Havasupai, which translates to people of the blue-green water, has been home to the Havasupai Native American tribe for hundreds of years. Set along a southern tributary of the Colorado River just outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park, this land now attracts thousands of visitors every year, many of whom make the pilgrimage on foot down from the lip of the canyon to the water below. Since Havasupai is so high up on most adventurer’s bucket lists, you’ve probably seen pictures of it on Instagram – of the milky turquoise waters, the lush greenery, the high, red rock canyon walls. But let me let you in on a not-so-secret piece of information: those photos that fit on your phone screen barely do it justice. Experiencing Havasupai must be on your list of places to go in 2017. This past fall, I signed up for a Shoestring Adventures trip to Havasupai that took me and a dozen other adventurers from around the country down into the canyon to swim in that magical water for ourselves. I took a plane, drove a rental car, camped in a parking lot, and backpacked in ten miles to see Havasupai for myself. And I would travel for twice as long to do it all over again.
Photography: Julie Hotz | Author: Liv Combehuckberry.com
Since Havasupai is in the generally warmer southwestern part of the US, spring, summer, and fall are all good times of year to make your trip. That being said, I’d recommend early fall for a variety of reasons – less stifling heat, no bugs, fewer people, and less chance of flash floods, which are most common during monsoon season from July through September.
But regardless of what season you choose, you can’t go unless you get a reservation. Write this down, make yourself a calendar invite, set a reminder on your phone – all reservations for Havasupai become available on February 1st at 9 am mountain time. (More on exactly how to get that reservation later!)
Unless you live close enough to drive straight to the trailhead, you’ll likely be flying into the Las Vegas McCarran International Airport and driving from there. Set flight trackers through Google or a site like Yapta.com to get alerts when fares drop.
In the months leading up to your trip, it’s a good idea to get yourself in the best physical shape you can. From the trailhead to the campground, the hike is 10 miles, and when you’re descending 2,400 vertical feet over the course of those miles, it can be pretty strenuous (especially when you’re carrying a heavy pack). “I highly recommend training for this trip,” says Alyx Schwarz, the founder of Shoestring Adventures. “Start with shorter hikes and gradually increase your miles and vertical gain. Join a local hiking Meetup group for motivation!”
Okay – the big question. Reservations at Havasupai are notoriously hard to come by, but the trick is this: balancing patience and persistence. As mentioned, reservations are only taken by phone starting February 1st at 9 am MT. “Be persistent!” says Alyx. “Call every day, as frequently as you can, to secure reservations. Have a list of preferred dates and back-up dates ready for when you get through. Also have a pen and paper handy to write down your confirmation number.” Not successful in the first round? You can also call a few days before you’d like to make a trip to see if there are any last-minute cancellations.
Reservations are required to stay the night at Havasupai, and day hikes are not permitted. As for fees, you must pay them at the time you make your reservations.
After arriving at the Las Vegas airport, you’ll have four hours of driving ahead of you from the city deep into the desert. Your destination is Hualapai Hilltop parking lot, the trailhead down to Havasupai. There’s nothing close by in the way of lodging, so your best option is to camp here the night before; yes, it’s a tad windy (if you can get a rental car big enough to sleep in, spring for it), but it also means you’re able to get up at the crack of dawn and start your hike early enough to beat the heat of the day.
Just as there’s no lodging on the drive to Hualapai Hilltop, you won’t come across grocery stores to buy food for your trip. (Though there is a small general store in Supai Village, it’s best to have everything you need on you when you begin the hike, including all your meals.) Make a stop in Las Vegas to buy everything you need, including drinking water – there’s no potable or filterable water source at the trailhead, so you’ll need to have enough for the night you’re camping at Hualapai and the entirety of the hike down the next day.
Be sure not to leave valuables in car at the hilltop; while there are frequently tribe members up there and a night watchperson, it’s not guaranteed that there won’t be an opportunity for someone to break in. If you absolutely have to leave any possessions in your car, try to make sure they’re locked away in the glove compartment or tucked out of sight.
As already mentioned, flash floods are a very real danger when you’re in a canyon. Monsoon season runs from July through September, and during this time, extreme rains can fall at a moment’s notice, causing the water levels of Havasu Creek to rise drastically and require an evacuation of the campground into Supai Village. Learn the signs of flash floods, check the weather conditions before your trip, and have an evacuation plan just in case.
These same months are also very hot, so consider hiking as much as you can before dawn on the way down or back up to avoid heat exposure on the trail, where, after a certain point, there isn’t much shade. Alyx’s tips to combat heat exhaustion or over-exposure: stay hydrated, replenish electrolytes, wear protective clothing, and make sure to continue applying sunscreen throughout the day.
In the summer, mosquitos can also be an issue. Make sure to bring bug spray.
Rodents are present in the campground, so be sure to have an odor-proof bag or bear canister to store your food while you’re sleeping or away from camps. Never leave food or scented items out and unattended; you will draw unwanted animal attention.
Just like any other backpacking trip, packing light is key on the 10 miles to and from Havasupai. Think about exactly what you’ll need in terms of meals, clothing, and gear, and bring just those things – since what makes this backpacking trip different is that there are more than your average backcountry resources available to you at your destination. Along with the general store at the bottom, there are donkeys that you can hire to take you and your gear out of the canyon. However, I’d always suggest making the trip on your own two feet – it’s part of the experience. So pack light, people.
And yes, they can be dorky, but hiking poles can come in really handy when you’re hiking up and down so much incline. If you’re worried about your knees, it’s a worthy option to absorb some of the impact. I used them and had no regrets.
Once you’ve made it down to Supai Village (it’s eight miles to the village, and another two to the campground), “Have your confirmation number and the name of the person who made the reservation handy,” suggests Alyx. “They will give each person a wristband that you must wear for the duration of your trip. They will also give you a tent tag, which will be checked daily by a ranger. If you have a large group, be sure to hang your tent tag where it is easily visible.”
And when official business is taken care of, it’s off to the campground with you! The campground is huge, extending for a few hundred yards following the bends of Havasu Creek. Find an open spot and set up camp. The campground has composting toilets and drinking water available, and you can also drink the water straight out of the creek – but we’d recommend a filtering system that filters out debris as well as bacteria.
Once you’re down in the canyon, the fun really begins. There are three main waterfalls in Havsupai – Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls. Havasu you’ll pass on your way to the campground, Mooney requires a very steep and slightly terrifying (but also quite doable) climb down a chained trail, and Beaver is another three or so miles beyond Mooney, making it a perfect out-and-back trip for a full day in the canyon. Pack a lunch and give yourself a few hours for the hike and swimming in the series of smaller waterfalls and pools.
If you want to bring a book, only bring one – you’ll likely be spending most of your time hiking or lounging in the turquoise waters, anyway. Also, keep in mind that you have to carry all your trash out with you. Read up on Havasupai history before you go – this is sacred land and the people have a deep connection to the water.