Hiking the Havasupai Trail
Amazing Adventures #1
Marshall and I were parked at a Walmart in Sedona, Arizona trying to figure out what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go the next day.
Grand Canyon? Maybe, but we both wanted something a little different. We had heard of and seen pictures of a trail that led to waterfalls crashing into impossibly blue pools of water. A trail surrounded by towering canyons and red-rock. A trail void of tourists and fit for only those seeking the greatest of adventures. The Havasupai trail. The only problem was, to get there, we would have to drive four hours, take a helicopter to a remote Native American reservation, and hike an upwards of twelve miles back to our RV. The trip was highly advised not to be done in one day. And, on top of everything else, the weather for the next day wasn’t looking too great, rainy and in the mid-50’s.
But we really wanted to do this hike. The Havasupai Trail pictures looked incredible. And we’re the kind of people who look for things like this, off the beaten path, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for a great story to tell. I mean, when else would we be able to ride a helicopter to a reservation and hike to three blue-green waterfalls? We said screw the weather, screw the twelve miles, screw the long drive. Let’s do it.
The Road from Hell.
We set off at twilight, getting off the highway on a long road headed north toward the Grand Canyon. We had found a sort-of short cut through on Google maps that claimed to cut off an hour of driving time. But the distance was only 62 miles so we thought we could easily make that in way under the three hours Google said it would take us. So we thought.
The road we were traveling on was undeniably beautiful, especially right at sunset. It stretched through the desert countryside, surrounded on either side by the occasional dirt road, cracked grounds, and short shrubs as far as the eye could see. It was an ocean of desert.
Soon enough Google maps was telling us to take a left-hand turn onto the 62-mile stretch of road that was going to take us to Hualapai Hilltop, the trailhead. We should’ve known something was wrong as soon as the asphalt turned to dirt. But we were already there, and the dirt road was wide and seemed to be pretty well maintained. It just sounded bad because everything in the RV rattled around from the uneven road, but really we could make it 62 miles no problem. It might take longer that our estimated hour, but we could go 45 comfortably, slowing down for sporadic potholes and speed-bumps and cattle grates, and that wouldn’t take too long, right? Right??
Not even two miles in we were stopped in our tracks by cows crossing the road. But they were so cute and we were so excited and we were the only ones on the road and everything looked so pretty in the lighting of the setting sun, so we took our pictures and laughed and questioned where the hell we were and pressed onward.
It was all downhill from there. It got dark, dark enough to where not even the high beams could shed light on where the road was headed. The dirt road became progressively worse, scattered with potholes and washed out in places, creating thick crevasses and ditches we had to straddle to avoid. But then it would get better, flattening and smoothing out, luring us deeper into the vast expanse of dark Arizona desert, comforting us with signs that claimed these roads were well kept by county maintenance. By the time we realized we should turn around, it was too late. We would’ve run out of gas on our way back to the main road and we would’ve run out of time for the hike by having to backtrack and go all the way around on another route. We pressed onward.
It was truly the most hellish ride I’ve ever been on. I cringed at every bump and gripped the edge of my seat until my knuckles turned white. I closed my eyes at points, willing this entire endeavor to be a dream. But it was far from that. It was a living nightmare. I’d seen way too many slasher, horror movies to not be absolutely terrified. And I’d seen how much care was put into the RV to not feel horrible for covering it in dirt, scratching it with stray rocks, and hearing the bumper hit the ground.
At one point we passed through a gate with a sign that had warnings like “end of county maintenance”, “not a through road”, and “prohibited”. I thought the property owners were just trying to scare away trespassers. I quickly learned that that was not the case. They were literally trying to save us from getting stuck in the middle of freaking nowhere.
It took us four and a half hours to get through to a paved road. Neither of us had ever been so happy. We cried. Moral of the story: If Google maps ever tells you that its going to take three and a half hours to drive 62 miles, TAKE ANOTHER ROUTE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE.
After ten more minutes of driving on the paved road, we made it to a parking lot at the top of a cliff: The Hualapai Hilltop. We pulled into a parking spot and passed out, silently thanking our lucky stars for making it and silently hoping that this whole Havasupai trail thing would be worth it.
The Trail from Heaven.
A tribal woman carrying a clipboard was calling my name, shouting it over the roar of the whirling helicopter propeller. Everything happened so fast. We grabbed our packs and jogged to the landing pad, wind whipping around us from the chopping blades, blowing our hair and tugging at our clothes. The woman ushered me into the copilot seat, and, after I hoisted myself into the tiny cockpit, she handed me my pack, slammed the door, and backed away with a thumbs up directed at the pilot. He nodded and jolted the joystick resting between his knees. The helicopter lurched upward and the ground shrunk beneath me, the cars and people below turning into tiny ants, waving goodbye.
