Monday, October 28 was the first of our two full days in Havasu Canyon. We had hiked in the morning of the previous day for our three nights of camping. Despite the big hike that day, we decided for another big hike this following day: hiking downstream to Beaver Falls and then on to attempt to reach the confluence of Havasu Creek and the Colorado River in the main trunk of the Grand Canyon. From the campground, the confluence is seven miles, so it would be a long, but doable fourteen mile out-and-back. We’d decided to do it this first day because then we’d have a full day to rest before the hike back out of the canyon on Wednesday.
I slept hard until just before dawn. It was cold in the tent, so I threw a few hand warmers into my sleeping bag, rolled over, and went back to sleep for a bit.
When I woke up for real at 6:30am, Sean was coughing badly in his sleeping bag. His cold was clearly was worse than the day before. I climbed stiffly out of the tent to find the other three guys up and about, but only recently.
We wanted to get an early start for our big day of hiking and pulled together our day packs over coffee. We didn’t have a hot breakfast, so I tossed some extra food into my pack.
Sean decided he was not well enough to join us. He would stay in camp to rest. It was a disappointing turn of events, but certainly understandable.
The rest of us set out around 7:45. Once we started walking, Josh and I remarked that we weren’t as stiff as we thought we’d be.
After a quick pit stop…literally…we were on our way for real.
The campground ends on the top of the cliff that Havasu Creek tumbles over to create Mooney Falls, at 196 feet the tallest of the three major waterfalls in Havasu Canyon. Its Havasu name is Ha Gv’oma, which means End Waterfall, but it was renamed Mooney Falls by white prospectors in 1882 after one of their party, Dan Mooney, fell to his death trying to descend the cliff via rope.
The following year, prospectors created the current hair-raising route to the bottom. Steeling myself against my fear of heights, I knew I’d either make it down or I wouldn’t and I’d rejoin Sean in camp.
The trail curved to a little terrace across from the falls. I needed to take my time, so Rick, Erik, and Josh prepared to go first.
The trail dropped into a narrow tunnel.
At the bottom of that tunnel, the trail emerged onto a narrow ledge, which led to a second tunnel.
At the bottom of the second tunnel, the trail again emerged, but onto an even smaller ledge. From here, hikers had to descend the rest of the way via footholds and chains anchored into the cliff face. The mist from the waterfall made everything slick and added a little slippery mud into the equation. On the ledge at the top of the chains was a pile of gloves, mostly normal gardening gloves of different sizes, that hikers could borrow to gain better hold of the chains.
Erik had gone first, then Josh, then Rick. I swallowed my fear, pulled on some gloves, and prepared to start down.
A bit of the way down, while I waited for the others to descend below me, I had the courage to snap a few photos of the view up the chains, out across the canyon, and down at the top of Rick’s head.
I don’t know how I managed to take this photo without throwing up.
The chains were slick, the rock was slick, and mist swirled around. The worst moments were the gaps, when one length of chain would end and I’d have to reach over for the next length. At one point, the step was a loose log wedged upright into the cliff.
Near the bottom, the footholds ended, and I had to step down feeling for the top rung of a ladder bolted and chained to the side of the cliff.
Made it. Eventually I’d have to go back up, or else just live in the canyon forever, but I’d worry about that much later in the day.
At the bottom, I pulled off the gloves and dropped them in the pile for others to use.
We didn’t linger at the bottom of the falls, but continued on our way.
The trail took us northwest down Havasu Canyon. It also rose onto a ridge high above the creek.
Erik led the way as the trail sometimes confusingly wound through surprisingly heavy brush.
Then the trail dropped back down to creekside.
Here Havasu Creek was broad and almost filled the canyon from wall to wall.
The lime deposits in the water caused the creekbed to form pools and terrace just like at the base of Havasu Falls.
Then we hit our first creek crossing of the day. The air was still chilly, so we were winter up top and barefoot down below.
The water was cool, but not cold.
It was actually surprisingly deep.
We guessed that we’d have to cross again shortly, so we stayed barfoot.
We were right. We waded in looking for the shallowest point to reach the other side. Josh noticed little raccoon handprints in the mud at the edge of the creek.
The trail led up away from the creek again, so we dried our feet and put our boots back on for the next section.
We now entered an extraordinary part or the trail that led through thickets of Canyon Grapes.
A hand-made direction sign indicated that we’d reach a bridge at the half-way point to Beaver Falls (three miles from the campground) and that a ladder next to a palm tree meant we were almost there. Heh.
