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.
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!
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.
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!
I 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.
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!
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.)
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 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!
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?
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…
Now 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.
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!
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!