SHAWN STANFORD’S GRAND CANYON BACKPACKING ADVENTURES - Havasupai (Havasu Canyon) - October 6-9, 2006
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This branch-canyon of the Grand Canyon is located on the Havasupai Reservation. It is part of the Grand Canyon but not part of the National Park. Staying in the campground requires a permit, which can be obtained by calling the Havasupai tourist office. I have heard from the tourist office personnel that reservations should be made at least 3 months in advance. This was my 5th Havasupai trip, and I have always obtained small-group permits 3 months in advance or even later. Some people have told me that they could not obtain permits as much as a year in advance, but I have no idea why that is the case. I have even increased my group-permits up to about 1 and ½ months before entering the canyon, so it surprises me that others say they have not been successful. Perhaps the time of year makes a difference. Three of my 5 trips have been in October, one in November, and one at the end of May.
I led a group from my church on this trip, 4 of us in total. About one month prior to our departure date, as many as 16 people were planning to go. Many changed their plans and dropped out during that last month before our departure date. My 16-year old son is usually my backpacking buddy, but he could not go with me on this trip because of school commitments. I anticipated the trip eagerly but felt a little heavy-hearted because he could not go. He and I have had some of the best times in our lives together while on our backpacking trips. For the present trip, the 3 others who were going had not done any trips like this before. They sent their gear down by pack-mules, and I backpacked.
As is my usual habit, I tracked the weather forecasts for our trek into the Havasupai about one month prior to the departure date. Our entire state had experienced drought for several years, the northern part of the state no exception. From one month out, our trek looked like we would have clear skies and pleasant weather. However, one week or so prior to our departure, the weather forecasts changed pretty significantly. This same kind of thing happened on a March 2006 trek my son and I had taken to Clear Creek. On the present trip, our final forecast on the morning we drove to the Hualapai Hilltop, the trailhead, called for certain rain and extremely windy conditions for our first night at the trailhead, sunny and cool weather during our 2 days and nights in the canyon, and then cooler temperatures and a chance of heavy rain on our way out.
The weather forecast as posted on the National Weather Service’s Web site proved to be very accurate. We drove our 5-hour trip from Phoenix to the Hilltop in very windy weather. About half-way to our destination, for almost an hour we drove slowly through intense rain and wind. It made us all wonder if we would be ready for this, but I had encouraged the others before we left that we should venture as planned and see what the trailhead presented us when we arrived. The heavy weather eased-up as we reached Seligman, which is about 1 and ½ hour car-drive from the trailhead. By the time we reached the trailhead, we were in partly sunny skies, pretty moderate winds and temperatures of about the 50s. At about 5: 15 pm, we began setting up tents we could sleep in for our first night at the trailhead. The winds picked up considerably over the next half-hour, so that we had an extremely difficult challenge guying down our 2 tents. With much struggle, we finally secured them. The winds blew strongly for the next couple of hours, so that we wondered what was in store for us the next few days in the canyon.
About 7:30 pm or so the winds died down to a gentle breeze, and by about 9 pm there was no wind at all. The skies had cleared completely, and a full moon peaked over the eastern horizon to cast its brilliant spotlight. Our night-time view from the trailhead was amazing. The entire canyon below us was bathed in a bright light that one could have sworn came from a giant cosmic flashlight.
We all slept decently that night as the temperatures dipped to the low 40s and occasional light winds blew across the trailhead. One of our comical moments was when a local trailhead dog found a pot that one of our party had left exposed with cooked food still in it, sitting on a post about the height of the dog’s head. We heard what sounded like a horse walking across the parking lot, but it was actually the dog lapping up what was left in the pot. Somebody took a picture and we later laughed at it. I had forgotten to emphasize to the group not to leave food exposed while on the trailhead or anywhere else. It only takes one time like this for one realize how easily scraps and uncleaned utensils attract varmints and critters.
We awakened to sunny skies, mid-40s temperatures, and a busy trailhead. Some campers had arrived at the trailhead between about 10 pm and midnight. They made quite a lot of noise during the night, and a few of them never seemed to stop. The parking lot was full, and hikers scurried about to prepare for their trip down into the canyon. We ate breakfast quickly, and I helped the others prepare their gear for its pack-mule trip to the campground. We started down the trail about 8:30 am after we left their gear at the drop-off spot for the pack-mules.
