Havasu Canyon stuns with crystalline falls

A view of Mooney Falls on Oct. 31. The falls are the tallest in Havasu Canyon and can only be reached by climbing down a series of ladders. (Photo by: Michelle Jaquette/Arizona Sonora News)

While growing up in Arizona, Id heard about the otherworldly blue waters that run through Havasu Canyon and dreamed of trekking to the oasis. During my last semester of college, I teamed up with four friends to make the 10-mile hike to the bottom to see for myself.

Nestled in Grand Canyon National Park, Havasu Canyon is accessible only by foot, mule or helicopter. Only people who have obtained one of about 20,000 reservations given out each year by the Havasupai Tribe are allowed entrance. The Havasupai, meaning the people of the blue-green waters, limit hiker access to protect their land from over-trafficking and pollution.  Online camping reservations start on Feb. 1, and spots disappear within hours.

My friends blessed me with a spot on the trip. We began with an overnight sleep in our car at the Hualapai Hilltop parking lot near the Havasupai trailhead on Oct. 30.

On Halloween Day, we awoke at 4 a.m. hoping to beat others down the trail and nab a prime camping spot. As we threw on our 40-pound packs and tightened the waist belts, we felt a rush of excitement. For three days we’d forget about our daily stressors and just focus on surviving.

With our headlamps on, we began clamoring down the steep trail into the canyon. A few other groups started with us, forcing us to breathe in the dust and dried mule poop they kicked up. Within minutes, I began to question everything, including the necessity of each item I’d packed. Would the waterfalls that lay 10 miles away really be that beautiful?

Within an hour, the trail flattened out and a cold light broke, giving us renewed energy. We stopped for snack breaks here and there, but for the most part we raced on for 6 more miles, hoping to beat the lactic acid building up in our muscles and the groups of hikers sure to be entering the canyon later. 

We wound through narrow canyons that stretched upward with beautiful red rock. After three hours of hiking, we were met by a tribesman on horseback. He checked our reservations and let us continue. Day hikers are not allowed in the canyon and will be escorted out.

The first glimpse of Havasu Falls comes right before the campground. Hiker Shauna Bratton takes in the view on Oct. 31, 2018. (Photo by: Michelle Jaquette/Arizona Sonora News)

As we entered the village of Supai, the canyon opened up, giving way to green trees and houses with smoke stacks rising from them. Village dogs came trotting along to escort us. We began to see more and more Havasupai people — U.S. Census data show only 208 live there. Many of the jobs in the village revolve around tourism.

We showed our permits at the tourism center and received wristbands. The last 2 miles to the campground were arguably the hardest as we longed for a nap. Finally, we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of Havasu Falls. Water gushed off a 90-foot cliff into the crystalline water below.

We set up camp along the creek and rested before hiking a half-mile to Mooney Falls, which were more awesome than Havasu Falls but trickier to reach. A narrow tunnel opens out onto a rock face with a series of ladders, chains and ropes made slick from the falls’ mist.

A hiker considers the steps he must take in order to get back to camp from Mooney Falls on Oct. 31, 2018. (Photo by: Michelle Jaquette/Arizona Sonora News)

At the bottom, you get the sense that this place is something out of “The Goonies” film, with craggy rock walls and wooden ladders. We waded into the chilly blue water for a chance to be closer to the awesome power of the falls, opting not to fully submerge until the next day when it would be warmer out. Temperatures stay in the mid-60s in the canyon in late October.

For dinner we warmed soup over a camping stove — no fires are allowed in the canyon — and enjoyed the pitch black night that brought with it a swathe of bright stars unseeable from the city.

The next morning we awoke stiff as boards. Walking to the bathroom required some limping, but it wasn’t enough to stop of us from setting out for a day hike to Beaver Falls about 3.5 miles beyond camp. We put on our swimsuits, packed peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches into Camelbacks, and slowly made our way back past Mooney Falls and along Havasu Creek.

The spring-fed creek fluctuates between shades of green and blue as it flows to meet the Colorado River some 8.5 miles from camp. The creek’s color is thanks to minerals like calcium carbonate that reflect light from the water.

Hikers brave the cold water at Beaver Falls on Nov. 1, 2018. (Photo by: Michelle Jaquette/Arizona Sonora News)

We wandered through lush valleys carpeted by vines and all manner of greenery sprawling up the canyon walls. By the time we reached Beaver Falls, we’d worked up the desire to plunge into the water no matter how cold it was. The initial plunge was adrenaline-inducing, but well worth the cold. Dozens of other hikers braved the cold with us. We wondered if a summer reservation would have been better but recalled that temperatures can rise up to 115 degrees in the canyon during the summer.

That night we ate instant mashed potatoes and drank from the spring at the campground. We thought about our options for hiking out the next day. Many hikers pay for mules to carry their packs out the 8 miles from camp, which costs about $33 per bag. There was also the option of flying out on a helicopter run by Airwest. The cost for a 6-minute one-way ride was $85, including a 40-pound bag.

We decided the chopper would be a great way to experience the canyon from the air and woke up early  to be first in line. From the chopper, we were given a bird’s eye view of the winding canyons we’d hiked two days earlier.

From that vantage point, I realized this place was bigger than I’d imagined.

If you’re from Arizona, go visit this oasis in the desert if you get the chance. You can make reservations for the 2019 season beginning in February.

 

Michelle Jaquette is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at mjaquette@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of the story and high-resolution photos.