Havasu Canyon, Grand Canyon: Descent to Waterfalls

Wesocogame Point (foreground left), Mount Sinyala, the North Rim, and Ukwalla Point

Sunday morning, October 27, we had to be up early for our ten-mile hike into one of the most scenic parts of the Grand Canyon. We wanted to get an early start both to avoid the midday desert heat in the inner canyon and to ensure we got a nice campsite for our subsequent three nights in Havasu Canyon.

All three of our alarms went off at 4am in our motel room in the Arizona desert along Route 66. We were groggy and stiff, but awake. I had slept very poorly and was extremely stuffy with allergies from the room. Josh and Sean showered, and I unlocked the SVU and loaded our gear in the back.

Along the row of four low-slung buildings, there were spots of activity as other hikers aiming for Havasu Canyon roused themselves.

At 4:35am, Rick and Erik drove up. We were ready to go and said we’d follow them.

The 65-mile drive from the inn to the trailhead took us north-northeast across the bulge of the Colorado Plateau and onto the Havasupai Reservation. The road rose into some uplands where juniper and stunted pine grew (we wouldn’t really see these trees for three days when we were headed back since it was so dark). The guys spotted some ghostly elk along the road at the edge of the trees. Occasionally a suicidal rabbit darted out between Rick and Erik’s vehicle and ours.

We left the sparse forest and crossed the steppe, knowing the canyon was out there in the inky darkness.

We came to the security checkpoint guarding the road’s approach Hualapai Hilltop. From our SUV, Josh, Sean, and I watched as tribal police talked to Erik and Rick and did a light search of their vehicle.

Then it was our turn. Since we were on Rick’s reservation, we just had to show our IDs and pop the hatch. Mostly the tribal police were making sure that tourists headed to the trailhead had reservations and making sure that they had no alcohol, which is strictly forbidden under both tribal and federal law.

After the security checkpoint, the road began to curve and wind as it descended toward Hualapai Hilltop.

The parking instructions warned that the parking lot would likely be full, but if so, visitors were allowed to park along the road. Rick and Erik found a spot, and I pulled the car against a cliff not far back up the road.

Shouldering our packs in the dark was a bit of a mess. Sean needed to fetch something out of his pack’s brain, and it sort of exploded in the back of the vehicle. Per Rick’s suggestion, we each left a water bottle in the car so that we’d have fresh water after the return hike.

Despite the hullabaloo at the car, we were getting very excited by what was happening across the road. First light revealed the walls of Hualapai Canyon opposite.

The light was rising very quickly. Although we needed our headlamps for our final prep at the car, we turned them off as we crossed the parking lot and met up with Rick and Erik. Rick checked in and showed his reservation confirmation at the station at the top of the trail. Across the way, the Havasupai’s little pack horses were stirring. Friendly camp dogs ran about.

With smiles all around, we set out down the trail.

And I do mean down. The first mile and change drops 1,000 feet from the mesa rim onto the Esplanade, the rim of the Grand Canyon’s inner canyon.

Here near the top, we descended through the white layers of Coconino Sandstone.

Across Hualapai Canyon, the light grew ever brighter on the western wall.

The trail is ingeniously carved into an amphitheater-like cut in the canyon wall, allowing for mostly gentle switchbacks, although we were still descending rapidly.

Rubber Rabbitbrush

Looking back up into the amphitheater, we could see how far down we’d already gone.

After the switchbacks, the trail curved out and down from the amphitheater toward the center of the canyon.

Long Mesa and Wescogame Point

Sunrise on the Colorado Plateau lit the layer of Coconino Sandstone at the top of the walls a rich orange.

To the south, Hualapai Canyon rose toward the plateau.

Wescogame Point

(From left) Wescogame Point, Watahomigi Point, Mount Sinyala, the North Rim, and Ukwalla Point

As the trail moved out into the center of Hualapai Canyon, we were still high enough to get a marvelous view north beyond Hualapai Canyon and Havasu Canyon to Mount Sinyala, a striking butte rising off of Sinyala Mesa in the National Park beyond the Havasupai Reservation. The butte was on our side of the Colorado, but in the distance, we could see the immense wall of the North Rim.

Nearer at hand, the trail wound through desert brush.

The trail ended its urgent descent in a dry wash at the center of Hualapai Canyon.

Wesogame Point

Willow Springs

We headed north-northeast along the wash as it began to cut a shallow canyon within the larger canyon.

Prickly Pear

Ukwalla Point

After a few final glimpses of the mesas and cliffs out beyond Hualapai Canyon, this inner canyon grew deep enough that it now was the canyon as far as we were concerned.