We faced the canyon, traveling down its center, following a widening crack in the faraway ground. I’d never seen something like this before. It was a red-rock canyon, and I was level with the tops of its walls, looking below at sand and rock and layers of sediment stacked over thousands of years. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe it. We’d been waiting all morning, watching the helicopter carry a cargo net filled with swinging gear and luggage to some village in the canyon, and now, now it was our turn.
Before I knew it, the canyon bottom was filled with trees, lush and green and plentiful, and we were descending. The ground flew up at me, growing larger and larger, and soon I could make out the small concrete square the pilot was aiming for. We landed in the village and a man opened my door. I shouted my thanks at the pilot and jumped from my seat, hitting the concrete and jogging to a gate in the fence at the edge of the field.
Marshall followed behind me, lugging his pack by its strap, both of us sporting wide grins that spread ear to ear. The village was amazing. It was so remote and adorable and simple. The roads were made of packed red dirt. The buildings were old and wooden, paint chipping off their sides. There was a lodge for hikers, a small café with public bathrooms, a brick elementary school, and a few run-down houses with skinny horses in their backyards, lazily chewing sparse clumps of grass in the orange-red sand.
I didn’t know what to stare at. The canyons, the village, the horses, the people, the trees, the start to the Havasupai trail, there was so much. We ended up following signs for the trail and campground, craning our necks and rotating our heads around at all there was to look at. The beginning of the trail followed a small river, maybe two feet wide, with flowing water that was clear and beautiful. We passed other hikers carrying huge packs presumably full of camping gear. The only way into the village was by an eight mile hiking trail through the canyons or the helicopter, so most people camped overnight. After talking to a few people, we realized they had reserved campsites months, and one family a year, in advance.
At the hilltop the weather was windy and rainy and freezing cold, but on the trail, protected by the tall canyon walls, it was warm and absent of wind. The sun occasionally came out from behind the clouds, but mostly it was a comfortable cool, broken up with short showers. We shed our fleeces and rain gear and extra layers within minutes of being on the trail.
After about a three quarters of a mile, the trail split, the detour obviously trailing off to the left. I could make out the familiar roar of rushing water so I steered toward that direction, quickening my pace with the excitement of knowing what we were about to see.
The first of the falls, Little Navajo Falls, was indescribably beautiful. The river had widened, or maybe it was a different river than the one we were following before, but either way, the waterfall expanded to a width of at least thirty feet. Thirty feet of pure white water rushing over the edge of moss-covered rocks, careening into a crystal lagoon some twenty feet below. The falls arched into somewhat of a semi-circle, enhanced by the backdrop of red-rock cliffs and the smooth, red stones protruding from the water. People were skipping across the rocks, shivering, standing under the water, swimming in the impossibly Bahamas-blue water. Trees lined the brim of the drop-off, dangling their branches, dipping their leaves in the mist thrown from the water.
I was in awe, snapping pictures left and right, and, when I put my camera away, I just stood there and watched the water endlessly spill from the river above, unable to think or process anything other than how beautiful the falls were. Marshall asked a woman to take our picture and, after talking to her for a little while, she told us Little Navajo was the least beautiful of the three. I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t believe her.
But she was absolutely right.
We continued on the trail for another half mile or so until we could see the trail arch downward and to the left, avoiding the abrupt end of red rocks right in front of us. The top of the next waterfall. We could hear it. We peered over the edge, at least fifty feet high. The birds-eye view was amazing on its own, but we continued down the trail, taking large, clumsy steps with the increasing downward grade. The waterfall, Havasu Falls, was on our right and we could see it growing closer and larger as we stumbled down the trail. The sight was unreal, actually unreal, the kind of thing where you have to pinch yourself and blink a thousand times and rub your eyes to make sure you’re not dreaming.
If you’ve ever seen a picture of Havasu Falls I can tell you that it does not do the real thing justice. Yes, the water is that blue. Yes, those canyons in the background are real. Yes, the moss you probably didn’t notice growing behind the falls and on the sides of the surrounding cliff is abundant and lime green and amazing. In pictures Havasu Falls looks like a serene, peaceful waterfall that cascades into an azure pool of warm water, tempting you to take a swim.
But that would be wrong.
