I hear it before I see it. The sound of rushing water grows louder with each step I take until it reaches a roar. I round a bend and there it is, Havasu Falls pouring 100 feet through a slot in a red rock wall into a pool of impossibly blue-green water.
This is my reward for my 10-mile hike into Havasu Canyon. One of 600 branches of the Grand Canyon, it lies outside the national park on the reservation of the Havasupai tribe. The aquamarine color of the water winding down the canyon results from minerals eroding through Supai sandstone. In the tribe’s dialect, Havasupai translates as “people of the blue-green water.”
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to discover the hidden beauty of Havasu Canyon.
- You want a hike that challenges but doesn’t defeat you.
- Good for reasonably fit people looking for a soft adventure.
While the national park gets millions of visitors a year, less than 20,000 descend into this canyon. A few hundred members of the tribe live here, most of them in Supai, Ariz., a town eight miles below the rim. The tribe strictly controls access to the canyon, issuing permits to visitors who overnight in the lodge in town or in the campground two miles farther into the canyon. The only ways in are on foot, on horseback or by helicopter. I benefit from all three before my journey is over.
Hiking Down to Blue-Green Water
At the trailhead on the rim, at 5,400 feet, I watch backpackers laden with gear set off in small groups. My load is light. I’ve booked a group hike through Arizona Outback Adventures that uses packhorses to carry our duffels and food. Horses pass me on switchbacks down into the canyon. The trail levels off to sand, with rocks big enough to easily twist an ankle if I am not wary, then follows a dry wash before winding through narrow passages of red rock. When it meets a tributary of Havasu Creek the landscape grows lush. I stop to soak my feet and nibble on lunch from my day pack.
Four hours have passed by the time I reach Supai at 3,200 feet. I peek into the general store and push on to the campground where AOA has set up a luxury camp with roomy tents equipped with air mattresses, sheets and sleeping bags. I quickly change into a swimsuit and head over to Havasu Falls for a dip into that green-blue pool, then lounge on the bank below leafy cottonwoods and gaze at the red sandstone wall above. The waterfall has eroded the rock, leaving it smooth and curled—as though it is melting like some Salvador Dali surreal painting.
Camping in Luxury
Back at the camp, AOA guides rustle up appetizers and drinks. Alcohol isn’t allowed in the canyon, but the tribe turns a blind eye on campers who bring in their own, keep it to themselves and don’t cause trouble. Glass bottles and cans are forbidden, so boxed wine, beer and liquor transferred to plastic bottles are the way to go.
AOA calls its food back-country gourmet. A chef plans menus and trains guides to prepare them. I have a choice of grilled fish, chicken and filet mignon for dinner. There’s Caesar salad for lunch and for breakfast omelets, French toast, sausage, bacon and fruit. Dessert is no afterthought in this camp. One night it’s cheesecake, another raspberry torte.
Sated, I head to my tent where the gentle rapids of Havasu Creek provide just enough white noise for me to drift off to dreamland.
Climbing Down a Rock Face
The next morning I join a group of hikers setting off down the trail. When it comes to a cliff I get a little panicky, but the guides help me find footholds in the rock and use the ladders and chains attached to the rock face to ease my way down. It doesn’t help that the breeze blowing off nearby Mooney Falls is misting the cliff, making everything slippery. Finally, I reach the bottom, elated that I made it, and I take off my boots and go wading in the pool below the 200-foot falls.
We continue down the canyon to a swimming hole where some of the group takes turns jumping from a rope swing. If we keep hiking down canyon we’ll come to Beaver Falls and beyond that the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon, some 18 miles below the rim. We choose to stop at Ash Canyon for rest and refreshments. On our return to camp, a guide takes us on a detour to a natural shower. Under water spraying over a rock ledge, we strip down to swimsuits and play like giddy children.
On the last morning in the canyon, I follow the packhorses to Supai where I’ll helicopter up to the rim. Standing around among dozens of campers waiting my turn, I watch as tribal members step ahead of the line and board. It’s their canyon and they have priority.
Finally I duck under the whirling blades, buckle into my seat and soon I’m looking down at the silver ribbon of Havasu Creek and a team of packhorses stirring up a cloud of dust far below. Suddenly the helicopter pops above the rim and eases onto the landing pad. The trip from town to rim takes just five minutes, but for me it marks the end of a journey of a lifetime.
- Reservations: Arizona Outback Adventures has a variety of packages depending on whether you carry your own gear, use packhorses or helicopter out of the canyon. To go on your own, make reservations directly with the Havasupai tribe. In addition to camping or lodge reservations, the tribe can arrange for packhorses, saddle horses and helicopter flights.
- Getting there: The trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop is 68 miles north of Peach Springs, Ariz. AOA provides transportation from Scottsdale, Ariz.
- When to go: Most hikers descend into the canyon between March and October. The hottest month is July, with an average high of 99 degrees. Hikers should depart from the rim in early morning to arrive before the midday heat hits the canyon.
- What to bring: Camping gear if you haven’t booked a package that includes it, and a day pack with bottled water, light lunch, sunscreen and biodegradable soap. Water shoes protect your feet from abrasive rock when swimming in waterfall pools and streams.