Wide-Eyed Wander: A Glimpse of Havasupai

 

As I arrived at the edge of the hilltop, ready to descend into the unknown, I breathed a sigh of relief and also anticipation. I was miles away from the hustle and bustle of the everyday life surrounded by monstrous cliffs and canyons. One of the most majestic aspects of Havasupai is the remoteness. I mean, when is the last time you saw mail delivered by packhorse?

Being completely immersed in isolated natural surroundings is undeniably cathartic. My expectation of Havasupai included beautiful waterfalls, warm weather, isolation and relaxation. I wasn’t expecting to take any life lessons from Havasupai.

Lessons learned:

  • I need to stop making assumptions
  • Immersing myself in nature is physically, mentally and emotionally restorative
  • I take so much for granted … like cars, department stores and accessibility to other places
  • Trying new things is scary at first but immensely rewarding afterward… Fear is all imagined
  • I am much stronger than I knew but physical trials are equally mental battles

I should apologize to anyone I’ve came into contact with the last week and anyone I come into contact with in the coming months. I can’t imagine when I’ll get tired of talking about and showing photos of the captivating beauty and thrilling experience of Havasupai.

 

From the time you step foot into the village, to swimming through the vegetation in ’50 Foot Falls,’ it feels like you’ve been transported somewhere outside of the US.

The journey began on a Thursday night, flying into Phoenix. We booked the trip via Arizona Outback Adventures. The guides were set to pick us up at 6 a.m. from our hotel in Phoenix. We found a local hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant – Frank and Lupes near our hotel in old town. The inside of the restaurant wasn’t too impressive but when we walked around back to the patio it was much more than expected. A cool little patio with pretty flowers, misters (really appreciated in 100 degree heat), yummy mole and strong margaritas.

Friday morning, AOA picked us up at our hotel and we started the trek to Havasupai in their van with a couple of other guests. We stopped at the Grand Canyon Cavern Inn along historic Route 66 to meet the rest of the group both the hikers and the crew. They were also bringing a camera crew with us to shoot collateral for commercials and advertising. The guide tour crew consisted of Tyler, Alex, Jen and Josh. They were awesome. The camera crew consisted of Jose, Eduardo and Obi – really cool guys. We didn’t check it out but from what they told us, there are some really neat cave rooms you can rent. They have taken some underground caves and set them up like hotel rooms where you can choose to stay.  That stretch of road is full of a random assortment of gimmicky route 66 memorabilia and places to see, including Radiator Springs, the inspiration for the movie Cars.

After driving a bit further down Route 66, you pull onto Indian Road 18. This is where the Hualapai Reservation (The people of the tall trees) is located and you drive through a good portion of it before getting to the hilltop. Once you get to the hilltop you have two options: hike down or helicopter down the 10 miles. We opted to helicopter in. Luckily, we were there on a Friday afternoon and the line wasn’t long so we got on the chopper quickly. It’s a first come basis but the locals have priority. The views of the canyon from the helicopter as you’re flying in are amazing. Once you land in Supai, it feels like you’ve left the U.S. I grew up in Oklahoma so I’ve seen plenty of Indian reservations but this was unlike anything I’d seen in the U.S. The Supai village is the most remote village in the continental U.S.  The village is dirty and dusty, especially as the helicopter comes flying in and out every 10 minutes or so. The helicopter will alternate bringing in people (locals and visitors) and supplies. The village is very poor. There are adorable kids running around barefoot in worn clothes, IBA officers roaming around, old men speaking their native language lined up along the ‘restaurant,’ stray dogs, packhorses and mules tied to the hitching posts, and junk piled in the yards. We had to wait on the rest of the group who were helicoptering in so we got to sit and people watch for quite a while. It is a very humbling experience to see the things we take for granted, everyday.

