In mid-March I made a trip to the Grand Canyon, for the first time backpacking outside the boundaries of the National Park. For this trip, I'd be visiting the Havasupai Indian reservation, occupying territory adjacent to the park. The Havasupai town of Supai, Arizona, lies within the canyon, its 400 or so residents the only full-time dwellers in the Grand Canyon and control visits to some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the southwest.
My full photo gallery can be found here , or as a slideshow here
I spent a day in the National Park, hiking along the rim and taking a bit of time to acclimate to the altitude. I took the chance to visit Shoshone Point, the only notable point I hadn't been to within the main tourist section of the park. It's at the end of any easy mile-long trail, actually a dirt road, and features a large picnic area that's available for rental by private groups.
Monday morning, March 19, I took off. To reach the trailhead from the National Park you take Historic Route 66 west from Seligman, turning onto Indian Route 18 a few miles east of Peach Springs. It's a good road, better than it looks on maps, actually better than Route 66. You travel about 60 miles across the Hualapai Indian reservation (the Hualapai were opening their reviled Skywalk this week, well to the west) to reach the parking lot & trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop.
Hualapai Hilltop is the Havasupai connection to the rest of the world. There's a large parking lot and a helipad, with trailers for stock, but not much else. Use care when parking- spots under the cliff look a bit too subject to rockfall for my taste.
For someone with experience on most of the South Rim trails of the Grand Canyon, this one looked fairly easy. By the time you've reached Hualapai Hilltop you've already descended through the Kaibab and Toroweap layers of the canyon, so you're starting out about 1000' lower than most other trailheads. The trail starts out steep, descending another 1000' in the first mile of switchbacks, then levels out as it drops to the creekbed of Hualapai Canyon. The trail is wide and in very good condition- easily as well maintained as the Corridor trails in the National Park. Just before dropping into the creekbed is the best vista of the trip, one of the few open views you'll have. There is more trash along the trail than I'm used to be seeing, but old mail containers were being used to pick it up. Like the conditions in Supai, it looked like the tribe had heard comments, and were working to correct them.
Once it drops into the creekbed the going gets a little tougher. For most of the 8-mile hike to Supai, the trail meanders through the creekbed of Hualapai Canyon, then along Havasu Creek. The wash is generally wide, with a number of herd trails weaving across each other, sometimes running over higher or lower ground. It's tough to generalize one as better than the other- sometimes the higher path is firmer than the loose gravel of the creek, sometimes it's softer sand. Either way, for most of this gently descending trip your footing isn't as good as you'd like. It's a long, tiring trail. Yes, compared to most trails in the Grand Canyon it's easy, but that's entirely relative- it's still 8 miles to the village, then another 2 miles to the campground. Those miles were easier on my knees than trips past, but harder on the ankles. If I were to take the trip again, I'd probably use the service that lets you send a pack down on horseback and save myself the effort.
Eventually, Hualapai Canyon joins Havasupai Canyon; shortly after that, you reach the town of Supai. Much of what I'd read before the trip made the town seem like a blight within the canyon, but that's not what I saw at all. I saw a small, generally well-kept town. The houses, at least the ones along the main trail, are neat, most with air conditioning and satellite dishes. Most of them have a small corral for horses, and some have signs offering soda & snacks for sale. Many had toys & playground equipment in good repair in the yards. There are two churches and a school, along with the only post office remaining in the US that sends mail via mule train. There are also stray dogs everywhere, but they were friendly and not a nuisance.
Near the helipad (an open field) is the tourist office. It looked new, and there was no sign out front (A piece of paper had been added by the time I hiked out), so I walked past it and wandered for a bit before I got directions from a resident. ("Right across from the two-story building.") You pay & get a camping permit there, then continue to the campground between Havasu & Mooney Falls.
The campground starts a little below Havasu Falls, just after a new building with composting toilets- it was just opening when I was there, replacing porta-johns. The campground starts at a wide spot near Fern Spring, the camp (and town) water source. Tribal info says the water should be treated, but no one seemed concerned about it, streaming out of a pipe driven into the rock. For the best campsites, continue past this area. The canyon narrows again, with another half-mile of campsites on both sides of the creek (a narrow plank bridge provides a crossing) that are a little more spread out than the sites further upstream. The campsite is huge- at least a hundred sites- but didn't seem horribly crowded.
Below the campground lies Mooney Falls, the tallest of the set. It's about 200' tall, a thin stream pouring down into a pool below. To reach the base is a challenge, a steep, slippery descent along the edge of a drop, sometimes through narrow tunnels, and finally ending with two none-to-secure ladders propped against the rocks.
Signs warn against trying the descent in inclement weather; a lot of people weren't taking the trip even on the nice days I was there.
There's a fourth fall downstream of Mooney, Beaver Falls. I'm told that it's smaller but pretty; personally, I couldn't face another two miles of hikes with several stream crossings. I elected to spend my full day in the canyon hiking between the three nearby falls, and swimming at Havasu Falls.
One of the fascinating things about these falls is the contrast of the beauty of the falls themselves with the rock deposits built up around them. The disovled limestone in the water gives it the distinctive aqua color, and also filters out to form travertine deposits. Below the falls and in the creek the travertine forms dams; along side the falls it forms incredible projections, tooth-like stalactites that look like they'd fit right into a horror movie.
Further upstream lies Havasu Falls. It's a little shorter than Mooney, at about 150', but it's wider, with more spectacular pools at the base. I spent hours here exploring the pools, taking pictures, and swimming in the water. I'm told that the water is about 72 degrees year round; it didn't feel quite that warm to me, but it was still comfortable, at least until the sun went behind clouds.
I had some time to myself at the falls, but eventually crowds started appearing. Some were from the campground, but there's also a lodge in town, offering simple rooms for those unwilling to camp.
The pools at Havasu Falls are spectacular, spreading out below the falls. They step downward until the creek reforms further down, but in the falls currents are (mostly) calm, and the water is deep enough for swimming. Use some care- most of the travertine is smooth, but one outcropping left me with scrapes on an ankle that made wearing a boot for the hike out the next day a little uncomfortable.
Further upstream lies Navaho Falls, the shortest but widest of the collection. It's pretty, but not on the scale of the others. It's more private though, on a side trail that's easily missed on the hike from town, with a nice pool for swimming. I learned after my trip that there'd been a drowning here a few days earlier, so there's always a need to use care.
It rained on & off my second night in the campground, turning some of the soft sand into a heavier mud. Whether due to that, or just days of strain, the hike out on my third day turned out to be a very long trip, or at least it felt that way.
One thing to be careful of along this trail- the pack trains run free from just outside the village to near the hilltop. A villager rides with them, but he doesn't seem to be in much control. They run at high speed and can come up on you quick if you aren't paying attention. They're responsible for the winding, braided trails through the creekbed, each horse taking his own path.
Many of the horses didn't look like they were in the best condition to me. I don't know much about working horses (Hey, I live in Brooklyn), but these all had patchy fur, worn by pack straps, and looked very skinny. Horses being ridden by guests did look a little better treated.
The trail rises a few hundred feet from the campground to the village, then seems to level out. It actually gains about 1000' between the village and the point where it leaves the canyon floor and starts the climb to Hualapai Hilltop, but spread over miles it isn't very noticeable. That last 1000' up from the creekbed, though? That's rough. It took me about 5 1/2 hours from the campground to the hilltop, not bad for 10 miles, but that last mile took a full hour of it.
The next day I returned to the National Park, getting to take some pictures in varying lighting from what I've had before. The mix of clouds & sun led to some great patterning in the canyon.