Havasupai — The Falls

As soon as I get through the painfully slow process of check-in at the Supai Lodge and get to my room, I quickly dump out the contents of my backpack, change into my swimsuit and Keens, and take off for the falls.  It is now after 1:00pm, and my time for sun is fleeting between these high canyon walls.  I have been told the water is 72 degrees year round, but the air is cool, so I know my only hope for a swim is to get there before the afternoon shade.

Crossing Havasu Creek

Crossing Havasu Creek

Check out the interesting formations on the walls of this canyon...

Check out the interesting formations on the walls of this canyon…

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Havasu Creek starts out upstream, flowing downward as a tributary to the Colorado River.  It is made up of snow melt, flow from a natural spring, and a whole lot of calcium carbonate, which contributes to the travertine terraces along the way.  The minerals are what give the creek the clear, swimming pool blue color.    Even the name itself, Havasupai, means “people of the blue-green water.”   I am a sucker for water in general, but make it a clear blue, spring-fed source, and I have to get in there!

First glimpse of Lower Dakota Falls

First glimpse of Lower Dakota Falls

 If you look in the distance at the top of the photo, you will see "Upper" Dakota Falls.


If you look in the distance at the top of the photo, you will see “Upper” Dakota Falls.

A close-up, and you can more clearly see the two falls, Upper and Lower.

A close-up, and you can more clearly see the two falls, Upper and Lower.

The “road” through the village follows along the creek on the way to the first of the falls, Dakota.  A flood back in 2008 rearranged the flow of the river, dividing what was once the larger Dakota Falls into two smaller falls, now called “Upper” and “Lower” Dakota Falls.

About a mile and a quarter down the road, the path starts to drop alongside a canyon, and I get my first look at Upper and Lower Dakota.  It is just ridiculous!  The green moss lining the travertine pools with the aquamarine water running through looks like some food-color dyed ride at Disneyland!   I spot what looks like the perfect swimming hole below, but it is a good distance down to the bottom of the canyon.  I want to move on to Havasu Falls, the most popular of the falls for some photos before I lose any more sunlight, so I continue on.

Upper Dakota Falls

Upper Dakota Falls

Lower Dakota Falls, and what he agrees to be the perfect swimming hole!

Lower Dakota Falls, and what he agrees to be the perfect swimming hole!

Soon, I see signs overhead warning of “Steep Drop Off.  Stay on Trail.  Keep Away.  Unstable Ground” and I know I am coming to the edge of the canyon where Havasu Creek makes its leap.   I walk out as far as the trail will allow, and get my first glimpse of my reason for being here….and it is worth all 39,846 steps!  Wow, just wow!

First look at Havasu Falls from trail overlook.

First look at Havasu Falls from trail overlook.

It looks like a resort swimming pool below!

It looks like a resort swimming pool below!

IMG_H1260I hurry down to the bottom of the falls, as shadows are already moving across the pools below.   But I am determined, so I strip down to my swimmer, hand my camera to a nice woman on the riverbank who volunteers to be my photographer, and pose for the requisite photos before I jump in…well, “inch” in is more like it.  Somehow, 72 degrees feels a lot colder than it sounds.  I finally manage to work my way up to shoulder level.   The crowd is disappearing faster than the sun, so I try to enjoy a little relaxation and contemplation.  But I am antsy.  I still want to explore the campground, and I have another mile to go to reach Mooney Falls, and three miles back up to the Lodge to hike before dark.  So I move on.

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Yes, that 72 degree spray is COLD on my back!

Proof!

Proof!

See well disguised picnic table near the cave.  What a place for a picnic, huh?

See well disguised picnic table near the cave. What a place for a picnic, huh?

These women are selling zippered bags...among other things.  ;-)

These woman are selling zippered bags…among other things. ;-)

Note woman riding a giant inflatable stingray over the falls.

Note woman riding a giant inflatable stingray over the falls.

When I see the campground, I regret not having the opportunity to stay here, as the campsites are positioned right alongside the river.   I stand and listen, imagining what it would be like to sleep in my tent to the sound of the creek nearby.   There are lots of Cottonwood trees along the bank, ergo lots of shade hammocks swinging from the low stretching boughs.   The vibe seems very low key.  No electricity so no boom boxes or sports blaring from neighboring campsites, and the “No Fires” rule keeps the air clean and clear.  When people call my Winnie a “camper,” I always clarify that I live in a motor home, and I “camp” in a tent.   So as a lover of tent camping, this looks like my kinda place!

