Havasu Falls, Arizona
Havasu Falls lie deep within the Havasupai Indian Reservation on the western side of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They are known for their brilliant turquoise colour, which is particuarly stunning against the deep, red rock that otherwise characterises this part of the US. The high concentration of calcium carbonate which causes the bright blue green colour is also responsible the numerous travertine pools which have formed along the creek.
Havasu, and their sister falls Mooney, have become Instagram favourites and featured in countless posts and videos online. As a result, the two-day there-and-back hike has become one of the most hyped in the Southwest, if not the entire US. To make this trek, you will need to nab one of the highly sought-after permits issued by the Havasupai tribe. If you are lucky enough to secure one, numbers are carefully managed so the route is never overly crowded. Still, don't expect much isolation on this trek. Despite its popularity and the logistics involved, however, the beauty of Havasu Falls, the equally stunning location and the remoteness are definitely worth the effort and make this hike one to brag about.
Given its remote location, the need to obtain a permit and its enduring popularity, the hike to Havasu Falls requires some forward planning. The first challenge is obtaining a permit, which must be purchased in advance on the Reservation website (https://www.havasupaireservations.com/). Access to the Falls and the permit system is managed by the Havasupai tribe. I found the entire process, from buying the permit to registering en route, to be pretty straightforward and efficient. At first I was unsure how I felt about paying a fee (and a pretty high fee at that) to go on a hike, something I had not done before, but ultimately the permits provide a healthy source of income for the Havasupai and controlling numbers helps minimize the impact to the community and the environment. I would definitely say that the entire experience is worth the price of the permit.
The website goes live in February each year and permits sell out very quickly. I was waiting by my laptop for the 8am launch time and managed to grab a permit for March within the first few minutes of the website going live. A friend went on to the site later that day and apparently permits were already sold out - for the rest of the year. So you need to be fast if you want to secure your spot. Unfortunately, you have to know the exact date you wish to hike when you buy your permit and permits cannot be exchanged later on, so not only do you have to be fast but you also need to have finalized your plans potentially well in advance.
Getting to the trailhead is quite straightforward but makes for quite a lengthy (although enjoyable) drive. From Flagstaff you drive 74 miles west on Highway 40 to the small village of Seligman, where you drop onto the famed and historic Route 66. After another 30 miles, you then turn on to Indian Road 18 and head north/north-east for a further 1.5/2 hours. Make sure you have all of your supplies, plenty of water and a full tank of gas before you leave Seligman as amenities are scarce (i.e. pretty much non-existent) from this point on. Ideally you will have stocked up at Flagstaff or another large town depending on where you are coming from.
The parking area and trailhead are located quite dramatically on the edge of a huge canyon - the Grand Canyon in fact. The views here are stunning and peering into the huge gulf below you can make out the dry river bed at the base of the canyon which meanders far into the distance: this is the route you will be following once you have dropped into the canyon.
From the trailhead, it’s around 8 miles to the Supai village, where the Visitor Center is located (and where you need to register), and then another mile or so to Havasu Falls and the camping area. It might be possible to reach Havasu and return as a day hike but this would make for a very long day’s walk, especially considering the travel time getting to and from the trailhead, and would not give you much time to actually enjoy the scenery. It would certainly not be advisable in summer, when you will be hiking under the open sun and in some extreme temperatures. There are actually signs stating day hiking is not permitted. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the hike to get to Havasu is almost entirely downhill: the hard work doesn’t start till the return and, in particular, the final steep climb back out of the canyon. I was hiking in March when the air was still fairly cool (and the nighttime quite cold) but I still found it quite hot and tiring in the midday sun.
Finally, don’t forget to make a note of your vehicle registration number before you set off - you will need it at the village when registering. If you are like me and only remember a quarter of the way into the canyon, you’ll find yourself coming out of the canyon much sooner than you had expected!
I did not take a map with me but I did take some photos of the maps which are pinned to a hut at the trailhead and used my phone’s GPS to get a sense of my progress while I hiked. I did not actually need to refer to the photos or use my GPS for wayfinding, though, as the route is quite obvious. At the Visitor Center in Supai you are also given some basic maps but, again, these are not really necessary. The trail is quite clearly marked with footprints and cairns and you follow a fairly straightforward path. It would be difficult to get lost and in the event you do get confused at all there is a always a steady flow of hikers from both directions.
After dropping into the canyon from the hilltop, you spend the first few miles following the dry river bed away from the parking area. As the canyon walls become taller and rize above your eyeline, the landscape actually becomes a little monotonous and for a good hour or your focus is just getting some distance underfoot. There is very little shade during this section and no water around (water is not available until the village and then at the campground).
After a couple of hours the canyon walls start becoming taller still and the views become more interesting. Things really get going once you reach an expansive section of the canyon where you meet the river, a couple of miles before the village. From here you hike alongside the river and get your first taste of things to come: beautiful turquoise waters, bright green trees along the path and open blue skies above. The village lies peacefully at the base of some stunning rock formations: it feels like another world and quite amazing to think people live here so far from anywhere. You wind your way through the village to the Visitor Center, which is located next to the helicopter landing area, and from here it’s just another mile to Havasu Falls. The camping area stretches from the Falls for around a mile to the equally beautiful Mooney Falls. Don’t rush to get there though, because the landscape from the village is quite spectacular and even if you arrive late in the day there are plenty of camping spots to choose from.
It’s worth mentioning that you can pay to have your backpacks carried to or from the village by mule, an option which appeared to be quite popular given the number of hikers I saw with very little on their backs. Not my kind of thing, but something to consider if you want an easier walk (especially for the return). Some people also opt for a helicopter drop-in or take-out. It must be an exciting ride but I can't help but feel that must take some fun out of the journey as it only leaves you with a mile or to walk.
The campground has a relaxed atmosphere and you can easily spend a few hours admiring Havasu Falls or its sister Mooney Falls which bookends the campground a mile downstream. To reach the base of Mooney you have to descend down a steep rock face with the aid of ladders and chains, which are quite slippery with the wet clay and persistent spray of the falls. It’s quite fun though, and worth the effort. If you have the time, energy and enthusiasm you could add in an extra trip to Beaver Falls, which are located a couple of miles beyond Mooney. The path does become less easy to navigate, though, and most people do not bother going the extra distance.
As with most there-and-back hikes, most of the excitement and adrenaline has faded by the return leg and the prospect of a steep hike out of the canyon ahead can also be a bit of a dampner. But when you make it back to the hilltop, before you get in your car make sure you take a moment to look back and take in the view behind you: it’s always a strange satisfaction to look on a landscape again from where you stood only a day before but now knowing what lies beyond, hidden miles beyond, deep within the canyon.