As I stood in the hilltop parking lot overlooking the Grand Canyon, on my way to one of the places that was at the top of my bucket list I didn’t expect the following thought to cross my mind, “Well this is going suck on the way back up”. The negativity caught me off guard, after all I had been dreaming and obsessing about getting here, to this exact place, the place where I could start my journey down to one of the “most magical places in the USA”. Destination was Havasupai, best known for their (insert cliché word here, such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘awe-inspiring’) blue green waterfalls that have been heavily Instagrammed over the past several years. It didn’t matter to me that social media had kicked this place to the forefront of travelers “must go” destinations, I wanted to go.
Getting to these “magical” waterfalls is no easy feat though. Its months of planning, days of sitting on the phone for hours on end getting a busy signal while trying to obtain a permit and then a gruelling 10-mile hike down to the campground, and that is only if you were successful in obtaining one of few permits. After years of trying to obtain my own permit, unsuccessfully, I was lucky enough to join AOA (Arizona Outback Adventures) on their 4-day tour where they not only got me a permit but also set up camp, fed me and trekked me around to all of the waterfalls. Even if I would have been able to obtain my own permit, the chance of me making it down with all my camping gear, cooking my own food and finding all the waterfalls would have been slim to none. Although outdoorsy and adventurous; I have been known to get lost once or twice in my life.
Rewind for a second and I find myself starting to descend the two miles of steep switchbacks that lead the way into the Canyon, those same switchbacks I will be cursing four days later when I come up them. I am only hauling my daypack (thank goodness) which is loaded with a suspicious number of full bottles, three water bottles, sunscreen, my camera and my water shoes. Although it felt like it only weighed 10 pounds when I slung it on at the top of the Canyon, by mile 6 it feels as if it weighs 40lbs. Forcing myself to drink water, if only to lose some of the extra weight, I trudge through the Canyon thinking it looks more like an alien landscape than a dessert. The towering bright red walls, the boulders that look as if they have been dropped from Space, the dust that is constantly kicked up by the horses that run on through and the lack of anything green makes me wonder how it’s possible these waterfalls even exist.
By mile 8 we have reached the Supai village where approximately 400-600 Supai people still live, relying much on tourist dollars to keep their village running. Houses are spread around the village square which houses exactly one store, one restaurant, one basketball court and one set of public restrooms, as well as a tap where you can fill your water bottle. Kids and adults alike are roaming through town, as well as a large number of dogs, who according to our guides all have owners in town. As I sit on the ledge outside the one store I spot job notices pinned up on the bulletin board. A wild and insane idea crosses my mind as I read one that is seeking someone to work with the tourists that visit. “I could do that”, I think to myself, come live down here for a year. Heck I could pitch a tent, live off the land, learn about the mysterious Supai people. And then I remembered….this is indeed a dry reservation where alcohol is prohibited. “Well there goes that idea”, I say aloud to no one in particular.
As we make our way out of the village and towards the campsite I am struck by a feeling of panic, what if the waterfalls aren’t as pretty as I thought? What if I am disappointed? And what if I built this whole experience into something that wasn’t realistic? As we rounded the corner and I caught the first glimpse of one of the waterfalls, I gasped.
The dry dusty desert landscape ends when bright green trees and bushes start emerging on the sides of the trails, and I begin to come across some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever experienced. Bright red canyon walls surround lush green vegetation with blue green waters pouring through in between. The combination of colors takes my breath away and I gasp under my breath, “welcome to Havasupai”. I learn later that the first falls I came across on day one are known as Little Navajo. A short walk later and the blue waters get even sharper in color, if that is even possible and I get my first look at Havasu Falls, the most recognized of the waterfalls here, standing at just over 100 feet tall and pouring into a pool of inviting water.
Many visitors here will spend their days at Havasu Falls, jumping off the surrounding smaller waterfalls, swimming in the warm pools and simply feeling the power of the waterfall. What they miss out on is the other waterfalls and impressive hikes that await visitors. I hadn’t come to blow up an inflatable tube and float in the rivers, I had come to explore the area. Luckily for me there are five major waterfalls and countless smaller ones to explore, each taking you on a different path through the canyon.
One of the most exciting hikes is anywhere from 6-10 miles from the campground, with the promise of a swim in Beaver Falls, the last big waterfalls in the chain of the five in Havasu Canyon. We head out after breakfast towards Mooney Falls where a series of steps, ropes, chains and ladders await the fearless. Finding our way down the cliffs using the tools above which at times can be slippery from the spray off from the falls is both a scary and hilarious experience. Mooney Falls is the tallest waterfall out of the five, standing at almost 200 feet and is named after prospector James Mooney who set out to find a way to reach the bottom of the falls, but tragically fell to his death. This descent is necessary for hikers wanting to go on to Beaver Falls.
Beaver Falls is an absolute blast, with endless pools and waterfalls that you can swim in, jump in and otherwise laze around in. Side note: could have use the inflatable raft at this point.
As I spent the next 3 days hiking through trails with greenery as tall as me, jumping off waterfalls into travertine pools, slipping into underwater caves and diving through the actual falls it began to occur to me I never wanted to leave. Although I managed to see all five big waterfalls (Fifty Foot Falls, Havasu Falls, Little Navajo Falls, Beaver Falls and Mooney Falls), there was so much left to discover. Ancient legends as to why this land is sacred, hidden waterfalls that led to a path of bright pink flowers, old mines with hundreds of caves within, I hadn’t even begun to scrape the surface of this incredible place. What I did find though was a place that truly seemed magical, a place that rocked my soul to its core, that made me remember that our world is a sacred place, that we need to be protecting it and taking care of it. Havasupai reminded me that beauty exists all around us, whether is be in the deep of the canyon walls or in the eyes of a Supai child eating a blue Popsicle on a hot day. And at the end of the week I very happily packed out everything I brought in, dunked my toes in the water one last time and trudged out 10 miles with my head held high, knowing I had experienced something like never before.