We took a break in the wash. Dropped our packs. Had a quick snack. We were keeping a fairly quick pace. Although the trail wasn’t crowded, there were definitely other parties coming down the trail, mostly behind us from what we could tell.

Wescogame Point

We pressed on.

Now the inner canyon was becoming a serious canyon as the wash cut deeper through the layers of the Supai Group

As we hiked along, we began to pass early hikers making their way back up to the trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop. We also passed, or rather were passed by pack trains of little Havasupai horses carrying luggage and supplies to and from the village of Supai and the campground. Visitors had the option to have their gear packed in by the horses (and some mules). Even more dramatically, gear (and visitors) could arrive and depart the village via helicopter. At one point as we hiked along we heard the roar of propellers and looked up to see the helicopter on its run from the helipad at Hualapai Hilltop headed toward Supai. Beneath it hung a long rope with a large net carrying luggage.

At one point, I almost snapped a photo of a horse. The pack team driver berated me before moving on up the trail. I was very embarrassed. I knew that we were not allowed to take photos of the Havasupai people or the village, but I didn’t realize we couldn’t take photos of animals on the trail. Checking the rules later, I clarified that photos on the trail were up to the specific pack team driver. I was mortified because I wanted to be respectful on Havasupai land.

By now, the wash had cut the walls of this inner canyon of Hualapai Canyon to a great height.

The water-smoothed rock reminded me of portions of Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley National Park.

For as timeless as the place felt, there was ample evidence of violence in its creation, such as huge boulders that had fallen from the walls and shattered in the wash.

I tried not to lag behind taking photos, but I often couldn’t help myself. Sean was still suffering from his cold, but he was holding up.

As the canyon cut deeper, desert shrub gave way to legitimate trees.

Fremont Cottonwood

As we approached the northern end of Hualapai Canyon and its junction with Havasu Canyon, its walls soared as sheer cliffs.

We turned a corner and could see the the mouth of the canyon and the walls of Havasu Canyon.

Havasu Canyon

Havasu Canyon is a green place. Not far south from this point (to the right from the vantage point of the above photo), Havasu Creek begins as a spring in the canyon. The spring and creek’s effects are almost magical. The creek makes Havasu Canyon a green landscape set against the red-brown cliffs of the Supai Group.

Once the village of Supai stood here near the junction of the two canyons, but a horrific flood on New Year’s Day in 1910 destroyed that village, and the Havasupai subsequently moved the village to a wider section of the canyon a couple miles downstream that had been the farming fields. This is where the village stands today.

We turned left and followed the sign toward the village.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Fremont Cottonwoods

Havasu Creek

We took a couple minutes to go up a side trail to get a closer look at Havasu Creek. We also noticed an irrigation canal that the Havasupai used to channel water to their fields close to the village.

Irrigation canal

After we crossed a bridge, we were almost in the southern outskirts of the village of Supai.

Havasu Creek

As we reached Supai, a sign noted that photography was forbidden. I turned off my camera and put on the lens cap. I don’t blame the Havasupai for wanting their privacy. For many decades in the 20th century, the campground we were headed for was on National Park land and visitors hiked down the trail and across Havasupai land. There was little the Havasupai could do about it.

The village of Supai is home to about 600 residents, nearly all members of the Havasupai Tribe. It is considered the most remote community in the contiguous United States and it boasts the only post office still serviced by pack train. “Supai,” given its name by Euro-Americans, has no meaning in the Havasupai language. “Havasu” means “blue-green water” and “pai” means people. So Havasupai means people of the blue-green water. Supai is just the third and fourth syllables pulled off the word.

As we walked along the flat and sandy trail on the southern outskirts of town, we passed a cafe surrounded by fenced in fields. Off to the right and back toward the canyon walls was a small white Mormon church. Asters bloomed along the now-wide trail.

The houses, mostly government tract housing with various additions, gradually grew a bit denser. The trail turned and straightened and we walked into “downtown.” On the left was the Head Start office and the helipad. On the right was the tourist office and beyond it the school, the store, and the trail to the lodge.

At the tourist office, we obeyed the instruction to stop and check-in written on a big sign. While Rick went inside with his paperwork, the rest of us rested on the buildings veranda.

Rick had done a lot of heavy-lifting for us to plan the trip. He had handled the reservations for the campground and the tourist registration. He had chosen Grand Canyon Caverns Inn. He had pored over the Havasu Canyon Facebook group to get tips and advice. He had planned our hike in. We all owed him a debt of thanks for making the trip happen. He made sure we knew what we needed to know and that we knew what to expect.