The water didn’t cascade, it plummeted. Powerful sheets of white water crashed over the towering threshold of rocks and plunged into the turquoise pool fifty feet below it, sending bursts of choppy waves and spraying gusts of chilly mist across the water. Where there is power there is beauty.
I am not a religious person, but when my eyes gazed upon the Havasu Falls I was overwhelmed. I wanted to kneel to our creator, whether it be a god or science, and, in an act of praise, ask how in the world something could be so beautiful. Tears welled in my eyes. Nature has never brought me to tears before, but there, with my bare feet in the crystal blue-green water, with the misty spray of the waterfall forming cool water-droplets on my follicles, with the backdrop of red-rock canyons piercing the cloudy gray sky, tears filled my eyes in a moment of bliss.
Marshall and I had to tear ourselves away from the Havasu Falls, hanging onto the promise of the beauty held by the last waterfall, Mooney Falls. We continued on the trail with bare feet, feeling the sand between our toes, letting the dirt turn our feet orange. We hiked through a lengthy campsite, filled with hikers and travelers and adventurers young and old but all happy and carefree. Within another half-mile we were standing atop yet another cliff, caught between wanting to look over the edge and not wanting to get too close to the loose rocks.
The path down to Mooney Falls was one of the most adventurous trails I have ever taken. It tunneled straight through the cliff, descending sharply, taking us through short caves and tiny cuts in the cliff-side lined only with caution signs and a chain. Towards the bottom the route became muddy and slippery from the rain and from the spray of the waterfall. We climbed down worn, wooden ladders, grasping at chains drilled into the rock. The path was steep and treacherous and terrifying. But it sure as hell was worth it.
Mooney Falls was the grandest and greatest and most intimidating of the three falls. It stood well over one hundred feet tall. It sent ocean size waves across its turquoise pool. Signs cautioned us not to swim behind the falls because of a strong current and undertow. Mooney Falls was a beautiful monster. Something enchanting and wonderful to look at, but something I never wanted to cross.
We played in the water around the edge of the pool, getting soaked by the mist. The rocks were surprisingly smooth against my feet, and I learned it was because of the high lime content in the water. That’s also what made it so impossibly blue. The most memorable thing was the incredible contrast of color. White water against turquoise blue against mossy green against grey sky against red rock.
Eventually and inevitably it was time for us to make the ten-mile trek back to our RV. We knew it was going to be a tough one. We were tired from the already adrenaline filled day, the trail was sandy, and we’d have to climb back up the canyon we descended into on the helicopter. But we were determined and ready for it.
The hike back to the Havasupai Trail Hualapai Hilltop was just as beautiful as the waterfalls. The trail snaked through the bottom of the canyon and, just like the village, it was quiet and remote. At some point on our return journey, we stopped to take a break, sitting down atop a rock, just breathing next to each other, rubbing our aching feet and looking up to the top of the canyon. We listened and our ears were met with complete silence. Have you ever heard complete silence? No noise. No wind, no birds, no bugs, no rustling leaves. It was deafening. It filled my ears and drowned me. Silence. We were alone and in the middle of nowhere. No one knew where we were and no one knew where we were going. Except for the canyons. The canyons were still there, towering over us, their red-rock exterior lined and streaked with sandy tan and dulled black, each layer apparent in the sediment. And in that instant I thought even if we weren’t here, the canyons would still be standing, existing in the silence. It’s an obvious thought, really. Of course canyons don’t just disappear if no ones around to look at them. Of course a falling tree makes a sound even if no ones in the forest to hear it. There, in that silence, I realized that nature is beautiful entirely for itself. It does not exist to impress or entertain the eyes of anyone else and it does not change with others’ judgments or criticisms. We enjoy it, yes, but that is not its purpose. It is simply there, surrounded by its own beauty and changing on its own time and solely content in the fact that it is still beautiful even if it is alone and no one is there to take its picture. How wonderful it would be if people could exist like that.
By the end of the hike we were exhausted. “Hilltop” really is not the best word to describe the trailhead. “Clifftop” perhaps or “mountaintop” or “literally the tallest peak ever” would be more accurate. So yes, our feet hurt, our blisters welled, and our stomachs growled, but we’d had an incredible day. We’d found a little piece of heaven, untouched by the world we’re used to, and it was truly unforgettable. Who knows how long it will be there and who knows if we’ll ever get to go back. So, despite the impulse decision, despite the questionable weather, and despite the sketchy, horrible, hellish dirt road to get there, hiking the Havasupai Trail was one thousand percent worth it.