“When a great adventure is offered, you don’t refuse it.” ~ Amelia Earhart
When a good friend suggested I join her on a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon on our shared birthday, I jumped at the chance. It was just what I was looking for — a refreshingly a new type of adventure.
This was my first backpacking trip, sleeping in tents and going without showers for four days. Right from the get-go, Teri told me the trip would involve carrying 30-35 lb packs on the 10 mile hike from the trailhead down to the campground and back up the canyon walls, an elevation of more than 2000 feet. Then she gushed about how excited she was to see Havasu Falls and how she’d been wanting to take this trip for 20 years. I knew exactly nothing about Havasupai and Havasu Falls.
If you’ve heard of this waterfall oasis deep within the canyon, you can imagine my surprise when I finally did a Google image search on Havasu Falls, after already saying yes and making my deposit.
If you know nothing about it, like me at the time, then you’re in for a treat!
Eventually I learned a lot more. I learned that Havasu Falls wasn’t located inside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park, but in Havasu Canyon, a large tributary on the south side of the Colorado River inside the Havasupai Indian Reservation, fully administered by the Havasupai tribe.
I also learned that there are only a few ways to get to Supai, the only village inside the reservation and the nearby campgrounds where we would be staying. You can hike in, ride a horse or mule, or fly in via helicopter. There’s no road into Supai, only the long winding trail you see above. We had already opted to hike in and out. No mules or helicopters for us. Or our packs.
The trip began easily. The first mile or so was all downhill — lots of switchbacks, carefully avoiding passing mule trains, taking in the long vistas, stopping for photos, and imagining what climbing back up those walls would feel like three days later on tired legs. Then we arrived at the riverwash trail along the bottom of the canyon that would bring us all the way to Supai.
The “trail” varied from sand-like dirt to pebbles and rocks to big boulders like those above. It required paying attention to each step to avoid turning an ankle or face planting while distractedly looking up. Beautiful, but not a leisurely walk. About 6 miles later, we saw the sign for Supai. We cheered, took a few pictures, and headed onward. Not long after that, we heard the first sounds of Havasu Creek, even before we could see it.
The name Havasupai means “people of the blue-green water.” What I didn’t realize before I signed on for this trip was just how blue-green this water was going to be. It’s truly incredible to see in person.
“An underground river gushes forth to form Havasu Creek. With a steady flow rate of about 28,000 gallons per minute and a heavy concentration of suspended calcium carbonate, the river bed is lined with limestone that reflects the sunlight and gives the creek its striking blue-green color.” ~VisitArizona.com
It’s no surprise to me that anyone stumbling upon these incandescent waters would consider this a sacred place. More photos of teal water to come.
Supai is considered the most remote community in the lower 48 states. As of the 2010 census, it had a population of 208. And, it’s one of the last two places where the U.S. mail is still delivered by mule. The other is Phantom Ranch, also in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The Havasupai people are thought to have inhabited this canyon for more than 800 years, and they spent many of those years in isolation, first coming into contact with Europeans as late as 1776.
The last stretch on the way to Supai was full of fine, sand-like dirt, and we struggled to find the most packed down section to walk on, often skirting the edges of the trail. By the time we hit Supai, I felt like my feet were swelling. They were sore, and my shoes felt increasingly tight.
Heavenly Supai. It wasn’t pretty at all, just a standard reservation town. But by the time we got there over the boulders, through all the sandy roads, continually passed by a security woman on an ATV, and drenched in sweat from the midday heat, Supai felt Godsent.
“The Havasupais tell stories of the stones that they believe protect their canyon home. Two red pillars, known to the Havasupais as Wigleeva, are believed to guard the tribe. Havasupai legends state that if these pillars ever fall, the canyon walls will close in and destroy the people.” ~Nature, Culture, and History at the Grand Canyon by Arizona State University
We continued to the town’s restaurant and store, past homes that had all been assembled in the canyon with materials brought in via helicopter.
We dropped our packs for a much needed bathroom break and cold water to wash our hands and faces. The large Diet Cokes we ordered were the size of Big Gulps and filled with ice that was perfectly formed and white all the way through. Even the ice water tasted amazing, almost sweet, compared to the water from our bottles and CamelBaks.
When I finally changed my socks and looked at my now blistered feet, I discovered that my shoes had filled with sand (not ideal), but much better than having my feet swell for some inexplicable reason.
The last two miles from Supai to the campground may have felt the longest, but soon the trail passed right by our first set of waterfalls. Then right before the campground entrance, we saw what we had come so far to see, Havasu Falls.
We would spend the next two days exploring the area, taking day hikes to see all of the nearby waterfalls, swimming in the blue-green waters, climbing up and down ladders and rock faces, checking out an abandoned mine, and watching the water turn red after an extended rain storm stirred up all the red dirt in the bottom of the creek.
Thankfully, the dirt had mostly settled by the morning of our last day. We were glad to have one last look at the blue-green water on our way out of Havasupai. The rain storm had packed down all the sand-like dirt and our hike out was better than expected, at least until we reached the canyon walls.
If you look closely, at the picture above, you can make out a couple of people and a building at the top. That’s the trailhead. Below, those are all the switchbacks we traversed. We knew the last mile would be rough, and it didn’t disappoint.
Standing at the top of those canyon walls was a well-earned moment I won’t soon forget. Not only did I learn a lot about the canyon on this trip, but I learned a lot about myself.
I learned that I could actually carry a 28 lb pack over a creek, through a canyon, and back. I learned how loud a rushing creek sounds in the middle of the night. I learned that duct tape doesn’t stick to blistered feet after multiple water crossings and shoe changes. I learned that I need new trail shoes that don’t collect sand. I remembered how easy it is to relax when in nature and outside of cell service, how much I missed seeing the night sky far from city lights, and how good physical exhaustion feels, compared to mental stress, even if it does sometimes means blisters and bruised toes.
And finally, I also learned how good a real shower and bed could feel after four days without them!
Teri and I signed up for this trip through a local outfitter called Just Roughin’ It. Ryan (far left) was our guide, and Bonnie and Marty (right) who we hadn’t met beforehand signed up for the trip in honor of Marty’s birthday, which coincidentially was the day after ours.