Havasu Canyon, Grand Canyon: Hiking Out and Further Misadventures

Hualapai Canyon

Wednesday, October 30 we needed to say farewell to our campsite and get all of us, including Rick with his hurt knee, out of Havasu Canyon and up to Haulapai Hilltop ten miles away and some 2,000 feet up. Although our time in the Canyon was ending, our trip would not actually finish until Saturday. We still had some Americana time coming at a Route 66 roadside attraction, Hoover Dam, and Las Vegas on Halloween.

I slept fitfully and woke at a quarter to five before my alarm. It was cold: likely in the mid-twenties.

First up and out of the tent, I ended up being the last of our little party off the island as we packed up and situated our bags. We had to have them at the drop off point for the pack teams by 6:45am and, although it was a bit of a rush there at the end, I still wished a newly arrived camper on our little island well and showed her an easier way to cross the creek before trotting off to join the others at the bag drop site.

We made final use of the facilities. Josh dropped our used camp stove gas canisters onto a collection pile. And we otherwise prepared for the long hike out. with the exception of Erik we were all traveling light, with Rick lightest of all. He insisted that we not wait for him. He didn’t want to slow us down, and he didn’t want to feel pressured to keep up and thus risk further injuring his knee. In most circumstances, we would never have let him hike alone, but the trail was busy with visitors and pack teams, it was a chilly day so heatstroke wasn’t an issue, and he carried Sean’s and my satellite phone GPS just in case. If he got into trouble, he would flag down a pack team for assistance and text us on the sat phone. Rick had the car keys for their car. Erik would ride with us back to the motel.

I slung my water bladder around my shoulder using the stuff sack of my sleeping bag. Before I adjusted it it looked like a giant colostomy bag.

We set out at 7:15am.

Havasu Falls

Flame Skimmer Dragonfly

It was cold, but not horribly so. The hike up to the village of Supai was uneventful.

Mount Sinyella

In Supai, we stopped at the store. Josh got a coffee, and Sean got me a root beer. On this Wednesday morning, kids were heading to school next to the store. We sipped our beverages while Erik ducked into the tourist office. When he emerged, he said that they still didn’t know whether the helicopter pilot had decided to fly that day. “If it comes, it will be around 10am.” There were already a few people waiting near the helipad.

Then, unbelievably, Rick limped up on Josh’s hiking poles. He was making insane time.

Erik filled him in on the helicopter sitch, and Rick decided not to chance waiting. We said goodbye, again, to Rick. Then he headed into the store for a coffee, and we continued on.

As we walked up the main road, we passed a young transgender Havasupai who appeared to be out and proud. We were bowled over.

Havasu Creek

It was mach colder in the village than it had been down in the campground. It was actually in the teens in Supai, which was…really cold. But all we could do was keep walking.

Fremont Cottonwoods

Where Hualapai Canyon entered Havasu Canyon, we stopped for a sun break at the directional sign.

Then we headed into Hualapai Canyon.

Fremont Cottonwood

Fremont Cottonwood

As per usual, I lagged behind taking photos. At one point, I heard a pack team coming up fast behind me. The drivers had the team of little horses at a quick trot through the canyon. As they passed, I saw that they were carrying the day’s mail out of Supai and up to Hualapai Hilltop.

As other pack teams, carrying the bags of campers, passed, we scanned for ours strapped to a mule or little horse. But we didn’t see them.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Gradually the high walls of Hualapai canyon lowered as we rose steadily but easily toward the bench that this inner portion of Hualapai Canyon slices through.

At a turn in the canyon, we reached steady sunshine.

We noted the three-mile (from Hualapai Hilltop) marker. We’d already come seven miles from the campground in good time.

Then we heard the helicopter! So the pilot had decided to fly today after all. We wondered what Rick must have been thinking.

Now the trail exited the inner canyon beneath the immense bench and we entered the gravel wash of the upper, far broader, portion of Hualapai Canyon.

Narrowleaf Yucca

Although the sun warmed us, it was still a cool day. In the heat of summer, campers rise as early as 1am to hike out from camp before sunrise and the brutal heat and sun. Happily we didn’t have to do that.

Hualapai Hilltop

We passed an escarpment and had our first view of Hualapai Hilltop 1,000 feet above us.

Catclaw Acacia

Just where the trail began its incline up a long ridge toward the switchbacks and serious climb, we stopped for a rest and for lunch.

While we were there, a pack team came by and we spotted our bags strapped to one of the little horses. We were pleased to know our bags would be waiting for us at the top.