Entrance to the campground.

Entrance to the campground.

Most sites are right on the aquamarine river.

Most sites are right on the aquamarine river.

This bridge is optional, only if you want to camp on the other side of the river.  Separates the men from the boys.  The boys all cross.  ;-)

This bridge is optional, only if you want to camp on the other side of the river. Separates the men from the boys. The boys all cross. ;-)

As I continue on down the path toward Mooney Falls, I run into three young women that I have seen several times along my journey.  I ask, “Did you guys go to Mooney?  How was it?”   (Having seen photos that tell me it is the prettiest of the three falls, beyond that, I have done no research.) They reply, “Beautiful…just beautiful! But also….well….(glancing sideways at each other,)…in a word, STARTLING!  You follow this trail on down, and then it just…Ends!  On a cliff!   And you must use chains, ropes and ladders to get you down.  But don’t let that scare you off!  It is so worth it!” (looks down at my shoes) “You have good footwear.  You’ll do just fine!”  (This coming from a twenty year old.)

First glimpse of Mooney Falls, 200 ft.

First glimpse of Mooney Falls, 200 ft.

Another cavern picnic site.

Another cavern picnic site.

I come to the edge of the cliff, and peer over.  Mooney Falls is just as spectacular as the giant poster back on the wall in the Supai Village Café promised.  But I want down THERE!  How hard can a few chains and ladders be after Angel’s Landing, right?  I soon find out…

I encounter a young woman popping out of a hole, who explains that I must first navigate two narrow caves dug by miners before I can go any further.  “…but you should totally do it!  My aunt just did it, and she is 54!! But…you’re not alone, are you?”

The first of two caves you must crawl through to reach the base of Mooney Falls.

The first of two caves you must crawl through to reach the base of Mooney Falls.

View of the falls from inside the cave.

View of the falls from inside the cave.

The caves are no problem for me, as I know the ladders won’t be either.  The problem is the 10 feet or so in between, where you must use footholds on the vertical rocks while holding on to the chains.  This would not be near as challenging were it not for the spray from the falls that keeps the entire face wet and muddy.

Halfway down, I realize I really have no business doing this kind of climb after eleven miles of hiking and three more to go.  But I just can’t conceive of coming this far and turning back without reaching the bottom.  So I try to recall my skills learned from my token rock climbing course back in the late 90’s by leaning in to the mountain, not moving one foot until the other is secure, and I let go of all hope of avoiding getting covered in mud!  Once I reach the three ladders, it is not the steps that are difficult, but the transition in between.  Finally, my knees are shaking with sweet relief to reach the bottom rung of the third ladder!

Platform overlooking falls before the vertical part begins.

Platform overlooking falls before the vertical part begins.

Just take one step at a time and don't over-think it...coming back up will be easier!

Just take one step at a time and don’t over-think it…coming back up will be easier!

The base of the falls is idyllic for swimming, and I can see that the path goes on and on.  If I only had an extra day, I would love to continue exploring the three miles down to Beaver Falls and on to the Colorado River.  Like an addiction, when is it ever enough?IMG_M1291

Three tiers of ladders.

Three tiers of ladders.

But the other aspect that makes Mooney Falls so blissful is that there are no people here!  But it’s getting late.   I don’t want to get caught at the bottom of that climb out, with no one behind me.  So I leave when I see the last remaining couple headed for the ladder…

This is the worst part...holding on to moving chains while trying to climb the muddy vertical wall.

This is the worst part…holding on to moving chains while trying to climb the muddy vertical wall.

IMG_M1292Now three miles away from the Lodge, I have to keep up the pace, as I have brought nothing but a Clif Bar for dinner.  (Translates to: “Nothing to feed the Diet Coke addiction.”)   I know there is one market in town that is open until 7:00pm, so I have to hurry.   I make it back to the Lodge by 6:40pm, but I have forgotten how far on the other side of town the market is….I have another half mile to go!   I make it just in time, but this adds another mile to my fourteen mile day.

Soak your feet and have a picnic at the same time!

Soak your feet and have a picnic at the same time!

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By the time I get back to the lodge, my feet hurt so badly I can barely walk.  How do thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Coast Trail stand it?  A fifteen mile day is a short day to them!

