In one of the most remote places in the world at the western end of the Grand Canyon is this enchanted land with blue green waters, lush greenery, and beautiful waterfalls known as…Pandora – no just kidding, this isn’t Avatar and it isn’t make-believe. The description is accurate but this heaven on Earth is actually known as Havasu Canyon. I’m not kidding when I say out of all our travels, this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life so far – and according to Drew, half my life may already be over. So that’s a lot of years, though at this moment, I’m not inclined to say how many that is. Every few steps here left me in awe of my surroundings. We passed by a guy on our hike who asked, “Hey, did you see that unicorn back there?” Drew’s answer being,”Yeah, and the fairies too.” Yup, it is that magical of a place.
The experience of booking your stay here (because this is definitely not a day trip), however, may not be that magical. Here’s the official page with information on fees and numbers to call to reserve either a campsite or a room at the lodge. Note, they’re two different numbers. It’s probably best to call a few months ahead of time (3 months ahead is the earliest you can call for the campsites). And you may have to try calling back several times since sometimes the phone line could be busy or no one picks up. We really lucked out since I just called the month before and they happened to have a room in the lodge available for two nights in May. I was sooooo excited! All campsites were booked solid. We probably took someone’s room who had to cancel their trip. Two days before our trip, I looked for the paperwork they had sent that confirmed our reservation and it was nowhere to be found! Minor panic moment as I called the lodge again and again til I got someone who answered the phone. Then the lady who picked up the phone (who shall be known from this point forward as my BFF) proceeded to tell me that I only had one night booked when she looked up my name. Um, shocked silence on my end of the phone. Silence on her end as well as she waited for me to say something. All I could think of to say was that I had booked 2 nights and it was confirmed, but I had lost my paperwork. (Silence again on her end as she was probably thinking, you idiot!) Thank God I was smart enough to share this with my Instagram world and took a picture of part of the receipt which had the receipt number and deposit amount. After giving this life saving information to her, she put me on hold, came back a few minutes later, and told me we were booked for 2 nights. Jeez Louise, BFF, give me a heart attack before I even hike those 8 miles will ya?!!
If you’re calling ahead of time and want to to decide whether to camp or stay at the lodge, here are some things to consider:
1. The lodge is an 8 mile hike from the hilltop and located in Supai Village where there’s a cafe, a market, a church, and a post office (because you have to send yourself a postcard from here since there’s a special stamp and the last place in the US that still uses the “pony express”.) I’m guessing there’s no Amazon Prime here?
If you’re expecting anything remotely close to the Ritz Carlton, are you in for a surprise. But you get your own shower, toilet, and a bed to sleep on in a room. What other luxuries can you ask for here? We were quite happy with the accommodations. If you don’t feel like packing in a ton of stuff for camping and carrying it on your back for 10 miles, this might be a good option. The only drawback is that you have to hike about 2 miles to get to the enchanted falls.
2. The campsites are 2 more miles further down, bringing your hiking cred up a few notches with a total of 10 miles on your first day! But once you’ve hiked 8, what’s another 2 miles? The sites are well maintained and some are right next to the crystal clear creek. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit jelly of the campers when we passed by the campsites. It was a beautiful area and campsites are lined on both sides of the creek.
Toilets were clean -at least in the morning when I went to do some recon to see if we’d consider camping next time. Clean toilets is my number one priority! No showers though. One of the best part about the campground is that there’s a spout providing fresh spring water. You don’t have to pack water for days. Just enough for your hike down and you can refill it with some of the cleanest, freshest water on Earth once you’re at the campground.
Another big bonus of being at the campgrounds is the gorgeous scenery around you and you’re within walking distance of a few of the waterfalls, with Havasu Falls being the closest. With the lodge, you have to hike a couple of miles before getting to them.
It’s a tough decision to make and I thought next time we would stay at the campsites since it’s so beautiful there, but do I want to hike down carrying food and various camping gear on my back for 10 miles? Do I remotely feel like channeling Reese Witherspoon’s character in Wild? That’s something I’m debating about for next year. The hike down actually wasn’t so bad -but I was only carrying a day pack with mostly water and snacks, so I can’t complain. The views from the top and the bottom were breathtaking. Even better than Zion, even better than Sedona and I love both those places. It isn’t 8 miles straight downhill as I had thought. From top to bottom, it’s about 2000ft. In fact, more of the hike is on flat ground once you hit the canyon floor. I’m sure the ascent isn’t too fun on foot, but hiking down wasn’t so bad. It took us about 4 hours to get to the lodge.