Thank you, Rick.

After a few minutes, he emerged from the tourist office bearing wristbands. We all had to wear them for the duration of our trip to verify that we were registered visitors on sovereign Havasupai lands. Neat!

Before we continued on to the campground, we watched the helicopter lift off from the helipad and turn south toward Hualapai Hilltop.

We had come eight miles and we still had two miles to go until we reached camp.

The trail turned left and curved around the canyon wall as it left town. Along the way was a chapel and more homes. Some Supai residents used little vehicles that were like a cross between a jeep and a golf cart to drive around the village. All of these things must have been airlifted or packed in.

After the village, the trail was broad and consisted of deep sand. Because of the sand, the walking was the most brutal of the hike. It didn’t help that we were approaching mile nine with over 40-pound packs. Rick was feeling it, so we stopped for a quick snack.

As we five walked slowly along, we passed three young guys clad in nothing but shorts and flip-flops, walking toward the village from the direction of the campground. Their abs gleamed in the sunshine. Good grief.

Watahomigi Point

Ukwalla Point

Little Navajo Falls

The trail rejoined the creek at Little Navajo Falls, the first of the four major falls.

Little Navajo Falls

A major flood in 2008 destroyed Navajo Falls, but left a lovely series of cascades.

A glimpse of the North Rim

Little Navajo Falls

Little Navajo Falls

On we went. We had to be getting close now.

Above us, the cliffs of the inner canyon loomed high, but still far below the tops of the cliffs of the Colorado Plateau.

We passed the tribal cemetery, where photos were strictly forbidden.

Havasu Creek

Then we passed a “rest stop,” selling bottled water and energy drinks and snacks and tee-shirts, before crossing a sturdy bridge over the creek.

Fence Lizard

We passed a little hut selling fry bread and resolved to return to get some later on.

The trail curved over to the western wall of the canyon, and I’ll admit I didn’t realize that we had arrived until after a dozen or so yards, when we saw this:

Havasu Falls

It’s was one of those moments when you encounter something really famous that you’ve seen in photos dozens, hundreds of times, but the reality of it still comes as a shock.

Havasu Falls

We laughed that among the people milling about near the pool created by the fall, there was a woman in a bikini having a photo shoot.

“Look! It’s an influencer,” said Rick.

The path was steep from the top of the falls.

Havasu Falls

We reached the campground at 10:45am, almost exactly four hours and fifteen minutes after we set out from the trailhead at Hualapai Canyon ten miles away and 2,000 feet up.

The pink/orange marked our path to Havasu Canyon Campground from Hualapai Hilltop

The hypsometry of the hike captures the steepness of the initial descent from the trailhead (at right)

The trail bottomed out at the entrance to the campground, positioned in a level-floored, narrow section of the canyon between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls. The area had once been the place where the Havasupai cremated their dead. Then in the 1800s prospectors claimed this portion of the canyon and set up a camp for their mining operation. When the National Park came, the Park Service converted the derelict mining camp into a backcountry campground for visitors. After the section of canyon was restored to the Havasupai, they continued using it as a campground for the throngs of visitors who came each year to see the waterfalls.

Speaking of throngs, even with our early start, there were few campsites to be had. As we trudged along, we made note of a few that weren’t particularly private or near the water.

Rick grabbed a food storage bucket near the entrance. He’d read that we’d need one for keeping animals out of our things.

We wobbled across a few of the log and beam bridges that linked parts of the campground together over the creek.

Finally, we decided to split up. Sean had been a trooper, but was really feeling it, and his cold was growing worse. Poor guy. Sean and Rick and I stayed with the gear near a broken down picnic table on the eastern side of the creek while Josh and Erik, unencumbered by their packs, recrossed the creek and split up to look for camp sites.

Erik returned to report that he’d found an island with one tent on it but four picnic tables, so clearly it was meant to hold multiple sites. We went for it.

It was perfect. We had the whole northern half of the little island to set up our three tents. We used two of the picnic tables and made a cozy little camp.

The only tricky part was that getting back to shore involved a crooked bridge and a skip across some wet rocks. Other than that is was enchanting with little burbling cascades nearby. And it was defensible against water-hating zombies.

It felt fucking amazing to take off our packs. We were all sore-legged, but so thrilled to be there.

Image: Sean M. Santos

By 1pm, we were settled in. Josh, Sean, and I split a lunch of dehydrated mac & cheese. It tasted so good.

Cascades near our little island

The eastern wall of Havasu Canyon looming above camp

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