I decide to soak in the tub while feasting on my dinner of champions, a $6 bag of Cheetos and a $3 Diet Coke.  But alas the “lodge” has no bathtub stopper.   I have to get creative, but the hot water on my aching feet it is worth it.  I am asleep by 8:30pm!IMG_M1290

Since I don’t have a drive back to Phoenix like most of those hiking out at the crack of dawn, I take a nice leisurely pace packing up, as I only have eight miles to go today…although that is all “up.”   I have “The Breakfast Special” from the café; two eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast.   Then I walk over to the helipad to say goodbye and exchange emails with Melanie and Bridget, who are taking the helicopter out of the canyon.  I tell them to keep a look out, I will wave…

The hike back is serene, with the cool canyon air and rhythmic, almost hypnotic crunch of my measured pace on the gravel in the wash beneath my boots.  I walk almost the entire length of the canyon without seeing any other hikers.  By noon, I start to meet the oncoming traffic hiking in, and I laugh at how the tables are turned, as they all look so bright and shiny coming down the trail.

As I turn the dog-leg left and begin the hardest part of the climb, the pain from the blister on my toe is unbearable.  It figures, I hike all over Utah, Nevada, and Arizona for six months without a blister, and then I get one while walking the streets of Manhattan wearing “dress socks” with my hiking boots!  I stop in the shade for a lunch break, and pull out my trusty duct tape to tape up my toe before I begin the long trek up the switchbacks.

It takes me only half an hour longer to go up than it did going down, so I am pleased with my speed, but reluctant to leave behind such a beautiful place.  I hiked further, spent more, and had fewer creature comforts on this overnight hike than any before.  Was it worth it?

Supai Indian Reservation Permit — $35
Overnight at the Lodge — $145
Swimming in “liquid turquoise??” — PRICELESS!

Havasu Falls -- Priceless!

Havasu Falls — Priceless!

Havasupai — The Hike

Several years ago, long before the Winnie was even a twinkle in my eye, I saw a Facebook post by my friend Joel’s wife Kathy about a hike she had done to a place I had never heard of before…Havasu Falls.  To this day, I can still recall the photos of her standing beside an aquamarine pool beneath a pristine waterfall, set against a back drop of a red rock canyon.  Those photos left such an impression that I started an Excel spreadsheet titled simply “Places.xlsx.”  Havasu Falls was the first entry in the spreadsheet.

Overlooking the canyon where I am headed down.

Overlooking the canyon where I am headed down.

First mile and a half is all switchbacks.

First mile and a half is all switchbacks.

I am about to meet two new friends, Bridget and Melanie.  (See blue dots two thirds down to the right.)

I am about to meet two new friends, Bridget and Melanie. (See blue dots two thirds down to the right.)

No wonder it took me three years to get here, as Havasupai is one of the most difficult places I have visited.  First, it can only be reached via helicopter, horseback, or hiking, or a combination thereof.  Second, since it is on Native American land, one must obtain a highly sought after permit.  Third, there are only two options for over-nighting.  Tent camping, or a ridiculously priced “lodge.”  Since I don’t own lightweight camping gear, I opted for a reservation at the lodge, holding on the phone throughout an entire Laundromat wash cycle to get through.

Here is what I will be climbing at the end of the return hike.

Here is what I will be climbing at the end of the return hike.

More switchbacks...

More switchbacks…

Permit and reservation now secured, I then start attempting to figure out the logistics of getting myself there.  The trailhead is located at “Hualapai Hilltop,” sixty miles down Hwy 18 off Historic Route 66 near Peach Springs, Arizona.  Ironic that the closest place I can park the Winnie is on Route 66, exactly 66 miles from the trailhead!   I call several times to make a reservation at the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn and RV Park.   This is a challenge in of itself.  After numerous attempts, I finally get through to confirm a dry camping reservation at $20 a night.   I will leave the Winnie here, then drive the Tracker the 66 miles to the trailhead for the overnight hike.

The 66 miles down Hwy 18 is through Indian reservations, and there is nothing….and I do mean NOTHING along this road, including cell service!  You had better have your gas, your water, your food, your socks before you ever leave Peach Springs, or you are turning back 66 miles!

I originally took this photo because there is a helicopter "towing" a large bundle by cable in the upper left, but too tiny to see unless you click to enlarge.

I originally took this photo because there is a helicopter “towing” a large bundle by cable in the upper left, but too tiny to see unless you click to enlarge.

Once you reach the bottom of the canyon, hang a right.

Once you reach the bottom of the canyon, hang a right.

