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HIKING HAVASUPAI

Exploring the blue green waters of the Havasupai Tribe.

Story by Whitney James August 28th, 2015

GETTING TO HAVASU

This spring, I was lucky enough to get a reservation to backpack down to Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation in Arizona. Alright, I’m lucky my boyfriend got reservations. He dialed the number at least 100 times after I’d given up, and was finally connected with a haggard someone sitting in Supai Village answering the phone that rings non-stop from the moment reservations open in early February. Two spots reserved, and we were on our way. Sort of.

There’s still a lot to figure out once you claim your right to overnight Havasupai. As chance would have it, my old car sits at my parents’ place in Las Vegas. We few into LAS from DEN, stole the keys, and headed out on the open road with nothing more than a Very Best of Eagles CD and a lot of freeze-dried food.

Below is a highlight of Havasupai you don’t normally see. The parts I felt were missing from my online searches. And I think, the ones that tell the whole story. For real trip logistics, check out my post on Huckberry.

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HUALAPAI HILLTOP

The first night was spent on the side of the road at Hualapai Hilltop. We were shocked as we rounded the corner to see cars stacked into the shoulders of the road, well before the actual parking lot that marks the trailhead down to Supai Village. We clearly didn’t have the early-season start we thought we did. But on the other hand, I was pretty sure I had the worst head cold of all the hikers that would descend into the canyon that weekend.

We pitched our tent right next to the Jeep. The view, despite the parked cars, was sensational. When I finally wandered into the true parking lot, I saw 25 other hikers had done the same. I noticed a lonely mule in the pens on the edge of the cliff–a preview of the animal neglect we were to see more of later–and convinced my boyfriend to donate some of our water to see if he would drink. Of course, he didn’t under our watchful eyes.

The trail to Havasu Falls can be spotted just above Bryan's hand on the canyon floor below.
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THE HIKE DOWN

The next morning, we put on our packs and began the descent. The steep section down (about 2,400 feet elevation change) occurs immediately. We are both extremely novice backpackers (as in, this was the second backpacking trip for each of us), we had prepared for a long, painful haul. That bracing mentality made it seem much better, allowing me to focus on how miserable it was to blow my nose every ten feet and blink the pressure out of my eyes at every turn.

Six miles in, we heard the sound of hooves. A group of horses and mules carrying packs came ripping around the corner, scraping backpacks against rock walls and clipping their unshod hooves on the even rockier footpath. We didn’t know until that moment that some people–maybe the majority of people–chose to hike Havasu without carrying their own gear. And it didn’t take us long to feel really, really good about taking responsibility for our own burdens. You can find plenty of gruesome information online about Havasupai horse abuse—and if you’re anything like me, you’ll take helicopter if you’re not able to pack your own stuff.


Each band of horses and mules you see is owned by a different man or family. Some carry more than others.
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SUPAI VILLAGE

Eight miles in from Hualapai Hilltop is Supai Village. Our hike so far had been relatively easy, full of excitement and suspense for the turquoise waters we’d seen on the Internet. We’d heard that the village was reminiscent of a third-world country, so with that expectation I wasn’t surprised with what we found. Crooked fence lines, decrepit houses, and rap music blaring from headphones of aimless teenagers. Check in at the check-in-place, where you’ll pay for your reservation (credit cards accepted), poke your head in the store for final snacks, and enjoy your last flush toilet before you get back into the wild. Don’t count on the breakfast shack being open even if it’s during hours—it was (devastatingly) closed for us both ways.


If you're not much for hiking, you can take a heli into Supai and then hike two miles down to Havasu. They run most days of the week.
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HAVASU FALLS

After nearly two miles of hiking in deep sand from Supai, we neared Havasu Falls. The pitch steepened and I groaned at the thought of climbing back out in two days. As we peered over the guardrail, the falls were exactly what we’d expected. Gorgeous. Tall. Crawling with people. We enjoyed a quieter pool (location undisclosed) with no company and enjoyed the feel of the icy water on our tired feet.


Exploring other areas of Havasu Creek will get you away from all the crowds.
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MAKING CAMP

You can camp anywhere from Havasu Falls down to Mooney Falls, a mile below. That’s not to say you should camp 1.5 feet away from your neighbors, as happened with us twice over the course of the weekend. I recommend setting up your camp in a defensive manner. Hang things up. Create a border. Maybe even make a fake RESERVED sign that tourists will take seriously. And then when you come back and find someone hanging in your hammock, just look the other way and enjoy the view. This isn’t your normal backpacking trip, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire United States.
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MOONEY & BEAVER FALLS

After a restful night, we packed a day bag for a trek to Mooney and Beaver Falls. We’d read that Beaver Falls was only 1.5 miles away, but it must’ve been 1.5 miles away from Mooney Falls (5 miles round-trip from Havasu Falls). The unsung highlight of this section is the otherworldly lushness that occurs as you approach Beaver Falls. I’d also tout the guy who stands at the top of Beaver Falls all day, observing tourists and making sure no one hurts themselves trying to cliff jump off ledges that are only appropriate for cannon balls. That guy was the best.

Don’t forget to bring water shoes. You’ll be crossing Havasu Creek in order to follow the trail and for just plain old fun all day. My Vibrams were great, but I wished I had something that allowed the little limestone rocks to exit automatically.

Posing for a photo atop Mooney Falls. You wouldn't want to camp on the hard, rocky sides, despite what you see on Instagram.
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HOMEWARD BOUND

On Monday morning, it was time to climb back out of Havasupai. Luckily, we were distracted from the steep switchbacks with U.S. mail being delivered by horse and mule—the only place this still occurs in the nation. After we crested the top, we saw a family in the parking lot selling packaged, high-fructose treats. We began searching our pockets for money with more excitement than we thought possible for a can of Pringles.

The final surprise were the horses tied chaotically to the guardrail around the Jeep, completely boxing us in. While we waited to be able to leave, we had a thirty minute chat with a member of the tribe that proved to be the most authentic and special part of our entire Havasupai experience. I’ll be sending him that postcard he wanted. Or maybe I’ll just drop it off in person next year.

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Footnote: All photos by me on my Canon 60D.
Havasu Falls, Supai, AZ, United States