Ok, here’s where I have to be honest and say that I didn’t do much research at all before this trip. All I knew was I saw a few images of the waterfalls here and said, “I have to go there.” Had I looked into it a bit more, I would have found out from some online comments that the horses and mules here aren’t treated very well by most of their owners. But without this information, we booked horses and a mule to take us out on the last day. We lucked out with one of the very few owners (Claudius) who actually takes care of his animals and makes sure they’re well fed. Sadly, we saw some horses down in the village that were severely malnourished – so much that you can see their ribs. I had no idea these guys were being used to carry people and food back and forth. Our guide was the one who told us that many of the animals weren’t treated well. This poor guy needs to be fed!
They’re not all like that and I don’t want to give the few good owners a bad rap, but I just don’t think Drew and I can in good conscience use any of the animals again unless all the owners start taking better care of them. There were some with visible sores on their legs. We saw a few in the village that were eating God knows what off the dirt because I didn’t see anything but their feces there. One sweet horse came up to me as I approached it and had the saddest “please help me” look in his eyes. I didn’t realize that til afterwards, thus happy ignorant me, smiling because I got to talk and pet a horse that day.
I had to mention that so people know the good and the bad. It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, although it may seem that way here. If you’re not a fan of hiking 8-10 miles, there’s a helicopter option to take you in and out of the canyon. Now, onto the hike!
You’ll encounter packs of mules along the way. Make sure if you’re up on the switchbacks area that you’re standing on the inside of the trail. We saw some people standing on the outside of the trail as the mules passed and our guide always warned them of the possibility of falling off the side.
When we stepped into the lobby of the lodge, my BFF was sitting there, eagerly awaiting our arrival. (Actually, imagine the exact opposite!) I wasn’t expecting a friendly greeting though and neither should anyone else. I was just grateful that the Havasupai opened up their beautiful, sacred land to visitors. They could very well have kept it off limits and the world would never have known of this Garden of Eden. That’s not to say there aren’t friendly people in town. We crossed paths with many natives who smiled and said hello. It’s just like any other place in the world. You got your friendly people, and you got your grumpy people. Embrace them both and move on!
Once we dropped our bags and settled in, we donned our water shoes and headed over to the falls. At almost 2 miles, we saw our first waterfall, New Navajo Falls. Our jaws dropped and we were in awe.
What is this place? Why is the water so beautifully blue and clear at the same time so that I could see the lush vegetation growing underneath it in the pool while still admiring this amazing turquoise color? Well, if you really must know, the color is due to the high concentration of lime -not lemons.
We walked around the area to get different vantage points of this wide waterfall. One girl in a group told us some of them swam by the falls and if you dive underneath, there’s a small little cave there. I wanted to check it out, but when I dipped my foot in the water, it was cold and I wasn’t hot enough to jump in yet. Maybe if we hadn’t checked into the lodge, I’d be more ready and willing to dive right in.
Again, awe. I’ll stop writing that from now on…just know that every waterfall we saw, our jaws dropped. Apparently the pool at this fall was calling my name loudly because I decided to jump in. Took a quick, invigorating swim and was right back up. The water was just cold enough so that my body automatically swam back to shore before it froze in the water. (Actually, since the water originates from a spring, it tends to stay around 70 degrees year round -I’m just a wimp when it comes to cold.)
While we were there, a couple of teen daredevils decided to jump off the falls. I looked at Drew and said, “I like my life.” As scary and exhilarating as that might have been, it’s just not worth it to me. I can easily say I’m a chicken shit when it comes to jumping off high waterfalls. Fifteen feet is probably my max. The town of Supai doesn’t allow jumping off the falls, but it’s too enticing for some, and I totally get it. It’s FUN. There are injuries and fatalities here of course. If you’re on the luckier side, you’ll just be stuck with a $20,000 helicopter bill as they lift your butt to the nearest trauma center. Ok, and if you’re really lucky, you get a huge thrill out of it that people like me won’t get.
This here be the money maker. The one that makes everyone say, “I want to go there!” when they see pictures of it. And I do mean money maker because tourism is the leading industry in the small town of Supai. Dare I say, it may be the only industry? But I digress. Just a few short steps from the campgrounds, is this AWE-some waterfall.