After the rest of our group arrived at the village by helicopter, we started the two mile hike to the camping ground. It was along a sandy road with a stream running along the side and the sun beaming down.  The red canyon walls are towering above you with glimmers of blue. We passed quite a few men directing packhorses and locals who were coming back from swimming. Eventually, along the left side, it opens up to a full flowing creek. That’s the first time you really get a glimpse of the striking turquoise water. It’s just as turquoise as it looks in photos and the vegetation is really lush and green. It’s beautiful and serene.

We stopped about half a mile from the camp and had lunch just feet from the bubbling creek. I am extremely impressed with AOA and their service. Meals are part of the package service and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Prior to the trip, they inquire about food restrictions. Two of us on the trip were gluten free and I was blown away with the constant GF options as well as the diligence to avoid any possible contamination. They were better at avoiding contamination than most restaurants. Each meal had a wonderful spread with more than enough food for the group. Lunch our first day was a spread of hummus, vegetables, gouda, meats, fruits, chocolate, breads and rice crackers all spread on top of a checkered table cloth.

After lunch we hiked another half of a mile along the sandy trails to the camp, occasionally seeing other hikers, packhorses or a stray dog. Just before you get to the camp, you are met with the striking Havasu Falls. It is everything it appears to be in photos. I had my assumptions that it wouldn’t be as pretty in person because of photoshop and filters but I was wrong. You’re immediately taken back by the gorgeous turquoise water, the powerful waterfall crashing down and the lush vegetation all against the backdrop of red rock. I was awe struck.

Since we helicoptered in and were quite a few hours ahead of the hiking portion of the group, we had the whole afternoon and evening to explore. We went swimming in Havasu Falls and then we took a few minutes rest in camp. AOA once again blew me away. They have the entire camp set up. There was a smaller group there before us so Tyler, one of the guides, worked tirelessly to get everything set up as the packhorses delivered our things. After a bit of relaxing we walked down through the rest of the camping ground until we got to Mooney Falls. As you walk along the half mile stretch of camp grounds, the turquoise water is bubbling by creating a tranquil, tree covered escape.  I thought Havasu Falls was impressive until I saw the 196 foot Mooney Falls. The sound of the waterfall crashing down is incredible. There are even very adventurous campers camping just feet away from the top of the falls. It’s a good thing it’s a dry reservation but let’s hope none of them stumble out of the tent in the middle of the night and take a wrong turn on their way to the bathroom. Quite a wake-up call that would be.

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After taking in Mooney Falls from above, resting against the cliffs, we headed back to camp and the rest of the group had finally made it. It was just a little after 6. Everyone got their things and settled into their tents and started making themselves at home. Now that the sun was going down, we went back to Havasu Falls to take some photos. Most of the locals had trekked back to the village and the tourists had headed back to camp by now so it was unbelievably still and tranquil with the sounds of the waterfall and the mist lightly hitting us.

Once we got back to camp, they started setting out appetizers. There were two very long picnic tables pushed together and two separate trays of brie, gouda, dried cranberries, walnuts and rice crackers – 1 for the gluten free bunch and 1 for the rest. About 6 of us quickly finished off the GF tray. We had to cut ourselves off. Dinner was just as great. We had a pasta primavera with the choice of chicken or beef, an assortment of vegetables and a side salad. They followed it up with a desert selection of GF cookies or carrot cake. This was not at all what I was expecting in the way of food on a camping trip. It was really nice not having to prep or clean, though.

Not long after we all wandered to our tents and called it a night. Anyone who knows me, knows up to this point, I haven’t been much of outdoors person in the sense of spending multiple days camping and going without modern necessities like showers or blowdryers. Usually, glamping rather than camping is more my style. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed sleeping under the stars. The biggest down side is that the blow up air mattresses aren’t the most comfortable things in the world. It was hard for me to fall asleep but I actually enjoyed laying there in the cool air, hearing the water in the creek bubble along and the animals singing a gentle lullaby. It was hard for me to fall asleep but I finally fell asleep for a few hours. The next morning the short amount of sleep didn’t seem to phase me. I popped up and had a few cups of coffee. I was thrilled to be in this beautiful place and ready to explore more.