Our trek into the canyon was a pleasant one. The temperatures gradually warmed up as we descended out of the shadows. By the time we reached the wash about 1 and ½ mile down where it opens up widely before the narrows of Havasu Creek, I disrobed a windbreaker and long-sleeve shirt. I rested on my ¾ length Thermarest ultralight pad while the others took several pictures. They were quite amazed at the setting, and we all soaked in the comfortable weather God had dished us. We continued the hike after about 15 minutes, and I constantly found myself walking at a faster pace than the others and slowing down so they did not feel like I was abandoning them. I was only walking at a leisurely 2-miles per hour rate, but for people who have hiked very little and not experienced this canyon that was moving more quickly than they wanted to go. They stopped frequently to take pictures and rest. About half-way into the trek, a hiker returning to the trailhead informed us we had only about 1 and ½ hours to go, but I figured his judgment was way off the mark. It actually took us about 3 more hours to reach the campground.
About 8 miles into the hike is the village of Supai. It had not changed much since my last visit to the Havasupai about 3 years ago. I am always amazed at how the people live in that setting even though their only transportation in and out of the canyon is by foot, horse, or helicopter. It is interesting to see the usual snack and junk food in their grocery store, electrical transmission poles, and police officers riding on gas-powered quads. The village was abuzz with activity this Saturday morning: children playing and running around, hikers entering and leaving, men and women tending their horses.
After we checked-in and picked up our permit-tags at the tourist office, we meandered the final leg into the campground. My group was tiring out, their pace having slowed some the last couple of miles. I had informed them repeatedly in the 2 months before our departure that the hike into the campground was a long but not real difficult one. I felt perhaps the best I have ever felt in all my Havasupai treks, not tiring significantly and feeling like I could hike until bedtime. The last 2 or so miles went slowly, however, and we finally reached the campground after about 6 and ½ hours after we started. The campground was packed, so that we had to look quite awhile before we were able to squeeze into a spot that was not very conducive to setting up sleeping quarters. I could see that the crowds had beat us, as many hikers probably hiked in on Thursday or Friday for the weekend and left very few options for us late-wanderers. We had to walk almost ¾ of the way to the end of the campground before we found any spot that came remotely close to resembling a campsite. People had set camp on nearly on top of each other on both sides of the creek.
After we set up our campsite and hauled the others’ gear back to it about an hour later after the pack-mules arrived, a couple of us immediately walked about ¼ mile farther to Mooney Falls and the other 2 went the other direction. The falls in this canyon are stunning. In order to get to the bottom of Mooney Falls, the highest of the falls at about 200 feet, it is necessary to snake through a couple of tightly tunneled limestone paths and inch down little by little with the help of chains, stakes, ropes, and finally a makeshift ladder. The steepness and slickness of the route down can be intimidating and should not be taken lightly. I once saw 7-year old boy get down to the bottom without too much stress, but his mother had an extremely difficult time getting him to climb back up in his own limited agility and without panicking.
The air temperature had dropped on the present trip to about 60 degrees at 4:30 pm, so that by the time we reached the bottom we were quite chilly due to the mists of the falls. To lose a few ounces of weight in my pack, I had mistakenly abandoned my mid-weight, sure-gripping hiking sandals and brought along a pair of feather-weight synthetic flip-flops for this trip. I paid the price here, because the flip-flops were not sure-footed enough for me to make it to the bottom. I left my hiking boots at our campsite because I did not want them to get wet. I was sliding all over due to the mist-soaked path, so about half-way down I decided to stop and watch my hiking partner the rest of the way. I had used my hiking sandals on previous Havasupai excursions and did just fine. This was a reminder to me that it is important on this trek to use sturdy footware for the watery areas around the falls. My partner took dozens of pictures, setting up his tripod in various spots while relishing the moments. I perched myself on a ledge where I lent an outstretched hand to a few campers who had some difficulty at this point on the way back up.