We continued on. Now the canyon had widened into a lush garden of Canyon Grape, with a row of Fremont Cottonwoods indicating the creek’s route over near the eastern wall.
The sun had now risen high enough to shine down between the high walls.
As we hiked along we told stories of other pack trips and hiking adventures.
We reached the half-way bridge, which was just a large set of planks over a ravine.
Now the sun was fully up, and it became obvious why this section of the canyon was so lush: ample sunlight and ample water.
The trail went up again, until we dropped rapidly to the creek.
We missed the sign pointing to a river crossing. When the trail narrowed in the grapes to what was clearly a game trail, we turned back.
There it was. Across we went.
At this crossing, we all took a moment to lighten our clothing in the warm sun. Rick switched to water shoes.
Meanwhile back in camp, Sean was up and about. In the sunshine, he took a walk to see Mooney Falls at the end of the campground.
Back down canyon, we made our trickiest crossing, with each of us trying for the shallowest route.
Rick definitely had the right idea with his water shoes. I’ve never taken off and put on my boots so often as on this hike.
Shortly after this crossing, the trail led close to the canyon’s eastern wall. we were startled to see a small group of Dessert Bighorns lounging in the sunshine.
We moved cautiously past them.
On the other side of the trail was a young Bighorn.
And then a couple more.
Now the trail had us up on a ridge along the eastern wall.
As the trail descended again, we marveled at the handprints left by generations of hikers in the soft sandstone.
At the bottom was a lovely little cascade, but we were not yet at Beaver Falls.
Near the little cascade that was not Beaver Falls, we found a cabana with a palm frond roof.
The palms came from a nearby palm tree, completely out of place and obviously purposefully planted for the cabana vibe. It was amusing.
Just as the hand-drawn sign promised, near the cabana was a tall ladder, which meant we were almost to Beaver Falls.
And there was Beaver Falls maybe 75 feet below.
Now we made our way down a series of ladders to the base of the falls.
Above, the cliffs were getting serious.
Unlike the single ribbons of plunging water that are Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls descends a series of terraces formed by lime-dissolved sediment in the creek bed. Behind each terrace is a pool of turquoise-clear water. It’s the type of thing that centuries of artists have tried to capture in the cascading fountains of the world.
But here it just is.
Rick waded out into one of the terrace pools. I followed him while Josh and Erik went for a dip.
It was a little tricky walking through some slick areas toward the pool. I didn’t care to fall in, mostly out of concern for my camera.
Visitors had left handprints and ephemeral drawings with lime-infused creek bottom mud on the canyon’s western wall.
There were other people with us the entire time we were at Beaver Falls, but we’d gotten an early enough start that it only began to get crowded when we were preparing to leave. Twenty- and thirty-something men and women, mostly but not exclusively white arrived, dropped their things and stripped down to their bathing suits.
Of some of the ripped dudes, Rick remarked, “They’re so hot until they open their mouths.”
We climbed halfway back up from the base of the falls looking for the trail to keep going.
It seemed like each of three terraces had paths that eventually petered out.
Even more confusing was that some of these paths, which literally ended in sheer drop-offs, were marked by cairns.
Eventually, Josh led us all the way back up, and sure enough the trail kept going from there.
Not far along, Rick and Erik stopped at a sign.
We had reached the northern extent of the Havasupai Reservation (in the canyon) and entered Grand Canyon National Park.
Here Havasu Canyon turned east as Beaver Canyon joined it from the west.
I managed to snag a strap on a trailside cactus and get some spines in my hand. Oops.
The ledge that the trail traversed got narrower as we walked along maybe 75 feet above the creek. I slowed down feeling that old acrophobia kicking in.
Eventually, the cairns unmistakably (mostly because there was nowhere else to go) led us down the cliff face directly to the creek. The guys dubbed it “mountain goating” down, which was an apt name since we were lowering ourselves from ledge to ledge on this “trail.”
At the bottom, we immediately crossed the creek to the obvious trail on the other side.
The image above shows the trail from the cairns next to the creek in the lower right up toward the upper left.
Across the creek, I dropped my handkerchief as I dried my feet to put my boots back on. Josh snatched it back up out of the creek. Thank you, Josh.
Above on the trail we’d just descended, a guy called to ask if he was on the right trail. We confirmed he was.
We continued on to an almost immediate stream crossing, which Rick was able to dart across in his water shoes. As Josh and Erik began to get ready to undo their boots, I made a decision.
“I’m going back. I’m slowing you guys down with all my picture taking. And we’re still four miles from the confluence. I’m gonna head back and keep Sean company. And I don’t relish going back up that cliff face when I’m tired from another eight miles of hiking.”
