Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Backpacking Havasu Canyon of the Grand Canyon

The Havasupai Indians ("the people of the blue-green water") occupy a reservation of 185,000 acres, including the Havasu Canyon and its blue-green Havasu Creek, located about 140 miles west of the national park. Approximately 650 enrolled tribal members comprise the tribe, the smallest tribe in America, and all speak their native language, Havasupai, which has been a written language for about 35 years.

Most live in the village of Supai, eight miles down from the rim. The tribe has occupied these lands for over 700 years, but when miners found these lands in the 1800s, the tribe's lands were drastically reduced in size. Congress in 1975 returned most of the land to the tribe. The Havasupai are proud to announce in their literature that they "do not receive any government stipends and they do pay income taxes just like all Americans." They have an attractive elementary school for their children, while high schoolers are sent to a boarding school in Kingman, Arizona. A new tribal office building was completed when we were there in 2001 and a number of homes were under construction. We watched stacks of lumber being delivered on a sling beneath a helicopter to one of the new homes being constructed.

Access to Havasu Canyon is possible only by foot, horse, or helicopter. To reach the Supai Village, you must drive 68 miles on a paved road from the Hualapai ("the people of the pines") Indian town of Peach Springs, Arizona, and then walk or horseback 8 miles down to Supai Village on a hot, dusty trail. The first mile or so is a series of switchbacks descending 1000 feet and the remaining seven miles descend another 900 feet. No water is available, so carry plenty. Guarding the people of Supai is the stone monument Wigleeva, a double tower of Supai Sandstone overlooking the village and protecting its occupants.

Four waterfalls down beyond the village carry Havasu Creek to the Colorado River which is nine  miles below the village.  Navajo Falls is the first of the four waterfalls you reach after about a 1.5 mile hike down from Supai. This waterfall is 75 feet tall and comes down in several distinct falls. The foliage is so thick here that good views of the falls are obscured, though a trail can be followed down to creek level and there are some pools you can go in at the base of the falls. I've seen photos taken in later years where the foliage has been pruned back giving better views of the various strands of these falls.  Navajo Falls is named after a 19th century Havasupai tribal chief who as a child was kidnapped and raised by Navajo Indians. Years later he learned of his identity and returned to his home.

A half mile beyond Navajo Falls is the namesake Havasu Falls which are about 100 feet tall, dropping into the magnificent blue-green pool which beckons visitors to linger on the shore and play in the constant 70 degree water.

Water is contained in numerous smaller pools by naturally occurring travertine dams formed by the high concentration of limestone in the water which precipitates out forming the dam walls.  Though heavy rains and flooding in 1992, 1995, and since 2001 have washed out many of the travertine dams, many remain and new ones are being rebuilt gradually by nature. If you wear proper footwear such as sandals, you can safely walk across the dams to access other pools, or you can simply swim over to any area you wish to explore.

The tranquility of this place drew us back the second day and we spent the better part of the day here, in and out of the water, but often simply staring at the beauty, mesmerized by the pounding of the falls, the splatter of the spray, the magnificence of the scenery. Even after 5 hours, it was difficult to leave and return to Supai. When I'm asked what the most beautiful I've visited is, Havasu Falls comes to mind first!  This is the most popular locale in the canyon, so expect other people to be there.

Another mile beyond Havasu Falls is Mooney Falls, the tallest falls at 196 feet (29 feet taller than Niagara Falls). Mooney was a miner who died here in 1880. Several versions exist regarding his death, but all revolve around the fact that he attempted to descend by rope, which jammed and ultimately frayed and broke. The Havasupai call this waterfall "The Mother of the Waters."  Below is a photo taken from the top of the falls.  Many visitors stop here and simply enjoy this overlook because this is the hardest of the falls to reach the bottom of,  and the next few photos explain why.  At the top are several warning signs that try to dissuade you from continuing, and when you entered the Supai Village and paid your entrance fee, you must sign a waiver for accidents incurred in the canyon.  I think this is the place they have in mind!

Descending to the base of the falls (without duplicating Mooney's demise) requires traversing two nearly vertical tunnels and then climbing down with the assistance of chains attached to steel stakes hammered into the rock face. In the photo below, my sons begin the descent after the tunnels. The green water of the pool can be seen below. Several of the chains have detached from the pitons and flap about, and of course, spray from the waterfall can make the rocks and chains wet. Also, everything is coated with a layer of red dust from the redwall limestone in this area. However, if care is exercised, this looks like a much more difficult enterprise than it actually is, and it is exhilarating! I suggest you follow the trail from the top, go through the tunnels, and begin going down the first section of chains. After you see what the "path" is like, you can decide for yourself whether you wish to descend all the way.

The photo below depicts the bottom half of your adventure climb.  If you look closely, you can see 12 people ascending various sections of the "trail."

The next two photos show us nearing the bottom utilizing these homemade ladders and the chains...

The descent was an adventure, as was going back up, but we all agreed that the beauty down here was worth the effort!

Two miles farther downstream is the smallest of the falls, Beaver Falls, and four miles beyond that is the Colorado River. The trail below Mooney Falls becomes more difficult and crosses the creek numerous times, and as you get farther downstream, you will begin meeting people coming upriver from raft trips traveling through the Grand Canyon.


Some hikers camp at the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead parking area to get an early morning start to beat the heat. Or you can stay at either the Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs or the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn a dozen miles east of Peach Springs. The former is a modern (1997) 60 room motel with full restaurant, phones, televisions, and air conditioning. The latter is an old '50s type motel.  The interesting caverns connected to this latter motel are worth the 45 minute tour, which cost $9.95 in 2001. (As of April, 2002, the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn was under new ownership, and their plan is to upgrade all rooms with satellite TV, as well as new phone system, plumbing fixtures, heat, and air conditioning.)
In the canyon, you can stay at the Havasupai Lodge in the village or hike another two miles to the campground the tribe operates. Each of the 24 lodge rooms is sparsely but comfortably furnished with two queen beds, private bathroom, and air conditioning. A phone is available in the lobby. An entrance fee is assessed every visitor ($20 in 2001). Lodge rates started at $75 for a single and the campground rate was $10 per person per night. The village has a small cafe with limited menu, but serving reasonably priced, tasty meals, and you'll find a small grocery store and a post office (the only one in America served by mule train). Remember, all deliveries are by mule, so everything does cost a bit more than up on the rim. Many tribal members keep a car on the rim. When they shop in one of the larger Arizona towns, they often mail their purchases to themselves to avoid carrying the items down themselves. We saw boxes of supplies for the grocery store waiting to be carried by mail mule down to the store, each box with postage of over $4.00 affixed (2001 postage.) If you would rather hike without your gear, you can pay to have your gear taken down and back up by horseback, and even hire a horse if you'd rather ride both ways. You can also hire Havasupai guides to take you to the waterfalls.

Havasupai Lodge
P. O. Box 159
Supai, AZ 86435
(520) 448-2111 or 2201

Hualapai Lodge
900 Historic Route 66
P. O. Box 538
Peach Springs, AZ 86434
Grand Canyon Caverns Inn
P. O. Box 180
Mile Marker 116.5/ Route 66
Peach Springs, AZ 86434

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