I slept decently our first night in the campground under the stars in my Phantom sleeping bag and Bug Bivy, both products of Mountain Hardwear. This was a day of exploration and relaxation. On my first excursion into the Havasupai back in 1997, I spend the entire second day hiking to Beaver falls and back only to hike out of the canyon the next day. It is about a 3-4 mile hike to Beaver Falls, but it seemed a lot longer that that when I did it. I like to hike, but sometimes I would just rather not pressure myself to have to get or be anywhere. Two of us visited Mooney Falls while the other 2 ventured over to Navajo Falls. The latter is located about ¼ mile and 200 feet higher prior to entering the campground; though it is the shortest of the falls, in my estimation it is the neatest. I wanted to visit Mooney again, however, and go all the way to the bottom. I donned my hiking boots this time, and with a different one in our party we made it to the bottom about 9:30 am. We were the only ones there for about ½ hour. The morning sun was just starting to peak over the ledge, so it was quite cool as we wandered around in the shade. After pondering whether I wanted to jump in the water at the base of the falls, I finally stripped down to my swimming shorts and jumped in. As usual, the water was frigid and it woke me up pretty quickly. I did not stay in long, but I did not want later to regret not getting in when I had the chance.
We backtracked over to Navajo Falls about 10:30 am. The beauty of this falls is unmatched and might not be appreciated by those who view it obscured from the main trail. Its viewable portion is not as tall as Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls, but it spreads out more widely. At its base is a large pool which feeds several other pools that terrace downward and eventually become the creek that runs toward Havasu Falls. In one little corner on its eastern side is a pool into which pours a freezing shower of water—at least there was on this trip. It seems each time I have visited the Havasupai that the water routes of Navajo and Havasu Falls cut slightly different paths than the previous time. We met our 2 other companions, who had been hanging out there since about 9:30 am. The one taking pictures said he had located himself in just about every possible spot possible with his tripod to get some shots. After he jumped into the pool at the base of the falls, I also jumped in. We swam over to the ledge where we could stand in the freezing shower. It was exhilarating. After about 15 more minutes of swimming and wading, a group of about 10 young adults showed up and found a knee-deep route they could wade through in order to reach and climb the rocks. We watched amusingly as they teased and taunted each other while they climbed to a spot on the falls about 15 feet above the pool. At the time I thought somebody is surely going to get hurt, but I did not stay around real long for that to happen. We watched a few of them jump feet-first into the pool, and then I decided to head back to our campsite. I planned to grab a snack and then meet the others at Havasu Falls.
I actually got sidetracked on my way back to the campsite. I decided to visit Havasu Falls and wait for the others there. I took off my boots because I did not want to soak them as I negotiated in and around the various pools at the base of the falls. I wanted to jump in, yet I hesitated because I did not have appropriate footwear; I knew that the pool floors could do some serious damage to unprotected feet. So I walked around and waded in a few shallow spots as I watched other campers swim in the large pool at the Falls’ base. A few of the more daring ones swam over to the wall on the west side of the falls, and they worked their way back underneath the falls in order to jump in. I had done that with my son on a previous trip, but I was not feeling very brave on the present one. Jumping into the falls from its backside is quite a hammering but fun experience. While I hung around a little while longer, at one point I heard a splash and heard people wow-ing as they looked toward the falls. A dog that had slipped, jumped, or was pushed had taken the 100-foot plunge from the top of the falls. About 3 village teenagers were standing at the top, laughing and looking down on the rest of us while another dog stood at their side. The dog that took the plunge was apparently fine, and I watched it swim to the side and walk out as if this were an everyday experience.
We began our trek out of the campgrounds about 7:30 am under pleasant partly cloudy skies and a temperature of about 55 degrees. The clouds looked like they could quickly put their heads together and pound us with some heavy rain, so I wanted to move right along before we found ourselves caught in the narrows in the event of a downpour. The first half mile or so out of the campground is a steady upgrade, and I after about one-half hour I found myself about 50 yards ahead of one in my party and the other 2 were not in sight. I waited for the one closest behind me to catch up, and I slowed down with him so that we did not leave the others too far in the dust. They never caught up to us, however, until after we parked and rested at the café in Supai for about 15 minutes. I had to remind myself that 1st-timers are not always the fastest in and out of the canyon, and that I should be patient and slow down. We did not have to hurry, and my doing so might cause me to lose out on some fun and fellowship with the others. Why be in a hurry when we could build-up each other more easily by hiking together? (Gal.6:2). After they arrived, we rested about another 15 minutes and then moved on.
