If you have been looking for the ultimate bucket-list vacation, I think I have an amazing backpacking trip that should fit the bill. This is the type of trip you won’t soon forget and you will brag to your friends about. It is the type of trip I knew I wanted to share with the readers of the Fiddleback Forge Blog when I reached camp and had a moment to ponder how incredible of a time I was having. Recently, I had the opportunity to backpack through the Arizona desert to a highly-sought after destination popularized by internet top 10 lists, instagram “models”, and landscape photographers. Havasu Falls, located within the Havasupai community, is a turquoise blue water feature found shockingly among the red rocks and cacti. The trip was both challenging and rewarding and it’s one I will have a hard time topping.
The Planning Process
One cannot simply go to Arizona, rent a car, drive to the reservation, and begin hiking to Havasu falls. There is a permit that must be acquired and it is more easily said than done. An online account must be made before February 1st and in only a matter of hours, the entire year’s worth of reservations are spoken for. When you eventually see the falls, you’ll understand why the process is so competitive. Do yourself a favor and check back frequently for cancellations and you might find one. Also, be flexible with your schedule as you may not find the exact dates you originally wanted and will need to bend a little. Expect to pay $100 to $125 per night per person or $300 to $375 for this experience. It is not cheap but it is absolutely worth it.
The destination is also not a short walk from a parking lot trailhead. Travelers can elect to hike 10 miles to the campground with their backpacks, hike the same distance with their gear hauled down by horses, or they can take a 10 minute helicopter ride and avoid most of the walking all together. I’ll say this about the horses and helicopter. The backpackers don’t necessarily care for others who don’t “earn” the views. Think of it like the Hollywood types who pay for their kids admission to college. Sure, they end up in school with others who earn it through actual studies but they aren’t really the same, right?
Depending on the time of year you hike Havasu Falls, you will need certain gear that will be dictated by the environment. The desert can be brutal and your priorities should include clothing for all conditions. This means sturdy boots for hiking, long-sleeve shirts, pants, swimsuit, and hat, sunglasses, and neckerchief. Camping gear will vary but you’ll want a small freestanding tent, sleeping pad, and bag. Additionally, all of your food should be lightweight and whatever waste you create you also need to pack out. “Just add water” backpacking meals are the way to go along with a combination of trail snacks. Aside from your usual basic gear (knife, headlight, cordage, lighter, first-aid kit) you will want to pack a good camera to record the memories, a book for downtime, a light-weight hammock, and pack towel if you plan to swim. One thing you should definitely leave home is alcohol. It is strictly prohibited and your car WILL BE checked when you drive into the reservation. Given the history of the people and the prevalence of addiction, this restriction is reasonable and a small price to pay to be a guest in their backyard.
When you hike from “Hilltop” to the campground, you will experience the Arizona desert intimately. The first (and eventually on the return trip, the last) mile of the trip is a series of steep switchbacks down a mountainside. Depending on the time of day and the time of year you hike, you’ll have a mix of sun and shade. Do yourself a favor and leave early to avoid the high-noon sun. For another mile or so, you’ll slowly descend into a wide canyon with red rocks on both sides and a dry river bed at your feet. As the miles tick away, the canyon gets more and more narrow filled with large boulders. It is here when you lose sight of the taller mountains in the distance and the only sounds you’ll hear are the helicopters making runs or the running horses carrying bags. You’ll either hear the clatter of the horse hoofs or the music the Havasupai riders play as they escort the pack animals along the trail. Make sure to give them a wide berth as they tend to move quickly and show no signs of stopping for hikers in their way.
At about mile 6 or 7, you will see a sign for “Supai” and eventually “no photography past this point” indicating you are close to the village. Soon, you’ll hear the unmistaken noise of moving water. Cross a few bridges and you will find yourself in the village with a mandatory check in at the visitors’ office if you plan on hiking to the campground. Less than 2 miles from the village, the water gets louder and louder before you descend on a terraced trail with Havasu Falls to your right. Only a short walk from the falls, you’ll end up in the campsites where it is first-come first-served. Speaking of the camp, you will need to get used to close quarters and a lack of privacy. You will hear people snoring, up at all hours, and moving about in the AM getting ready to hike out before sun up or out to another waterfall down the trail. The campsite has some incredible spots near the water with plenty of trees to string up a hammock or suspend your pack to keep it free from critters. While I was down by Havasu Falls, I watched a squirrel enter a man’s pack and run off with an entire bag of nuts. Make sure if you decide to cool off in the water (the water is only cold for a minute and then it feels just right) you keep an eye on your gear. The 4-legged critters are the only real thiefs you’ll find. I had no trouble leaving my pack hanging nearby like everyone else who seemed to share a mutual respect and understanding not to molest gear that isn’t your own.
The people you encounter will fall into two categories. Those on the trail will either be tourists or they will be natives. Tourists are predictable and generally friendly with only the occasional trekker not returning a friendly “hi”. Expect to see all shapes and sizes as well as those with different sized packs filled with even more broad levels of desert preparedness. Natives also fall into two categories. There are some who embrace the modern world, the tourism industry, and encourage interaction with outsiders. Conversely, there are the “older generation” and those who would rather live segregated and look down upon the hikers who serve as a bad representation of the rest of the world’s population as stewards of the earth. I only encountered one native who said “are you making an assumption” in reply to my “good morning” greeting. Apparently I did not reach an age yet where I would understand what this meant or so I was told. Overall though, I found the people friendly and I have more positive memories of interactions with them. Just like the village, hikers are prohibited from taking photos of the natives who call Supai home.
I had an idea of what to expect when I backpacked to Havasu Falls but I had no idea what I saw would surpass the beauty of the photos found online. The waterfalls are one attraction, the slick rocks another, and the wide open expanses riddled with barrel and prickly pear cacti, yuca, and juniper trees also gave me pause. One thing to remember during your trip to Havasu Falls is the lighting. The falls and surrounding cliffs look different at different times of day. The light is constantly changing and moving shadows and highlights from one angle to another. It makes sense to hike back up to prominent points to see how the view has changed. I found myself instinctively reaching for my camera to snap a photo or two or two hundred to capture the moment I saw something too beautiful to leave for memory alone. The photos I ended up with are a mix of perfect and others with tourists unknowingly photobombing my picture perfect shot. Thank God for digital photo technology. I couldn’t imagine running out of film using cameras from yesteryear. One word of warning: There are many people lately who have slipped and fell to their ultimate demise all in the name of “doing it for the gram.” Some views are best saved for your eyes only and admired from a safe position than precarious pedestal.
The memories of Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls (I didn’t make it to this last point) begin as soon as you leave the sound of the water and re-enter the canyon. It’s hard to erase the sensation of swimming in a true desert oasis or the image of the colors the sun and mountains make at the early and late hours of the day. Yet, when you reach the last mile of the hike and have a mountain of switchbacks to deal with, you realize the little slice of heaven you experienced is surrounded on all sides by the hell of a desert you have to endure. When you reach shade on your final climb, you can sit back with other hikers, give yourself a water bottle shower, and laugh about the heat and what you saw back at the camp. Everyone I spoke to agreed the discomfort of the hike (totally avoidable by leaving early in the morning BTW) was worth it. Paired with the photos on my phone, I know I will have a hard time forgetting how incredible and bucket-list worthy this trip was.
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