We had a great breakfast with oatmeal and an assortment of add-ins. There was plenty of coffee and hot tea. We ate breakfast and then headed on to explore for the day. The guides gave us an explanation of what was in store – Mooney Falls, Ash Canyon, 50 Foot Falls and Little Navajo Falls. We’d break the day in two parts. The first half of the day we were going to scale down the 200 foot cliff into Mooney Falls and then check out Ash Canyon. After that we’d come back to camp, have our lunch and then the second half of the day would be spent at the other falls.

This trip became a journey of trying new things outside of my comfort zone. Aside from enjoying camping for the first time in 13 years, the next thing that was out of my comfort zone was scaling cliffs down to Mooney Falls. They prepared us with expectations. I think the knowledge and calmness of our guides definitely put me at ease. I headed down the cliff without an ounce of reservation. You start walking down “steps” in the rock until you get to the cave tunnels. Once you get through the cave tunnels, you turn and face the wall. From there you use the metal chains and ledges or holes in the rock to move down. They encourage you to tell the person above you the best place to place a foot or hand.  The last portion of the wall is a combination of wooden ladders and metal chains. I have to say it was pretty exhilarating  making my way down the cliff. I had never done anything like that. It definitely gave me an itch to try real rock climbing. Once we got down to the falls it was another gorgeous scene. A 200 foot turquoise waterfall is completely enthralling from the top of the cliffs but it’s a totally different experience from down below. The water from the fall pools and then forms a set of smaller waterfalls, then goes down the creek toward Beaver Falls. Some of the group found a small rope swing among the mini falls and started swinging out into the pools of water while we waited on the rest of the group.

Once everyone was gathered, we hiked to Ash Canyon. This canyon is a hidden gem. Most people pass right by it and opt for the more popular Beaver Falls. This was a very quiet canyon filled with trickling water and the song of the canyon wrens. Ages ago, this is where the Havasupai (people of the blue water) people would cast the ashes of the dead. It’s a very reverent place. After we took the canyon in, we continued on toward Beaver Falls. We stopped just about a mile and a half from Beaver where the creek opened up and boasted quite a few sets of mini falls. We turned around and started our trek back towards Mooney utilizing the creeks and streams this time instead of the paths. Hiking back through the turquoise water we stopped to take in a few inlets of cliffs with water trickling down and other falls. Pretty soon we made our way back to Mooney and ascended the cliff back toward the camp. There was a nonstop trickle of people coming down since we had descended down at 9 am that morning. It was now just after noon and no one could make their way back up. After some sitting and thinking, Jen took off like a spider up the cliff and created a gap at the top so we could head up. Scaling back up the cliff was a breeze but it was very hot.

{{By the way, Huppy Bar’s are my new favorite hiking/camping bar. They are nutrient dense, gluten free and taste great. The java chocolate bar was my favorite.}}