The remainder of our trek out brought no major challenges. However, I found myself moving ahead quickly again. The first half mile of trail or so out of Supai on the return trip (prior to entering Supai while hiking in) is about 90 percent sand. I found it frustrating on my first couple trips to the Havasupai, because the slipping and sliding made me feel like I was taking 1 step backward for every 2 steps forward. This time I was ready but still kept a steady pace. It must have slowed down the others more, though, for about 2 miles up the trail my hiking partner and I lost sight of them. We decided to park our bodies again until they caught up. I rolled out my Thermarest ¾-length sleeping pad and rested on it for about 20 minutes. We snacked, talked, and reflected on the weekend, and then I decided to leave my pack there with my hiking partner to backtrack and make sure the others were okay. About ¼ mile down the trail I caught them taking pictures and re-charging; they were fine. After maybe 5 more minutes we began hiking and soon caught up to the place I had left my pack.
From that point, I kicked myself to slow down, deliberately staying at the rear of the pack to chat with one of the 2 who had been behind us. It turns out that he was actually making sure the other one in our party was okay as she had the shortest legs of our group. Although they had sent more of their gear by pack mules, they still had quite a load to carry. We had a terrific time talking and learning more about each other, and the time passed quickly. About 8 miles into the hike, we all rested and snacked before our last effort toward the final stretch. I broke out and stretched out on my Thermarest again while the others watched in envy. Several hikers traveled the other direction and passed by us on their way to the campground; we exchanged brief weather reports. The skies had increasingly darkened with the threatening clouds during the last couple of hours, so we began to speculate that we might eventually be in for it. At this point on the trail, the wash opens up widely. It is easy to forget that this is a canyon.
When we reached the turn upwards for the last 1 and ½ mile to the trailhead, the skies seemed to be saying that they were about ready to pound us. We could see repeated lightening off to the east and hear its delayed thunder. Raindrops began kissing us as we dug out and bundled up in our rain jackets, and, as if on cue, as soon as we zipped up the skies hammered us with a flurry of hail. We began our climb of the last 1500 feet in elevation looking into the hail, and after about 5 minutes it turned into rain that fell steadily for about 10 more minutes. To me, it was actually a little refreshing; when I started backpacking several years ago such a downpour might have frightened me.
The final approach to the trailhead climbs steadily though it is not all that steep until the last ¾ of a mile. At that point, the switchbacks start. After every 2 or 3 crossings it is possible to look behind and notice considerable ascending progress. The trail on this final ascent is a mixture of brown powder peppered with stones of various sizes, and occasionally it requires some high-stepping. It is wide enough at places to hold 2 or 3 people abreast. It is fairly steep, and I remember it being quite taxing on my first trip here. On the present trip, I was in quite better condition and plodded along steadily while feeling few ill effects. Since I had earlier hooded my head because of the rain, I had little peripheral vision and was not aware that I had pulled way ahead of the all the others. After I reached the trailhead, I waited about 10 minutes before another of our party made it. In about another 20 minutes, the final two reached and we all rejoiced at having concluded the hike in fine form.
The Havasupai is a beautiful destination for a weekend or longer hiking adventure. It offers so much in the way of exploration, relaxation, swimming, and picnicking; and the photographic opportunities are abundant. One could stay at the campground for perhaps up to a week without getting bored. The hike in and out is about 10 miles each direction. It can seem long but it is not real difficult; the most challenging portion is the last 1500 feet in elevation over the final 1 and ½ miles up to the top. The only potential drawback is the amount of people that stay at the campground. I have heard but not confirmed that during peak season it holds about 300 people a night over its ½ mile length. On this visit it was so packed that we were fortunate to find a spot to set up camp by the time we arrived on Saturday afternoon. I surmise that it might be better to hike in on a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday rather than a Saturday, and I hope someday to return for about a 5-day stay. So far for each of my 5 trips here I have stayed only the afternoon after arriving, that night and the next day and night before hiking out. Two days in the canyon can be a little frustrating because by the time all the sites are visited around the campground it is time to pack up and leave. A third day would at least allow some additional day-hiking either to Beaver Falls about 4 miles past the campground or the Colorado River about 4 more miles past that. As I mentioned earlier, on my first trip I hiked to Beaver Falls on the second day and felt like I jipped myself out of experiencing much of the campground and the falls nearby. The Havasupai is a must-see-and-experience visit that you will not regret, but be sure to take good footware for the areas around the falls.
*All pictures in this report are provided by courtesy of Frank Yulfo, one of my fellow hikers on this adventure.
Copyright © 2006, by Shawn Stanford