You see it from the top and then walk the gentle slope down to the bottom. (Note, as a photographer, I must say there are some iPhone images sprinkled throughout this post and this is one of them…thus not the most spectacular quality, but the subjects in them are pretty spectacular!)
We ended Day 1 here since the next falls were a bit further down. It was time to get back to the lodge, hopefully in time before the cafe closed so we could get a hot meal. On our way back, we saw a horse running off on its own.
Note to self: Ask someone who this horse belongs to. I found out later that their owners sometimes let them go when they don’t have enough to feed them that week.
Day 2. We got up early and went to the cafe for breakfast. My coffee and egg muffin was five stars all the way considering we didn’t make it in time for dinner at the cafe the day before. We then headed out along the same trail again to continue our explorations. A bit after Havasu is Mooney Falls. It’s so interesting how this canyon within a canyon creates so many different waterfalls. As you approach Mooney Falls, you’re actually standing on the top of it.
You can even walk up to the edge of the falls if you want, which we saw a couple of people do. Again, daredevils, not me since it’s a 200ft drop down to the bottom and I don’t want them to have to change the namesake of the falls from Mooney to Dao Falls. Mooney Falls is named after a miner who fell to his death here back in 1882.
To get down to the bottom of Mooney Falls is quite an adventure. Be ready to scale some rocks and hold on for dear life to chains and a giant-sized ladder. There’s even a sign to warn you of what’s ahead.
After taking a break and soaking in the scenery, we continued on, hoping to reach Beaver Falls, the last of the falls belonging to the Havasupai nation. We weren’t in a hurry to get there and this hike now ranks as the best hike I’ve ever done in my life! Here’s why.
Next time, I’d do the exact opposite and climb the ladder because of where we ended up at Beaver Falls. Not quite on the side that affords the best views of it, but we didn’t know that. It’s incredible to be up so close to the falls, but there was more of it to see that we couldn’t from that side. Oh well, leave something new and exciting for next time we come back!
We went as far as this rope existed. You kind of need it so you don’t fall off the narrow 40ft ledge and become part of Beaver Falls. This was our turnaround point. Especially since I saw drops of blood every few inches, indicating that someone had gotten hurt not too long ago.
We had five miles to cover for our way back to the lodge and not wanting to miss out on a hot meal again, we stopped a little less this time. When we got to the campgrounds, one frybread stall was still open. Praise the Lord!
We ordered a savory and a sweet, which you can dazzle up with honey and a cinnamon sugar mix they had on the table. I’ve never had frybread before but that was the best tasting thing I had since my breakfast egg muffin!
On Day 3, we packed up and rode out on horseback with a mule to carry one pack. (Remember when I said we didn’t know any better about the horses?) Well, I can’t take it back so I’ll say it was a beautiful ride and we were lucky enough to have David (the camp ranger) be our guide back up. It’s not his regular job- he was moonlighting so I don’t know if every ride has someone who is as friendly and energetic as David. He was chock full of information and I felt like I was on a tour of Supai instead of just taking a horse back ride up. We learned a little bit of the Supai history, its people and culture, the surrounding area and what’s beyond Beaver Falls.
David rarely takes people back up on horseback anymore, so we felt really blessed to have the best man in town take us up. He will answer any questions you might have about Supai and I had a LOT of questions (Like, why are there stray horses around? What’s the school system like? What do people do for a living here? Why is there a man who looks like Snoop Dog in town? -He’s actually part of the Head Start program for kids in the village!). David’s life story is one crazy adventure too. A Mexican Dutch who’s ex-military, lived with the Apaches, traveled the world doing all sorts of different lines of work, now married to a Supai woman, working as a ranger, writing a book on ornithology of Supai, and enjoying every minute of his life. This man’s life amazed me.
I don’t regret taking the horses. Ours actually looked strong and healthy. I would love for most of the horse & mule owners to start taking better care of their horses. Even David agrees, but there doesn’t seem to be any incentive for them to do that he says. If there’s a way to ask for Claudius’ horses, please do so if you’re planning on riding horses. Maybe that will encourage other horse owners to start taking care of theirs. If that’s not possible, then consider walking back up or taking the helicopter. Just make sure if you’re planning on using the heli that it’s on a day that they operate!
Thank you David for an amazing horseback ride, and thank you Havasupai (people of the blue green waters) for opening up one of the most beautiful places on Earth and sharing it with the rest of the world.