“17 black, put it on 17 black,” shouts Ben over the drone of the slot machines. Our crew of five has just made the slog from SLC to Las Vegas after a long day of work, and we need to blow off some steam. The gaming floor of the Imperial Palace seems like the best venue, since our rooms are just downstairs. Sure enough, 17 black hits, and hits, and hits again. Despite my amigo’s keen since of what’s coming next, none of us could have imagined the adventure that was to come. We didn’t come here to spend the weekend gambling and partying away our paychecks. No, Vegas was just the first stop on the trail of an epic journey for intrepid souls wanting to get away from the real world, if only for a few days. Our ultimate goal was Havasupai Falls in the vast, deserted Northwest corner of Arizona, a place of dramatic beauty and breathtaking geology. Along the way we would meet up with some old friends, some interesting new ones, and even a mangy dog or two.
For the past year, I’d been hearing my buddy Blake talk about the wonderful trip he and some classmates had taken to the Grand Canyon, more specifically, Havasupai Falls. The pictures he showed me were amazing, and I marveled at the turquoise water that plummeted over the falls, filling the canyon below. It was hard to believe that such a place existed and that you could actually camp alongside the towering waterfalls and scenic river that had carved through the plateau over thousands of years. I was intrigued and wished to see the area for myself. Since Blake had been there before, he undertook the task of arranging our permits and securing a spot for our group in late April. Due to the confined spaces of the canyon and the increasing amounts of tourists visiting the area, the Havasupai Tribe has put a limit on how many people can stay in the campgrounds at any given time. Depending on the season, the cap hovers between 100-300 permits, most with a three-night limit. This stipulation ensures that the area does not become overcrowded and the sensitive environment surrounding the falls is maintained. It also adds to the mystique of the canyon knowing that you are part of a place that requires such deliberate planning and careful research to get to. The permit process is mostly straightforward and requires interested parties to contact the main office in Supai and request the dates. The most popular times of year are late Spring/early Summer and late Fall. Current information regarding Havasupai can be found online at havasupai-nsn.gov/.
The Coconino Plateau stretches for hundreds of miles across some of the loneliest portions of the desert southwest. A land that appears desolate and unforgiving to most, serves as the homeland of the Havasupai and Hualapai Indians. Living off the land by hunting and gathering, these native tribes enjoyed their solitude and bounty for centuries. With the coming of the white man to North America, the tribes were confined to ever-diminishing tracts of lands and forced to alter their lifestyles dramatically. As the Grand Canyon area became a National Park, the tribes struggled to subsist by adapting farming techniques to the barren lands. Eventually, the tribes were awarded a larger portion of land, and by 1880, they were able to return to hunting on the plateau. However, their new lifestyle was a far cry from the days of old. Currently, the tribes rely mostly on tourism to support their local economy, and each year thousands of visitors flock to the isolated canyons to catch a glimpse of paradise.
Over the past several decades, the Havasupai Tribe has built a more modern community in the base of Havasu Canyon. The village of Supai is a myriad of wood-paneled homes, small farming plots, a café, general store, and sleeping lodge. Despite the village’s quasi-contemporary accommodations, the mail is still delivered by mule train along the eight- mile trail that winds from the plateau to the canyon floor thousands of feet below. The village serves as the last sign of civilization as hikers continue on through the canyon towards the waterfalls.
After our stint in Vegas, we continue onto Flagstaff, Arizona to meet the rest of our party arriving from Phoenix. A spirited round of bar arguments ensues at a local watering hole, and ends with a majority of us too buzzed to stand up straight. Since the next day would involve a respectable amount of hiking over rugged terrain, most of us think better of it to stumble to the hotel and get some rest. However, a few members, including a pair of brothers that are notorious for chasing tail, head to the next bar. The following morning I wake up to an empty room and for a moment, I wonder if they all left without me. Walking across the hall, I investigate the neighboring room and discover that no one seems to know where the other three have gone off. After some cursing and a few calls to the local police stations and hospitals, two of the three missing members show up a bit disheveled, but smiling. With one brother still M.I.A., the responsible ones in the group pack up and head for Havasupai. The lone brother is left to scour the city for his sibling. Who knows if we will see those two again?
Loading up the van, we drive towards Peach Springs, a blip on the radar, and the last piece of society that our team will see for the next few days. Arriving on the reservation, we are greeted by an endless expanse of sagebrush, cacti, and dirt-stained pavement. The winding road meanders through the forlorn landscape and ends at a parking lot on the edge of nowhere. Below the rim, a narrow trail drops over 2000 feet, following the contour of the land, and hopefully leading us toward our destination We leave a note on the windshield with our departure time and intended camp location for our friends to find, should they arrive. As we venture into the canyon below, we notice a column of dust approaching at a rapid pace. Not knowing what to expect, we scramble to the side of the trail just in time to see a train of pack mules loaded with gear race by. One brave wrangler leads the stampede, and within minutes, we are left choking on the acrid remnants of their passing.
The trail ahead is comprised of numerous terrain features that require some careful navigation, but is mostly straightforward. Despite the constant worry of rattlesnakes, it’s quite an enjoyable stroll through the towering sand stone cliffs. I can imagine what a grueling death march this must be in July, and I understand why they close the trail during the hottest portions of the summer. Patches of vegetation sprout up from the weaknesses in the ground, and before long, small groves of Cottonwood and Ash trees come into view. The excitement that we are getting close permeates through our small clan, and within a mile, we see running water, and the start of the tiny oasis of Supai.
