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!


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.


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

41 thoughts on “Havasupai — The Hike

    • Yeah, Melanie! Think I could have gotten a closer picture of you and Bridget? LOL! Hopefully the pictures in the next post of the Falls will do them justice. Thanks for commenting.

  1. Hi Suzanne –
    Can’t wait to see your next post…the falls!! I soooo enjoy reading your blog, takes me right to the moment you are writing about. We rafted the Colorado river some years ago and got to play in the the falls when on that trip. It was magical! Hiking to them is on our “to experience” list as well. I am retiring from teaching this summer and we will be back on the road after a brief hiatus. Feeling very excited! Enjoy your hike!

    • Thanks for the nice comment! I have been reading a bit about seeing the falls “from the bottom up” via Beaver Falls. Is that where you were? Such a magical place! The Colorado River is the gift that keeps on giving. 😉

      • Hi Suzanne..we did not make it all the way up to Havasu Falls, but were in the many smaller falls and pools of Havasu creek. The water was gorgeous! And yes, you are so right, about the gift that keeps on giving. We married on the edge of the canyon at the North Rim and felt honored to be embraced by such wonder. We are drawn back over and over again to explore the many secrets it contains. Have a magical day! Imkelina

        • Oh, I love a story of outdoor romance! What a wonderful place to set your intentions for a happy life together! Thanks for the story, Imkelina!

  2. we did this hike about five years ago and I can see nothing has changed. My main thought was “and I picked this for my birthday present”…ha! I thought it was just me who they wouldn’t talk to as everything I said had to be repeated by my husband….as in “She would like 3 pancakes”….I’m sorry to say never again for me….if they don’t want us down there they shouldn’t take our money. I know that sounds terrible but that is how bad it was…

    • Oh, sorry, to bring back unpleasant memories! I didn’t find it as unpleasant as I did amusing, how they would go out of their way to avoid interacting. Which made me try that much harder. LOL!

  3. I am really impressed! This is quite an adventure to strike out on on your own!! Going down at the beginning is never a good thing!! Oh, well, at least coming up is the next day:) Thirteen miles is our longest hike, also.

    Your narrative was wonderful and had me totally hooked. I was not happy about…to be continued!! I was right there on the trail feeling the descent and smelling the poop!! What gorgeous scenery!! Love the hike through the red rock wash. Gotta love the “receptionist!” So helpful:)

    • Thanks, Pam, for the nice compliment. The story is long, I know, but it was such a unique place, and I want to remember it all! Move day today, so Part Two will come tomorrow…

  4. I’ve always wanted to do this hike. While at the North Rim last year, hated the mule manure and flies on the trail. I have taken classes about Native American culture and the pause before speaking is normal, a way to avoid blurting out something that would not be polite.

    • Hi, Teri, thanks for the comment! Interesting info about the long pause. I think I could take a lesson from that. haha!!

  5. I have been waiting for your Havasupai posts and this first one did not disappoint. Your photos took me right back to our trip, sans the flash flood! 🙂 I was glad you shared your experience with the locals. We had that same impression and the lodge, which we also stayed at, was run-down and downright dirty when we were there. Given how they live, I am certain there is a lot of resentment towards the tourists. Looking forward to your next post(s), especially the hike out, as we had to take a helicopter given our friend’s back issue. That was a wonderful experience as well. I would love to go back and hike back out this time.

    • LuAnn — Thanks again for sharing your flash flood experience. As much as I would love to camp down there, the “High Ground Here” signs did give me pause!

  6. Your comment about mule dung reminded me of a truism about backpacking. “A packtrain will turn a trail with a few wet spots into a trail with a few dry spots.” Uggh.

    • Uggh is right! I joked about the dung, but actually there was less of it than you might think, given the number of horses I saw on the trail…maybe due to the gravel surface, it disintegrates faster?

  7. Stunning photos!! The pedometer steps says it all. I bet you slept well that night. I have friends who did a Yosemite hike and sent up their very high end wine by mule, just could not let a day go by without the best of the best. Can we move on to Part 2…ASAP, please!!

    • Hi, Susan, no it is my “older” pack. I bought it when I lived in Georgia and did overnights to the Len Foote Hike Inn, because it is the perfect size for one change of clothing. Of course, that didn’t include swimsuit and towel, so space was a little tight!

  8. Beautiful photos of the hike in. Look forward to seeing the falls. It’s disappointing about not being welcome in the village, since they are capitalizing on all the hikers who come. Not a fan of reservations and try to stay away from their tourist traps, although this one definitely looks worth it!

  9. Oh my girl, you are so far out of my hiking league now….. You will be racing circles around me. I have so admired this hike but I fear it is not something I shall be able to do so I look forward to go I g along with you. Can’t wait!

  10. I so loved this hike taken a few years ago with a fellow Ranger. Almost knocked over by a horse because I’m used to mules at Grand Canyon that walk to the outside of the trail. Oops, horses to the inside. Stayed two nights in the campground and one at the Lodge, although I use that term lightly. Hiked back up to a snowstorm. Hats off to you for doing 14 miles in a day. But the place is so magical, it’s worth it.

    • I agree, Gaelyn! Wish I had more than one night, as I would have loved to spend more time hiking in the area. Such beauty in the hike alone! I can imagine it was even more so frosted in snow!

  11. Waiting for part 2. Have done this hike 3 times, camping each time. Lovely areas passed the village. The native Americans who came into the campground were much more friendly, I thought. Glad to see that lone tree is still in the canyon and hasn’t washed away. When I went we didn’t get a camp permit til you checked in at a village office!

    • BJ, thanks for the comment! I heard there are some nice people that come into the campground to sell food and drinks. They now tell you if you show up down there without a permit, the price goes up from $35 to $100!

  12. My sedentary exercise avoiding sister in law did this with some of her friends many years ago, and told us how much we would enjoy it. She wanted to go back the next year and take us along. I have a new appreciation for how tough it is, and know that I’ve waited too long for the attempt. great story as always.

    • Tom, the helicopter ride was only, I think $95 each way. That might be an option, if you still want to see the falls…

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