It took me awhile to recover enough to write about the hike through the Grand Canyon to Havasu falls. I do a lot of hiking, and I run at the gym every morning. But nothing prepared me for the level of insane required to do this hike through the Havasupai Reservation. It was the hardest hike I have ever done. It was also the most worth it. Here’s how to do it:
Getting there is not half the fun. It’s about a 5 hour drive from Phoenix. The I-17 takes you to Flagstaff, where you meet the historic route 66 and take it to a tiny Highway known as the 18. Highway 18 is a barren stretch of road with no gas stations or rest stops, and a bad paving job, so be ready for that.
Highway 18 ends at a place the Havasupai tribe call “Hilltop.” There is really nothing there, so I guess that’s all you need to say. We got there around 3am and napped in the back of the Expedition before beginning the hike. If you want to be a pro about it, I recommend staying the night in Kingman so you can arrive refreshed instead of cramped from sleeping in a car. I’m on a budget myself, so a sleeping bag is the hight of luxury for me.
We left Hilltop and started down the switchbacks into the canyon at 7:30am. We told the lady at the top that we were doing a day hike, and she looked at us like we were crazy. She also told us we were getting a late start.
We each carried a gallon of water, trail mix, dried apricots, nuts, and beef jerky. Our packs were about 35 lbs each. We took no camping equipment, just food, water, swimsuits, and water shoes for the falls. Oh, and sunscreen. I can not stress enough how important the sunscreen is!
At the end of the switchbacks we started walking the canyon floor. At first, it’s really cool. There are all kinds of neat rocks and the sandstone is brilliant colors. But it’s 7 miles inside the canyon to get to Supai village, and I must admit, I got a little tired of dusty sandstone after all that walking. Also, the Havasupai drive their horses up the canyon in the morning, so the smell of manure gets really old too.
When you get to Supai you just want to keep walking. There aren’t any signs, but if you keep going, you get to the tourism office (on the left.) Pay them, or they will fine you when they catch you at the falls without passes. It’s $35, and it’s a steal considering what you are about to see.
There is a café (I use the term loosely) in the village. I had been warned against eating there because a group of hikers I spoke to claim to have gotten food poisoning. While I have a cast-iron stomach with no fear or parasites, I felt that a 20 mile round trip hike in 100 degree weather was hard enough without trying out new food. So no food reviews today. We passed up the café and went strait to the falls.
First you come upon Navajo Falls. This is a series of small waterfalls that flow into pools of clear turquoise water. They are beautiful in all the pictures I have seen, but they will never look as good as they do after you just walked 10 miles through a dusty canyon to get to them. Remember a bathing suit and water shoes! That is very important. And don’t forget to re-apply your sunscreen often.
Next up is Havasu Falls. We decided in advance that this is as far as we would go, since this was day hike. If you are willing to pack in a tent, you can go on further to the spectacular Moony Falls and Beaver Falls (both are featured over and over in Arizona Highways calendars.)
Havasu Falls is less amazing than before the 2008 flood, because the pools below have washed away. However, the upper and lower falls are still just as amazing as they always were. The lower part of Havasu falls is a giant curtain of water which is all the more impressive because of the dry canyon that serves as its backdrop. My friend Carl said that it looks like something that belongs in Maui, not in the desert. I have to agree.
The upper falls are hard to get to, but it’s worth a little climbing and struggle. The many jets of water jutting over the edge of the cliff create a growing place for all kind of moss, which is a real treat for a desert dweller.
After some wadding around we turned around and headed back. The hike out is the same 10 miles as before, but in the later part of the day you use twice as much water. I am happy to say that the store in Supai sells water at reasonable prices. I am unhappy to say that the way it gets there is on the backs of pack-horses. If I could have carried two gallons of water in, I would have. I hate to think of what those poor horses go through every afternoon as they are herded back down the canyon laden with far too much weight.
The one plus on a day hike that I wouldn’t count on (but that we were grateful for) is that some of the horses throw their saddles. We ran across two horses which we had to save (one tangled in barb wire and one stuck dragging its saddle and load.) But there were bottles of water along the trail that had fallen off the horses, and it was like water from heaven. I tried to plan this hike on a cloudy day. I even picked a day where light showers were expected. But it was full sun all day, to my dismay. Water is so valuable at the bottom of the canyon in the full sun in August!
A few words of caution, because it is such a tough hike:
-Please remember sunscreen.
-Please take lots of water- more than you think you will need.
-Please take lots of food. Nuts for long-term energy and fruit for a sugar-shake when you’re wearing out.
-Do NOT go on a day when heavy rain is expected. The canyon has flash floods.
-There are no medical services. Bring a first aid kit and do not be reckless like me and stop to help horses. I could have been kicked and died down there.
-Remember the reason to do this hike in August is so the cold Colorado river is refreshing, so make sure you bring water shoes and a swimsuit. If you’re not going to swim, you may as well hike it in December when it’s cooler out.
The most important thing I brought was Carl. He didn’t complain once, even though he must have been miserable. And his encouragement kept me going when I wanted to nap on my swimming towel and hike out in the morning. Also, I brought an MP3 player. This is the only way I made it up the switchbacks to the car. It’s a mile up, and after an all-day hike in the sun, you need a little music to help you get back out of the canyon. We made is out by 7pm, meanning we did the whole 20 miles (with rest at the falls) in 12 hours. Wow.
There is a helicopter that I am told you can make reservations with if you call far enough in advance. You need reservations for the camp ground too, and for the primitive lodge where you can stay. Another thing you can do is make reservations to ride a horse out in the morning (they are not carrying anything when they drive them up to be loaded with goods in the morning.)
I am sure all of these things make the trip easier. But Carl and I did the whole trip from Phoenix to Havasu Falls for about $100 each, including gas. So really, it’s all about your budget.
The hike we did was 20 miles. It was 100 degrees in the canyon on Aug. 26th. The cliffs are just as bad as you would imagine. But of all the rural and hard-to-get-to places in Arizona, Havasu Falls has to be the most worth it. The pictures are stunning, but being there is beyond cool. Happy hiking!