When it comes to the Wonders of the World, there are quite a few lists compiled for everything from the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. To limit these lists to just seven is really not fair, considering the vast wonders to be found on this earth… as well as off of this earth. Did you know there’s even a list for the Seven Wonders of the Solar System?
But no matter what any list says, Havasupai Falls deserves to be one of these wonders.
The Havasupai Tribe Reservation spans across more than 188,000 acres of canyons and broken plateaus on the western edge of the Grand Canyon’s south rim. The village of Supai, the tribal center for the Havasupai tribe, lies 3,000 feet deep at the bottom of Havasu Canyon, a remote paradise that can only be reached by hiking, horses, or helicopter.
You might not think anything of just “another canyon” out there in Arizona, until you realize Supai is a fully-functioning community with a modern school, a small church, a medical clinic, a grocery store, and a “street” (more like a dirt path) lined with houses. It seems something out of a movie.
But the real gems of Supai — and where the tribe takes its name — are the magnificent waterfalls that tumble down into turquoise pools with red sandy bottoms. The name “Havasupai” means “people of the blue-green water,” and the falls are famous for their color, created by the high amounts of calcium carbonate (limestone) in the water. Every picture online shows stunning blue-green waterfalls and plunge pools, sometimes too perfect to believe. I’d had my heart set on visiting Havasupai some day to see for myself, but the campground had always sold out before I could make reservations.
This year, for my husband’s birthday, I called four months in advance and was able to secure a coveted summer reservation for our group of 11. We chose a weekend in early September which was a little dicey, considering it was just after the summer monsoons. Monsoons are no joke in the canyon; nearly every year, flash floods rage through the canyon, even changing the courses of the waterfalls (so if you last visited Havasupai five years ago, the falls would be very different features today).
And monsoons there were… for three weeks straight. Every day I’d pull up the Havasupai website and see a “canyon closed” status on the homepage. I’d call the reservation office and they’d tell me the trails were washed out and they had to helicopter in water and supplies for the tribal residents.
Just one day before our scheduled hike in, the trail was still closed but we were already in Arizona, hunkered down in a motel about two hours from the trailhead, watching the storm clouds pass overhead and hopeful that it would reopen by morning.
As luck would have it, I checked the site before I went to sleep that night and the status was no longer splattered across the homepage. The canyon was open!
We drove to the trailhead in the darkness of a 4 am start time from Peach Springs, the closest civilization to Supai. When we reached Indian Road 18, all the road closure signs were still up and tribal police told us they didn’t think the canyon had reopened. But they let us pass anyway, saying a couple of cars had gone ahead of us that morning and no one had turned around yet.
We pulled into the parking lot and up to the camping trailer at Hualapai Hilltop, which was indeed open and a kind lady checked in all of our backpacks. Our plan was to hike down with day packs and have mules carry our overnight packs to the campground. It was the first time I’d ever had the option of renting pack mules for a long hike, and it was absolutely worth it!
The 10-mile hike into the canyon wasn’t super strenuous, but carrying only our essentials that morning (you know, like frozen packs of margarita slushies) made it more of a leisurely walk than a lumbering hike.
We were one of the first groups to go down after the monsoons, so it almost felt like a “bluebird day”… but in a canyon. The weather was warm, the sky was clear, and the air was filled with the fresh scent of damp earth.
There were definitely signs of flash flooding earlier that week, and in some parts, the trail was completely obliterated by landslides and rockfall. All along the trail, tribal residents were picking and shoveling and sandbagging and starting to rebuild. Sadly, we even came across a horse carcass, one of many that didn’t make it out of the canyon before they were swept away by swift water. One of the tribe members told us the village had lost around a dozen horses in the last flood; as we continued on the trail, we could see burn piles on the sides.
Eight miles into our hike, we reached the village of Supai where we checked in, paid our camping fees, and got our wristbands. (If that all sounds weird, Havasupai is not your typical wilderness camping destination. The fees are fairly steep for camping, despite it being primitive camping, and reservations are per person, not per campsite. But, the limited reservations mean the canyon is never overrun with visitors.)