After stopping at the camp for lunch we all hopped in the creek running alongside our camp. It had been a hot day with the sun beating down on us and the icy cool water was refreshing. After a quick dip, we hiked about a mile to 50 Foot Falls. It started lightly sprinkling on us but it was welcome. Once we reached our first stop, we saw the three falls crashing down into the water with a backdrop of the gorgeous red cliffs. This is when I tried something else far outside of my comfort zone. We followed the guide through the vegetation along the bank of the pool of water and made our way to the middle of the water. We stood there as she explained to us what we’d be doing. She’d swim out first and check it all out. Once everything checked out she would be just to the right of the middle fall and wave us out one at a time. We’d take a breath and then go under the water, under the wall of the cliff. On the other side of the wall we’d find an air bubble. My anxiety definitely set in a bit. Water is not my most comfortable place. Swimming out against the current of the waterfall was a little trying but not too terrible. Once I reached the wall of the cliff and Alex, the guide, it was hard for me to catch my breath. It was a combination of the water coming down hitting me in the face and the anxiety of the unknown setting in. I took a second and then just forced myself to push through. I blindly went under and popped up into the neatest air bubble with dagger like edges of the cliff hanging down around us. We all huddled along the wall of the air bubble. In the middle of the air bubble just to the right of where we swam in, there was a natural semi-circle like shape cut in the cliff wall and you could see the waterfall pounding down hard. That’s where we’d swim out. I voiced my reluctance as I stood there watching the first few people swim out. Alex, our guide came into the bubble and convinced me once I pushed off the wall underwater the current would propel me out. I still waited around for a few minutes with a handful of others. I finally decided I was just going to do it. This was my year of trying new things and expanding outside of my comfort zone so here we go. I successfully made it out. The only consequence was a pretty gnarly scrape on the back of my leg from not diving quite deep enough to get out of the way of the jagged cliff wall edges. It took my breath away but it was invigorating and I’m so glad I pushed myself to try it. At this point, the rain was coming down pretty hard in big droplets. We wandered down to Little Navajo Falls and part of the group took turns jumping off the cliffs while we took photos. After the rain really started picking up, a few of us started back to the camp. Normally, I don’t take the time to enjoy the rain, let alone walk in it. It was getting a little cool but it felt great to relax and bask in the rain.

The rain stopped long enough for us to get into dry clothes. The film crew asked me to record an interview for part of the collateral they were recording. This was another first. I had just been rained on for a couple of hours. I had half wet hair and no makeup. I normally wouldn’t go out in public like that, let alone let someone record me. Surprisingly, I didn’t care at all. I was so relaxed, comfortable in my surroundings and comfortable in my skin.

Pretty soon, the wind picked up at a crazy rate. The poor guides were dealing with things flying around and trying to finish preparing dinner for us. They sat us all down and told us there was a flash flood warning. Josh, who seemed to be the senior guide, calmly told us it wasn’t likely but had us prepare just incase. A few droplets started to fall. I headed to the tent and camped out there until dinner was ready. I read a book and enjoyed the storm brewing all around me. We ate dinner quickly and then talked about the plan for the hike out the next day. We all reverted back to our tents. Talk about relaxing- a storm brewing outside, the creek bubbling by. I read for a while and then quickly fell asleep.

The next morning we got up around 5 am. The guides had breakfast and coffee ready. We finished packing and getting ready for the hike. The guides thanked us for choosing them and told us how great it was to have us there. They told us we’d hike out with Tyler. Josh would stay with the film crew another day. Alex and Jenn would pack up camp and then meet us towards the top.

We took off with our daypacks and headed the 2 miles to the village. It was an easier hike up since the rain had hardened the sand a bit. It was overcast and cool with a little bit of a breeze. Most of the walk was through lush trees with the creek going by. There were a ton of people on their way out. As we neared the village, a transgender local smiled at me and said, “Oh girl, is that Mac foundation?” Totally caught me off guard. I guess the internet makes all kinds of things available. Maybe it was MAC makeup the helicopter was flying in everyday. We made it to the village, ran to the restroom and then Tyler told us to take off at our own pace.
The hike out was beautiful in a different way than the area around the falls but just as mesmerizing. Once you start out of the village, the houses are more spread out and there are more horses and mules. One of the last structures you see is the LDS church. There are creeks running along one side or another, sandy pathways and trees over head. After a bit it opens up to the red rock canyon walls and gravel pathways. We had the perfect weather for our hike out. It was breezy, overcast and cool. We made great time on the way out and were moving pretty quick. Occasionally, I’d  stop along the way, pull out my water jug and take a quick minute or two break then get back to moving along. About half a mile before the switchbacks started, I spotted a big boulder, sat down and we had our sandwich. This is when Jen came zooming by. She had left almost 2 hours after us but she was running. She breathily told us she was trying to beat a past time and that we were making amazing time. After we finished our sandwiches, we headed towards the switchbacks. From campground to hilltop, it’s 10 miles and 2,500 feet of elevation. The last 1.5 miles is nothing but switchbacks. In that 1.5 miles you ascend 2,000 feet in elevation. It’s brutal. I don’t cuss much but I was definitely saying some choice words in my head and a few out loud. It is an intense climb up and it seems never-ending while you’re en route. After stopping for quite a few breathers and water breaks we made it to the hilltop. Jen greeted us with a hug. Running all 10 miles she made it out in 2 hours and 25 minutes. Walking all 10 miles, we made it out in 3 hours and 50 minutes. We could have made it out in 3 if those switchbacks weren’t so intense.

