in front of us and one lady who hesitated at one particular spot where there was no good place to put your right foot. I was a little nervous and giggled all the way down. But we made it! Wow, it was a phenomenal experience!
View out the tunnel
Once at the bottom we dropped our packs, put on our water sandals, and I went in the water. Up to my neck - it was chilly! Not so much the water, but there is a wind off the bottom of the falls it's so powerful. Loved it. Then we grabbed our lunch and went across the water to a picnic table that was actually sitting in 6 inches of water. There we ate our lunch and Kristine wrote in her journal. Unfortunately we forgot Kristine had carried a couple of clif bars and when we were eating lunch a squirrel also got his - chewing a hole through her (mine) day pack and eating half of a clif bar. Ooops, don't feed the wildlife :p
A great spot to eat lunch and write in a journal
After lunch and relaxing, we climbed back up to the top of Mooney Falls- going up is easier than going down. Then we made our way through, the campground which was mostly empty, back to Havasu Falls. There we spent the rest of the afternoon, and I even convinced my sister to go for a swim. There were three smaller pools formed by travertine terraces that were perfect for swimming. It was warm for me, about 70*, and I'm used to much colder water in the backcountry. But for Kristine it was a little chilly, so she swam in the largest pool against the current to warm up.
My sister swimming at Havasu Falls
There was a big brother and little brother swimming with us in the big pool. At one point the little brother got dragged down as he swam right next to the small falls coming off the terrace and it was a good thing big brother was a good swimmer. The little one swallowed some water and was scared afterwards, but was okay. I'm also glad my sister was there since she is a former lifeguard. So lesson learned is that perhaps kids should stay in the two smaller pools.
Havasu Falls and Smaller Falls
After our swim we dried off, well Kristine did anyway, I just kind of drip-dried since I'd gone in with my t-shirt and capris on. It was like swimming and doing laundry at the same time ;) We then ate a snack and started our hike back to the lodge. We passed two horses which each had two little girls riding bareback - an after school excursion downhill. I found myself actually envying them - in Bishop we'd sometimes ride horses after school and I miss that. Now all I have after work is a 30 mile freeway drive :p The stay in Supai had me really craving a simpler lifestyle. I told Kristine to just leave me there,send in my husband and son on a helicopter, I'd be happy. Once we got back to town, we bought a couple of ice creams and postcards at the market, then sat watching the children play. We then returned to nap, make dinner, and again I slept very well. I think I'm spoiled now - I found myself thinking of other places that you could hike to, but stay in a lodge, lol
In the morning we awoke and started packing up. I checked my phone and found a message from a hiker friend that Sonya's husband Tim had passed away. Sonya's been my best hiking buddy the past 6 years and I was taken back and so sad for her. Tim was only 60 years old and the death was very unexpected. We stopped at the small church on our hike out of town and I said prayers for her and her family. Since it took us 5 hours to hike in, I was thinking 6 or 7 for the hike out. But turns out we were out in 5.5 - so we made good time. It was also cloudy and cool, which helped us out a great deal. Except for a couple of snack and yoga breaks, we kept a good pace. We composed "Hiker Haiku" poems on the way out. Here is one I remember:
Switchbacks up ahead
Happy to leave the gravel
I was indeed glad to leave the gravel behind, as I think I aggravated a groin muscle in my left leg and it seemed to hurt worse on the gravel.
Mule Train on Switchback
One the switchbacks where I'd seen a bunch of bottles behind a retaining wall on our hike down, I made a point to stop and clean them up. Kristine and I didn't know if it was tourists or locals more apt to leave bottles and cans behind, but there were a few spots were we saw small piles of them. Well, there's one less now. Pack out more than you pack in. Plus I had to redeem my LNT-self after the squirrel eating our Clif bar :p
We took turns driving home, stopping in Kingman for an early dinner. The last leg of our trip was beautiful as the sun set across the desert. We made it to my parent's house about 9:00 pm. They were watching my son and they were all glad to see us. Plus it was Kristine's birthday the next day :)
Hope you enjoy the photos!