The Havasupai tribe has been dwelling in Supai since AD 1300. Looking around the village makes you wonder when it was first modernized with buildings. If it weren’t for the grand sandstone walls behind the homes (with “The Watchers” rising above them, two towering spires that are believed to protect the village), they could’ve been plucked right out of suburbia, complete with giant trampolines on the lawns. At least five of the homes had trampolines out front, and it made me smile thinking about the helicopter that had to fly all those trampolines in at some point. Or does UPS deliver down to the canyon? (On an interesting note, Supai is the only US Postal Service station in the country that’s serviced by mule train, five days a week!)
The campground was another two miles beyond the village, but we reached the first waterfalls right away — Upper and Lower Navajo Falls. They were beautiful and powerful and launched a full-scale photo shoot among our group, but we knew that just up ahead, we’d be even more blown away.
Late summer in the canyon means temperatures reach into the 90s, so finishing the hike in the afternoon was hot and tiring. As we neared the campground, we passed the most famous of the falls, Havasu Falls. This waterfall is usually what comes up first when you Google Havasupai, and it’s just as amazing in real life. We stood on the cliff, watching other hikers swimming and splashing in shallow travertine tubs, dipping themselves in the deliciously cool and refreshing pools of water.
A half-mile ahead, we entered the campground and claimed an area for our seven tents. The creek flowed right past our site and I could not wait to shuck my pack and jump in!
While we waited for the mules to arrive with our backpacks, we explored Havasu Falls… explored the little cliff jumps, that is! I’d say it was the perfect start to a long weekend, but it really started earlier that morning, with our first step on the trail.
The next day started with an early morning walk to Havasu and a quiet sunrise enjoyed by the falls with our coffee. It was a surreal and beautifully different experience from the previous afternoon.
After breakfast, we went on a day hike to the other waterfalls. Mooney Falls was a mile downstream from camp along a well-kept trail. We followed the creek the whole way until we reached the overlook, which hung a couple hundred feet above the canyon floor.
From there, we hiked down the shoulder of the cliff on a windy path, through a tunnel (a tunnel?!), back onto the rock, then through a second tunnel where the roaring mist from Mooney Falls blasted us in the face as we emerged.
Steep steps chiseled into the rock, along with heavy, mud-slathered chains and slippery wooden ladders in the final 25-foot descent, led us down to the base of the falls. I think the appeal of Mooney is just in getting there to begin with!
We lingered in the pools for an hour or two, then followed the trail further downstream to continue onto Beaver Falls.
This final waterfall was another three miles away, though it felt much longer on the hike in as we must have crisscrossed the stream half a dozen times.
The last mile of the hike was lovely though, and totally different from any of the hiking we’d done in the canyon so far. The trail narrowed into a barely two-foot-wide path through a jungle of thick brush that at times came up to our heads!
By the time we made it to Beaver Falls, most of the other hikers had already gone back to camp. To get Beaver to ourselves was an epic experience!
While the other falls were impressive for their height, Beaver was the picture of paradise with its cascading travertine pools.
We idled there for the rest of the afternoon before hiking back to camp just as the sun was setting and the moon was rising over Mooney.
I can tell you that leaving Havasupai on our last day was difficult. But we had a helicopter to catch. We’d opted to hike two miles back to the Supai landing pad (with full packs on our backs), where a helicopter shuttled visitors in and out of the canyon all day long. Sign-ups for the ride were first-come, first-served, and our wait was only two hours (after tribal members and village cargo were given loading priority).
We managed to squeeze half our group onto one of the shuttles, and it turned out to be the perfect send-off for an extraordinary weekend. The ride was only five or ten minutes — shuttling us straight from Supai to Hualapai Hilltop — but I easily could’ve stayed onboard for another five hours just taking in all the sights. We pointed out our trail on the canyon floor and fired off as many pictures as we could like a bunch of giddy tourists.
The sheer enormity of the canyon was breathtaking. Realizing just how small we were, standing in those magnificent slots, really put the world in perspective.
When we landed in the parking lot, our hearts were pumping and we were so psyched from the helicopter ride. When, not if, you take this trip and are trying to decide whether the extra expense is worth it, do it. Taking the helicopter — and taking in the most incredible views of the canyon from above — truly completes the Havasupai adventure.
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