After our lunch—Sean and I had peanut butter and cashew wraps, jerky, and a couple energy bars—it was time for the climb. One more mile and 1,000 feet.

Image: Sean M. Santos


Wesogame Point, Mount Sinyella, the North Rim, and Uqualla Point

I went slowly and steadily. (And also took photos.) Sean waited for me while Erik and Josh went ahead. Erik in particular wanted to keep a swift and steady pace since he was carrying a backpacking pack.

Wescogame Point, Mount Sinyella, and the North Rim

I found the long, unbroken incline of the ridge much worse than the switchbacks.

Shortly after we began ascending the switchbacks, there was an incident. A couple horses in a pack team spooked, turned, and began descending the trail above us. An older Havasupai man on horseback rode down to the turn just ahead of us where the trail widened and there would be room to turn the descending horses, which now comprised an entire pack team. He asked Sean and me and two other hikers to stop and move to the uphill side of the trail while they maneuvered the horses.

While we were stopped, two white girls came hiking up the trail and even after the man asked them to stop, began to try and hike up the wall to the next switchback to get by. It was stunning, and the man had to basically order them to stop for their own safety.

The packers weren’t able to turn the team at the switchback, so they let it go back on down down down to the canyon floor below us pursued by a few riders to round them up.

Then we were able to continue on our climb up.

Hualapai Hilltop, not too much farther.

Near the top, there was a guy in in a US Navy tee and full pack who was hurting. He looked like he was about to collapse. I felt for him, but was secretly happy that I didn’t have to carry my own pack out.

Then, almost right at the top, we moved to the side of the trail to let the US mail pack team by on their return trip with mail—and a bunch of Amazon packages—for the residents of Supai.

And then we were up at the trailhead. Josh, Erik, and our bags were there.

Feeling triumphant, I trotted off to get the car. When I arrived, my water bottle, on the shadowy side of the car next to the cliff face along the road, was frozen solid. The dash recorded the outside temperature as 29 degrees, although it was almost certainly much warmer in the sun.

I drove over and picked up the guys and the bags, and off we went. Now all Rick needed to do when he reached the top was to go to their car and drive away.

As we drove along the winding road from Hualapai Hilltop, Sean turned on Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs.” It was just the perfect song for the moment.

San Francisco Peaks

Out on the plateau and past the reservation checkpoint—where we were waved along—we could still see the mass of the Grand Canyon back out behind us. Then we got texts from Rick who had made it to the top of the trail. He had made amazing time!

We continued on across the plateau back to the motel, talking about 401k accounts, of all things, as we went.

Rick arrived back at Grand Canyon Caverns Motel almost at the same time as us. He had just steadily limped his way up almost without stopping. We had barely managed to check in before he pulled up. While we waited for our rooms to be ready, we headed down a long road behind the main motel complex to the restaurant/cave entrance. The road was lined with the flags of all fifty states, and we tried to name which were which. And also noted which either boasted or were clearly influenced by the confederate battle flag.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Lisa was our waitress, and she was just great! We mostly scarfed down our burgers, wine, and beer.

Before we headed back to the motel buildings to unload, we booked a 4pm cave tour with David. The clerk was specific about it being David. We wondered who this mysterious David was.

Image: Sean M. Santos

In our adjoining rooms, we showered, watched Property Brothers, and hung out. Rick read to us about some of the history and current issues involving the Havasupai. We also confirmed that Rick, Erik, and Josh had seen a Pygmy Nuthatch in Havasu Canyon, interesting both because it was one of the most distinct species on the trip’s species list and because, as Sean pointed out, it figures into the plot of Charlie’s Angels.

Then it was time to head back to the restaurant/cave entrance for our 4pm tour.

Unlike any tour Sean and I have ever been on in caves in the National Parks, on this one our group was the full group. David, son of the owners, was a charming and capable guide.

The nineteenth century discoverer of the cave thought it was full of gold, silver, and diamonds, but each turned out to be a far lesser mineral. Unable to make a fortune through mining, our long-ago entrepreneur turned to tourism. Now, it’s possible to sleep in the cave overnight on a hotel room-like platform. Grand Canyon Caverns Inn also has a dining room in the cave.

One of the cooler parts of the tour was that the cave was, and still is, used as the local fallout shelter. There are stocks of both historic rations from the 1950s and current rations.

Image: Sean M. Santos

One of the most interesting things about the cave and the tour was that it is in private hands, and we were getting the 21st century equivalent of what it had been like when some of the caves now incorporated into the National Park system, like Wind Cave or Lehman Caves, had been privately held.