Climbing those switchbacks was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically and mentally. It feels like your legs are spent and you look up and it still seems forever away to the hilltop. Regardless of how hard the hike was, I am so thankful I did it. It showed me how much I can endure physically and mentally and it also gave me such an insane amount of satisfaction.

We waited for the rest of the group to get there – both the hikers and those riding a packhorse then we headed out. Those who drove and met at the hilltop went their way and those of us who rode with the guides, piled in the van. My feet felt raw as I climbed in the van. After taking off my shoes I quickly realized the bottoms of almost all of my toes were covered in huge blisters. Ouch. The ride back was pretty slow and long. We stopped a few times for breaks and each time, we all made pretty funny sounds getting out of the van. Our muslces were tired, tight and sore.

As we approached the hotel, Jen gave us some dinner recommendations and even called and made a reservation for us at The Mission. We said our goodbyes and headed to the room. Let me just tell you how amazing it felt to take a hot shower. Washing out the dirt and dust was absolutely wonderful. After quickly getting ready, we grabbed an Uber and headed to the restaurant. The atmosphere was very swanky and chill. It is a dimly lit place with a cool patio and bar area. The tableside guuacamole was impeccable. So much flavor. The tacos were also really great. After the weekend and crazy hike out, it was the watermelon basil mojito that really did it for me. Two of those were the cherry on top of an unforgettable weekend.
What I loved

Since we were only doing a 3 day trip, coming in on Friday and leaving Sunday morning, I am very happy we chose to helicopter in. We got the campground by about 2:45 pm  and had the rest of the afternoon to explore and play in the falls. The part of our group that hiked in didn’t arrive until almost 6pm. It’s nice to have those extra hours to do as you please and explore the scenery as you want.

I don’t know if I can ever go on a camping trip without the guide company again. Having the camp set up, meals prepared and planning all done made it such a relaxing trip. With the group handling all of the details, you’re truly able to submerse yourself in the experience. I’m also glad they showed us things off the beaten path and pushed me to try things I normally wouldn’t. The tour guides we had were absolutely awesome. Jen, Tyler and Josh were so fun to interact with and Alex was so dedicated to making sure those of us with a gluten intolerance were always taken care of.

It was also a fun experience with the camera crew there. They were really neat guys and captured a ton of our adventure during their filming. Follow them on Instagram and check out their work (Jose, Eduardo, Obi). They brought the camp to life with a little old school R&B and reggae music and then showed us how to light up a waterfall at night for an incredible shot.

I definitely think going in the beginning of May was ideal. If it were scorching hot on the way out, it would have been miserable. They also say after May, monsoons and flash floods pick up.

What I’d Change

I would definitely recommend flying into Vegas or somewhere closer. The drive from Phoenix to the hilltop is really long. I would also opt for the option to meet the group at the hilltop. It would have been nice to hop in our own car and jet back to the hotel a bit quicker.

The next time I go, it would be cool to take a big group of friends. I loved getting to meet new people and seeing how various people reacted in different situations. There was a family that we really hit it off with. They were awesome. It would still be cool to experience such an incredible adventure with some of your favorite friends.

Paradise

Havasupai was the experience of a lifetime. The immersion in such an isolated experience gave me so much time to reflect and recharge. It’s a place everyone should see once in their lifetime. I can’t wait until I have an opportunity to go back. It is exactly what I’d picture Heaven to look like.

Until next time, happy adventuring, friends 🙂

 

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