IMG_1218I didn’t do enough research on the logistics of this hike.  The Lodge, located in Supai Village, is still 1 ¾ miles from the first waterfall, Lower Dakota Falls….two miles from Havasu Falls itself, and yet another mile if you want to see the third falls, Mooney, which is in my opinion, the prettiest of the three.   So to see them all, it will  mean a hike of a minimum of fourteen miles my first day – eight to the village, three more to see the falls, and three to return to the village.  Had I done more research, I would have known it was possible to send camping gear down by mule, therefore I would have camped near the falls.  But weather at this time of year can also be a bit “mercurial.”

Is it an earthquake?  A freight train?  No, it's the daily mail!

Is it an earthquake? A freight train? No, it’s the daily mail!

It's Miller Time!

It’s Miller Time!

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I have never hiked fourteen miles in one day before.  Especially not alone.  Thirteen has been my greatest distance, and it was with a group of friends, which always makes the miles fly by.  I also know I need to hit these three waterfalls on the first day, as the second day will be an all uphill return.  I need to get an early start, as I will need every ray of sunlight I can get.   Due to the road conditions, I am told it will take 90 minutes to get from the GC Cavern RV Park to the trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop.   I set the alarm for 5:00am with the hope to be on the trail by 7:00am.  I make it by 7:40am.

As I reach the parking lot, I am pleasantly surprised.  The canyon that opens up before me is just gorgeous, especially in the early morning light.  It is cool, but as soon as I hit the first sunny spot, I start de-layering.IMG_0954 IMG_0966

The first 1.5 miles of the hike are steep, white-rock switchbacks, down, down, and more down to an eventual elevation loss of over 2,000 ft.  A sign at the entrance of the trail warns against wearing earphones, as one could be injured by the approaching horse and mule trains.  They aren’t kidding.  If you have ever heard tell of the horse that gets faster, the closer he gets to the barn, you will understand.  These “trains,” horses or mules roped up to one another, come thundering through this canyon at a speed so fast it took me two or three attempts to capture them with my camera.   I can hear them and feel the vibration of their pounding hooves long before I see them come around the bend.  I quickly learn to get off the path as fast as possible, preferably in a place where I can’t be pinned in or pushed off!  And if you have an aversion to hiking in horse manure, this might not be the trail for you.  Between here and the Supai Village, “horse poop is the new khaki.” IMG_0976

IMG_0979As soon as I reach the bottom of the canyon, the trail hooks right into a gravel-filled wash.  This is where the red walls of the canyon get taller and narrower, and I have trouble making headway for stopping every few minutes to snap photos.  The deeper I go into the canyon, the more stunning it becomes!IMG_0981 IMG_0986 IMG_0988

The canyon comes to a “T” and I see a large grove of brilliant green Cottonwoods ahead in the distance.  This tells me I have reached the river, finally.   One of only two signs I have seen along the trail lies ahead, telling me I am “almost there.”  I am at mile marker six, with another two miles to go to reach the village.  The next two miles are shady, cool, and serene, as the path runs alongside the spring-fed Havasu Creek.  One look at the perfectly clear, aquamarine tinted water in the riverbed tells me the pictures I have seen don’t lie, and I am in for a treat once I reach the falls.IMG_1093 IMG_1094 IMG_1096

I am sad to say the one disappointment in this experience is the Native American village of Supai.   The environment seems more oppressed than many third world countries I have visited.  There is a lot of trash and litter around, seemingly more livestock than people, ergo the smell that accompanies them, and the majority of the villagers are morbidly obese.  This place would be an Americorp worker’s dream.

But the most disturbing part for me is the lack of willingness to interact.   No eye contact, no conversations.  I try saying hello and thanking some of the trail workers along the way, but my comments go unacknowledged.  I guess who can blame them.  After all, they no doubt would rather us not be there, and do their best to tune us out altogether.  The dichotomy of demographic in the village’s only cafe is laughable. Heavy set locals wearing long baggy shorts, over-sized teeshirts, and in one case, house-shoes sitting on one side, and fit, REI catalog geared up tourists with their faces buried in their smart phones on the other side. How ironic that the one thing the white man gave back to the Native American only brings more white men.  Rarely do you see an Indian Reservation that can be cultivated.  The land is often rocky, unlevel, or uninhabitable.  So all they are left with are tourist attractions and casinos…adventure-seeking tourists or fortune-seeking gamblers, both willing to part with whatever price they must for their fix.