On the way back up out of the cave we shared the elevator with the couple I’d run into in Havasu Canyon after turning back while the guys tried to reach the confluence with the Colorado. “You’re orange shirt guy!” We got talking, and they shared that they were camping that night at the motel’s campground. The forecast was for the low to reach the lower teens. We offered them our leftover handwarmers and made plans to meet them when we came back to the restaurant/cave entrance building for dinner.

They also shared that they’d witnessed the incident on the trail earlier in the day that caused the pack team to turn around. Apparently an inexperienced packer had gotten frustrated with a horse, which caused it to spook, sending the whole team back down into Hualapai Canyon.

We hung out catching up on the news until it was time to head back to dinner. When we pulled up, the fellow from the couple emerged from the shadows like something out of a horror movie. It felt like a parking lot drug deal. But he was grateful for the handwarmers for the night. We wished him well and went back into the restaurant for fried chicken and pie.

That night we all watched The Conjuring in our room. It was Devil’s Night, after all.

Before bed, we hugged Rick and Erik goodbye. They were leaving at 5am for the long drive back to Denver.

Next morning, Thursday, October 31, Sean, Josh, and I were up before 7am, but Rick and Erik were long gone. We packed up quickly since we didn’t have to be “airplane ready.” Then we drove over to the little “Betty Boop Cafe” in the registration building for the continental breakfast buffet.

The cafe really leaned into the Route 66 motif, although appropriately since the road was right there across the parking lot.

Hey, Chicago.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Sean found a book on the cafe’s shelf that spoke to his admiration for Laura Dern’s khaki shorts in Jurrasic Park.

We hit the road before nine to drive back to Vegas, listening to spooky episodes of “The Memory Palace,” before switching over to “Dolly Parton’s America.”

That day was the big annual fundraiser for Openlands, where I’d worked for seven years, up until the preceding month. It was odd not to be there and still feel that pull toward that event even though I was far away.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We dropped off the Colorado plateau, and as we neared Nevada, US-93 entered Lake Mead National Recreation Area, so we stopped for our traditional photo by Sean.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Part of the reason we got on the road fairly early that morning was so that we could stop at Hoover Dam. Although Josh had seen it before, Sean and I never had.

Hoover Dam was constructed between 1931 and 1936 to impound the Colorado River in Black Canyon along the Arizona-Nevada border.

Before heading out onto the dam, we descended into the visitor area, mostly to try for a Lake Mead National Recreation Area stamp. After going through security, we talked to staff selling (pretty pricey) tickets. They explained that the dam itself was owned and managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, but they did have a stamp (although not a National Parks passport cancellation). Sean and I got the stamp anyway as part of the extra stamps in our passports.

Then we wandered out onto the dam itself.

Everything about it stylistically spoke to the art deco stylized nationalism of the 1930s. Giant copper winged statues. Monuments to the workers who died on the project. It was all very appropriately New Deal in aesthetic approach.

There was even a dedication to the contributions of Native Americans to the greatness of the United States. A very specific type of mythologizing, this.

Monumental is the word.

Hoover Dam impounds the Colorado River as Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir when at full capacity. The scoured-bleached rock indicated how dramatically below full capacity the reservoir is. Twenty-first century drought has not been kind to Lake Mead, and it dramatically underscores the water scarcity in the West and in the states—Arizona, Nevada, and California—that draw water from the reservoir. Gazing out on this low water underscores the proposals to remove the Glen Canyon Dam and drain leaky Lake Powell to fill Lake Mead.

The lake is named for Elwood Mead, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation during the dam’s construction.

Although now known as Hoover Dam, the Roosevelt administration insisted that is should be called Boulder Dam, the name that it was constructed under. It wasn’t until 1947 that Congress resolved the issue, much to the chagrin of Roosevelt’s long-serving and irascible Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. Ickes wondered why in the world the nation would want a monument to such a catastrophic president.

As we wandered along, we overheard a fellow tourist blathering on to his companion about an “Obama shutdown,” which was…quaint…in October 2019.

Even the rest room signs were all 1930s-styled.

Image: Sean M. Santos

After we left the dam, we drove up to an overlook in the National Recreation Area to have a look at Lake Mead.

You could easily see how far they’d had to move the marina as the lake levels fell.

As we arrived in Las Vegas, we stopped at the REI in Henderson to return our unused gas canisters and unopened backpacking food. Then we went to Target so Josh could get some walking around shoes for Vegas. The guys went in while I sat in the parking lot in the car and took a call from back home in Chicago. Josh emerged with shoes we dubbed the “Eleanor Roosevelt Special.”