Our first stop is at the permit office where we check in and pick up our bag tags. Since it’s a Friday, there are several groups in front of us, but the staff is very efficient and we are set loose on the canyon in about fifteen minutes. The dusty streets of Supai are filled with small children running through the alleyways, while local contingents of mangy, yet friendly, dogs nip at their heels. We casually pass by and smile at the locals as they enjoy a cool beverage outside the local post office. Shortly thereafter, we are back into a narrowing canyon for the last few miles leading to the campgrounds. Opting for the site furthest away, another hour of trekking takes us along the gorgeous turquoise-colored river and a number of small waterfalls start to emerge as the trail continues its descent. The first feature we come to was known as Navajo Falls and used to be about thirty feet tall. However, it has changed dramatically since the flood of 2009. The course of the river has been diverted and although the water no longer falls over the same ledge, it has created a new falls, known to some as Rock Falls. During an April monsoon, the canyon and creek endured the effects of a catastrophic torrent of water after heavy rains pummeled the plateau and led to a dam breaking upstream. The corresponding devastation forever altered the landscape and distorted the geography of the creek and waterfalls. I’m told that Navajo used to be a favorite swimming hole and was renowned for its scenic composition, but it’s now high and dry. Beauty in nature can be thought of in two ways. The former glory of the falls is amazing according to the locals, but there is much to be said about the landscape shifting force of Mother Nature. Although I never saw the falls in its former state, it is amazing to witness the aftermath of such tremendous power.
The trail after Navajo soon becomes a tumultuous series of small cascades that flow into tiny subsidiary pools and eventually over the towering Havasu Falls. Plunging nearly 100 feet over the ledges of sandstone, Havasu Falls captures your gaze as thousands of gallons of water pour into the frothy pool below. Another victim of the flood, this falls used to feature a double spout. After the sediment traveling downstream clogged one spout, the water is now forced over a single ledge and is thrust out into space as it continues its journey down canyon. Below the majestic waterfall, there are a series of pools that are formed by the accumulation of calcium carbonate, travertine, fallen logs and sand bars. Although a majority of the pools were also destroyed in the great flood, the Tribe has restored the natural beauty of the pools with sand bags and other natural materials. The travertine build up has begun to coat these structures and the order of the river has been partially restored. Among the pools is a strategically placed hammock stung between two downed trees. The relaxing sounds of the water flowing past are intoxicating and looking up at the falls from water level is quite memorable.
Within another half-mile, we hear the unmistakable sound of water falling from upon high. Welcome to Mooney Falls. This is the highest falls in the canyon, coming in just a shade over 200 feet. That’s taller than Niagara! Just above the falls is a clearing placed along the riverbank and our camp for the weekend. We spend the next few hours enjoying the auburn shades of sunlight as they fade from the canyon walls and the soothing sounds of the creek as it ripples past. There are also numerous small caves to explore and we find our way into several tunnels that interconnect and wind their way through the cliffs, offering spectacular glimpses of the canyon at small openings in the rock face. Returning to camp, we notice a small dog trapped on a ledge and we decide to pull him down and see if he has tags. Turns out he is just one of the many local dogs that wanders through the campgrounds begging for scraps. We christen him “Scottie the Crusty-Eyed Fox Dog” and he becomes our trip mascot. Soon after firing up the stove, our two wayward companions come wandering into camp just as complete darkness fills the canyon. Their story provides ample entertainment for the rest of the evening and we fill up on pasta and whiskey under a star-strewn sky.
The next morning we shake off the chill and gather our things for the day’s adventure. Deciding to venture further down the river, we pick up the trail where we left off and wander into the wilderness. The trail soon disappears underground and makes its way through a series of tunnels, emerging onto small balconies every so often. From here we catch tantalizing views of Mooney Falls as we slide down safety chains and iron ladders. Once through the tunnels, we find ourselves standing at the foot of the falls, staring up into the glistening maw above. We decide to go for a swim in the pools below and the 74-degree water is more than refreshing. The pools below the falls feature small ledges and we sit under the shade of a perfectly placed Cottonwood tree. The visitors around us splash and play in the pools and some stand under the moss-covered boulders as the cool water trickles over their heads; a truly splendid oasis in the middle of an unforgiving land. I close my eyes for a moment and simply enjoy the peace and serenity of this gorgeous place.
For the remainder of the weekend, our crew explores the next several miles of river and blissfully enjoys wading through the thigh-deep, magnificently colored water. Keeping everyone together proves difficult due to all the beautiful diversions that surround us. Eventually, the river empties into the mighty Colorado River on its way through the Grand Canyon and we can see the occasional raft trip drift past. We decided to head out the following Sunday after a fantastic few days of adventuring and viewing the scenic landscape. We relive the initial excitement of Havasu Falls on the way back, and before long we arrive at the village. Visitors have the luxury of several departure options as they leave Supai: pack out the way you came in, with your gear on you back or shuttled up-canyon by the mule train, or a helicopter. Most purists would walk out with their packs and enjoy the view from ground level. We on the other hand, wanted to see it from the air. The ten minute scenic flight up and over the canyon and river was breathtaking and well worth the $75. Plus, it allowed us to get on the road a half-day earlier and complete the tiresome drive back to SLC before midnight. Leaving the Reservation we reflected on the amazing journey we had and the great bonds that were created.
For those wishing to make their own quest to Havasupai Falls, permits will be in high demand when the park re-opens after another devastating flood that occurred last October. The torrential rains returned and inundated the canyon, closing it until restoration teams can re-build the campgrounds and implement improved flood mitigation systems. Keep yourself updated on the Tribal Council’s website at havasupai-nsn.gov or email the department office at firstname.lastname@example.org.