The guys definitely understood. We hugged, and I turned around to begin my return hike. It was just about 11:45, some four hours after we’d set out.
I recrossed the creek and looked up the cliff face. Up I went.
At one point, I was about forty feet up, wedging my fingers into a crevice while I got my next foothold, and I thought to myself, “You’re afraid of heights. What kind of Alex Honnold Free Solo bullshit is this?”
Back up the cliff face, I dug a cactus spine out of my boot and jammed my finger putting my boot back on. It was so stupid, but it was confirmation that I’d made the right choice. My body was saying it was time to go back.
All this said, it was a helluva lot of fun and an amazing adventure.
Near the boundary sign between the Park and the Reservation, I chatted with a couple who had stopped for a snack. They asked about the confluence. I explained what the next section of trail was like and that my friends were trying for the Colorado, but it wasn’t in the cards for me.
Now I was on a solo hike. Although I was just going back the three and change miles we’d just come, it was extraordinarily rare for me to hike alone, and I savored it. I went slowly and make something of a photo essay out of the hike.
With plenty of daylight and no goal to try for, I tried to notice the surroundings more including an astonishing golden portion of the western wall.
Back at the cabana, I stopped for lunch. I spread out my peanut butter wraps, cashews, and jerky, and said hello to passing hikers as I munched and relaxed.
Not a terrible luncheon dining view.
On I went, past fake Beaver Falls.
Up past the sandstone handprints.
I noticed a cave shelter we’d not seen on the way out.
And I encountered the Bighorns again, this time from a safer distance.
Meanwhile, down canyon, the guys had reached the extent of their adventure and decided that they’d not make it to the confluence. So they turned around and headed back. Good on them for making it so far!
I reached the Canyon Grape gardens and strolled along, occasionally passing hikers headed out to Beaver Falls.
It struck me that were this not the Havasupai Reservation and were it not part of a larger natural wonder and National Park, just Havasu Canyon alone would be a National Park to rival the likes of Zion.
Back over the halfway bridge.
Since Sean wasn’t there to create one of his patented trail cam videos, I had to fill in.
I repeated going barefoot between some of the crossings.
And then after the final crossing, I missed the trail. Or at least I missed the main trail back up the ridge.
I found myself on a riverside trail instead.
I knew I was off, but I decided to see where it went.
It led to a lovely creekside grotto with a hanging garden of Maidenhair Fern.
It was truly lovely, a little bit of magic on my solo adventure.
I backtracked from the grotto and rejoined the trail up the ridge.
Soon I was back at Mooney Falls.
Ok, it was time to go back up.
I let a fellow hiker go ahead so that I could take my time if I needed to. There was a couple also at the base of the falls, but they weren’t in a hurry to go back up. So it was my turn.
I pulled some gloves out of the pile, stowed my trekking poles, secured my camera, and started climbing.
Going up was easier than going down, I think in no small part because I had a better sense of what to expect.
I reached the top of the falls, and hence the campground, at 2:45. All told, I’d gone about eight miles in seven hours with lots of stopping.
As I emerged from the climb up, in tee shirt and shorts, I ran into two Indian men (from the subcontinent, not North America) in parkas coming down the trail. They asked me about the hike to the confluence (“Didn’t make it”), the temperature of the water (“It’s warm, but then again I’m from Chicago and swim in Lake Michigan and I’m in shorts and you’re in a parka, so I might not be the best judge for you”), and the time it took (“Well, my friends and I set out seven hours ago and I’m just now climbing back up this waterfall”).
They continued on, and I wished them luck before walking the half mile or so to our campsite.
When I got there, it was quiet and Sean was gone. I dropped my pack and hung my hammock.
Shortly, Sean returned from getting frybread and we gabbed about our respective days until the guys returned unexpectedly soon.
They had continued for several more miles after we parted ways until it became clear that they were risking not making it back before late October’s early sunset if they didn’t turn back.
They’d had their own series of adventures capped by being chased by a Bighorn ram.
Unfortunately, Rick had turned his knee on the way back, and he was hobbling a bit on it.
The guys dropped their packs and settled in. Sean dealt out a hand of Uno, and we played and gabbed until it got dark.
The strings of lights that Rick and Erik had brought lent camp a festive air as we prepped dinner.
It got cold. Really cold. Unseasonably cold. So I made hot water bottles for Sean and Josh before we all retired to our tents.
Curled in my sleeping back next to Sean, I caught up on notes and read a little about the exploits of John Wesley Powell before falling asleep.