Six miles down, two to go...

Six miles down, two to go…

Helicopter fly-overs are continuous between the hours of 10am and 1pm.

Helicopter fly-overs are continuous between the hours of 10am and 1pm.

Arriving in Supai Village.

Arriving in Supai Village.

The woman staffing the desk at The Lodge is downright surly.  If you ever watched Northern Exposure and remember Marilyn, Dr. Fleishman’s associate, you know what I mean.  Every comment is met with a blank stare, a long pause, and a deadpan response.

“Hi, I am Suzanne, and I have a reservation”….(long period of silence)…”Check-in is not until 1:00pm.  Go to the café and wait.”  “Okay, meanwhile, can you answer a couple of questions for me about the falls?”  (long period of silence)…“What do you want to know?”  “Which one is best for swimming?” (long period of silence)…“I don’t swim.” Conversation over.

The Lodge is 8 miles in.

The Lodge is 8 miles in.

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For such a bargain of $145, don't splurge on the art work.

For such a bargain of $145, don’t splurge on the art work.

The Lodge is your basic Motel 6, only at $145 plus tax per night, but who can quibble when everything including the daily mail must come in by helicopter or horseback.  Besides, I am not here for the hospitality.  I am here for….

Next up….THE FALLS!!  (Trust me, at the risk of shameless blog promotion, you won’t want to miss this one!)

To be continued…..IMG_2635

(Footnote:  Horsing around in the motel mirror.  What’s in the pack?  Swimsuit, camp towel, fleece pants, extra shorts and tee shirt, 2 pair undies, 2 pair socks, 3 Clif bars, 3 liters water, 1 PBJ sandwich, 1 pair Keens, first aid kit, toiletries, 2 cameras + spare battery, 2 flashlights, 1 iphone, map, pen and paper, cash, and ID…everything but a space blanket.)  IMG_1087

Black Canyon Kayak Trip, Day Three – “Reading the River”

Weather-wise, our third day on the trip is the best yet!  There is not a cloud in the sky, and we have a nice 8 to 10 mph tail wind.  The remaining eight miles down the Black Canyon River Trail should be a joy ride!  And with the sun finally out, I will get to see some of that emerald green water BJ and Kathy have been telling me is “So beautiful, you won’t believe!” Continue reading

Black Canyon Kayak Trip, Day Two – “How to Cure an Internet Addiction”

I had a few concerns about my first overnight rafting trip.  As a left-brained analytical, will I be able to “do it right?”  Can I get my gear and myself down the river to arrive at the same time without embarrassing myself by turning over and sending the dry bags bobbing downriver without me?   Or worse, the kayak?  Did I remember to bring not only my Snowpeak mini-stove, but do I have the right blend of fuel canister to go with it?   But not the least of my concerns is “How will I go three whole days without the internet???”  Continue reading

Black Canyon Kayak Trip, Day One – “Miserable to Memorable”

It’s a balmy mid-January evening in Mesa, Arizona when John Schroder, his wife BJ, and I first discuss the prospect of a kayaking trip down the Colorado River through the Black Canyon.  It has been in the mid 80’s for several days now, and the night is so pleasant that we choose an outside table at one of their favorite restaurants, Red White & Brew.  John talks about timing for the trip, and suggests that the first week of March should be just about perfect.   Continue reading

Hiking Havasu…

Just to the south of the spring break setting of Lake Havasu, I find a place much more to my liking. Oh sure, there is still plenty of noise nearby, with a Motocross race track and a shooting range in the area. But if one is willing to wander a bit, it is possible to enjoy the gorgeous lake views without getting caught in the mayhem of the masses. Just two miles Continue reading

Desert Discoveries…

I have never been a “morning person,” though I find while here at Mittry Lake, the wee small hours of the morning just before dawn have become my favorite time of day.   The heat has long subsided into cool, heavy dew that hovers over the lake.   I can almost feel the weight of the cooler air as it seeps through my windows in my corner bed, pressing me ever further beneath the covers.  The coolness of the night is one of the things I have learned to cherish about the desert.  Continue reading

Rite of Passage

I once read somewhere that no self-respecting RVer could call themselves a “full timer” without a trip across the border for dental work.  That never really made sense for me in the past, because along with the golden handcuffs of my corporate job came really good dental insurance.  Why drive to a border town to pay $35 for a cleaning, when Delta Dental would pick up the tab? Continue reading