We were staying at the Luxor because why not stay at the Luxor on Halloween night?

We parked, checked in, and went to our pyramid room, which was disappointing in that it was on a low floor and had no view. But when Sean opened our side of the adjoining room door, he and Josh discovered the note above. We just shut the door.

None of the three of us were really the Vegas type, but we thought it would be a lark to be there on Halloween. After a late lunch, we explored the Luxor and Mandalay Bay.

I won forty bucks on a slot machine and called it quits.

We hung out in the arcade at Excalibur for a while. I tried to win a little stuffed Groot, but failed.

The highlight of the evening was riding the roller coaster run by teenagers dressed as furries at New York New York.

We walked up the strip and had a late dinner of crepes at Paris before taking the monorail back to the Luxor. Josh observed, “This is the exact opposite of what we just did.” He meant that going from the bottom of Havasu Canyon to the bustle of Vegas was an almost whip-lash inducing experience.

It was all not nearly so Halloween-y as we thought it would be. There were people in costumes, certainly, but not that many. And some of the casinos specifically prohibited face covering masks, for security reasons, I guess.

Back at the hotel, we toyed with the idea of hopping into a Lyft and heading over to the actual city of Las Vegas to check out a few gay bars. Sean, who was still recovering from his illness, was tired, though. So instead we spent the remainder of Halloween night watching Beetlejuice in our hotel room, which was just about perfect.

Next morning, Friday, November 1, I was awake before 7am. Josh was already up and showering. I pulled on some clothes and put in my contacts while Josh finished packing up. Sean, wrapped in a duvet, groggily hugged Josh goodbye before flopping back into bed.

We grabbed some Starbucks on our way to the parking structure. As I drove Josh to McCarran International, we had a really interesting conversation about “imposter syndrome,” conservation, work, and friendship.

I hugged Josh goodbye at the departures drop off area and returned the car to Enterprise without incident.

By the time I Lyfted back to the Luxor, Sean was up and ready for breakfast. He pulled on gray sweatpants and we went down to the Pyramid Cafe on the casino level. The corned beef hash was good but there was way too much second-hand smoke in the air. It was jarring to be in a place with indoor smoking in 2019.

We booked massages at the spa for 2pm and then went back to the room. I caught up on client invoices and such while Sean napped. He was sleeping soundly, so I went wandering. I checked about late check out at the front desk, I went back to Excalibur and tried again for the Groot, I went out and sat by the pool to catch up on notes.

Our massages were great, and the spa staff were universally wonderful. We very much enjoyed ourselves. And it was a nice way to unwind after our adventure in Havasu Canyon, particularly for Sean who was still under the weather.

Later, we grabbed takeout burgers and fries from a pub in the Luxor and went back to our room to watch The Spirit of Christmas, Sean’s favorite made-for-TV holiday movie about a sexy French Canadian ghost and an off-brand Debra Messing type at a haunted New England Inn. Seriously, it’s great. Check it out on Netflix. Sean’s seen it at least thirty times.

Sean fell asleep at 7pm, having spent the entire day in the Luxor, mostly in gray sweatpants. I read until turning out the light at 10:30.

We didn’t really need the extra day in Vegas, but I’m glad we had it because it was a lark to be lazy on vacation.

Next morning, Saturday, November 2, we were up and packed by 9am. Our flight wasn’t until 3:30, so we left our bags at the bell desk and walked over to New York New York for breakfast.

We ate juevos rancheros outside, which felt more like a real dining experience than being in a smokey casino. Sean felt vastly improved that morning, and if we’d had more time we might have explored more of the actual city. If a National Park adventure ever brings us back to Las Vegas, I would not mind checking out its arts scene, gay scene, and world-class Thai food, rather than the Strip.

We went back to the Luxor after stopping off at Excalibur so I could try one more time for Groot. No luck. But he did end up in my Christmas stocking seven weeks later.

We spent the remainder of the day back at the spa, lounging in the steam room and soaking in the hot tubs until it was time to go to the airport. We showered, dressed, collected our bags at the bell desk, walked outside, got into a cab, and went directly to McCarran.

We had a late lunch at the airport, and Sean got us surprise cake pops for dessert.

As a surprise for Sean, I bumped us up to the exit row, which meant that we switched to the left side of the plane. I was a little dismayed when, after takeoff, the captain pointed out the striking view of the Grand Canyon out of the right side of the plane, where our seats had originally been. Oh well. It’s not like we haven’t seen the Canyon from the air before.

The flight was relaxing and uneventful…

…and when we got home to our apartment, Elsa was very glad to see us.

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