Wanderlust: Havasupai

Mooney falls


Travel is a passion of mine. When I am not on vacation, I am planning the next one or reflecting on the previous. Research suggests that anticipation of a great trip can be a source of happiness in itself, and I could not agree more.

Wanderlust is my periodic travel fix. I will either review one of my favorite destinations or share some research on a dream destination. My aim is not to provide a comprehensive travel guide, but rather to inspire you to feed your travel bug. The world is a huge, wonderful place. I can’t see it all, but I can try!

Travel Review #2: Havasupai

Halfway down the 200-foot cliff, emerging from a narrow passage carved through the rock, we paused and squinted in the bright sun for a moment so our eyes could adjust, and assessed the sheer, slippery path below—criss-crossed by chains and rickety wooden ladders.

mooney falls cliff

“Chutes and ladders in real life!” one of my brothers joked nervously.

I took a deep breath and began to slowly descend, praying we would get out of here with intact bones and ligaments. Once our feet finally touched the sandy ground at the bottom—the only casualties our muddy butts and frayed nerves—we continued the hike along and within the electric-blue-green Havasu Creek.

Bro Trip

This vacation was special: it was just me, my 2 younger brothers, and the desert sky; our escape somewhere warm after the winter. Among us, we had abandoned one child and two pregnant wives back east, and we recognized the next “brothers only” trip may be a long time coming.

Choosing a destination had been challenging due to an unexpected foe: Zika. If a man travels to a Zika-affected region, and then a man loves a woman very much, he can pass on the virus to the mother and fetus. Current recommendations require 6 months of abstinence or protected sex after a male travels to an area with Zika. Our initial plan to visit the Peruvian Andes was nixed due to this, and one of my brothers suggested we visit someplace about which I had only the vaguest notions at the time: Havasupai.

Have A What?

The Havasupai Tribe, literally “People of the Blue-Green Waters,” have lived in a canyon near the remote village of Supai—just beyond the western border of Grand Canyon National Park—for over 1000 years. The nearby Havasu Creek—a tributary of the Colorado River—originates from a limestone aquifer, apparently “hidden” somewhere near the village (so no one steals it?). The unique geology of the creek results in a few striking features (AKA tourist magnets):

  1. It’s warm. The spring-fed water hovers around 70 degrees for most of the year—downright tropical compared to the 50-degree Colorado River. (Interesting side note: the Colorado in the Grand Canyon is so cold because of the upstream Glen Canyon Dam, which releases its water from the icy bottom of the reservoir and results in a near-constant river temperature year round. Before the dam, the river temperature would fluctuate significantly depending on the time of year).
  2. It’s turquoise. The color of the water might make you believe you’re on a beach in Barbados rather than in middle of a desert canyon. Why so crazy blue? Hydrology geeks can read the details here. My layman’s summary: dissolved minerals + reflective riverbed = turquoise color. Combined with rust-colored cliffs and greenery along the creek, it’s like a child’s illustration of the Garden of Eden.

    garden of eden
    We did not see any talking snakes.
  3. It’s terraced. Nature ain’t done yet! Dissolved calcium carbonate precipitates onto the riverbed to form rocky ledges and cute shallow pools in parts of the creek—perfect for taking a dip in the hot desert sun and sexy photo opportunities.

    beaver fall terraces
    Was it too much leg? (Pictured: Beaver Falls)

Getting There

In most travel articles, this section contains the boring practicalities of planes, trains, and automobiles. But not for Havasupai!

The only way to get there is via a 10-mile hike into the canyon*, which begins at a remote (but frickin’ car-packed) trailhead—4 hours by car from Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim, or 90 minutes from Peach Springs, AZ (where we stayed the prior night). A leisurely 5-6 hour downhill hike will bring you to the village of Supai and the campground 2 miles beyond. Yes, you just park at the trailhead and hike down to paradise. Nothing to it. Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy.

Just kidding…

*This is a lie. You can take a pack mule or helicopter, but walking is more fun

The Permit

stop sign says to register
Near the infamous permit office

In these days of Instagram and Youtube, word about the beauty of Havasupai got out, big time. The tribe (wisely) limits the number of camping permits each year, and they are insanely difficult to obtain. First off, reservations can only be made by phone, and they ain’t got call waiting. Permits routinely run out for the season in the first few days they are made available, and there are stories of individuals calling for weeks with nothing but busy signals.

How in Thor’s name did we get a permit, then? If, like me, you’d rather not listen to weeks of busy signals, one of the many tour companies that guide hikes to Havasupai can obtain the permit for you. We went on Discovery Treks‘ 3-day Havasu Falls hike without a hitch. Bonus: the guide provides all the food and sets up the tents, leaving you more time to explore.

Six Reasons to Visit Havasupai

1. Waterfalls and Hikes. The stars of the show are undoubtedly the waterfalls of Havasu Creek. After securing that elusive camping permit in the town of Supai, you begin the 2-mile hike to the campground. I won’t say much about the first two waterfalls—Navajo Falls and Fifty Foot Falls—because our backpacks were getting heavy and we barely glanced sideways at them as we lumbered toward the campground.

Just above the campground is the namesake Havasu Falls:

Havasu Falls
100-foot tall Havasu Falls

Someone named Mooney got his name attached to the even more impressive falls just below the campground. According to legend, he was a prospector who fell to his death here in 1882; in this case, “falls” is both a noun and a verb.

Mooney falls
200-foot Mooney Falls. I can think of worse places to die

Beaver Falls, the last major waterfall, is a 3-mile hike downriver from the campground. You heard about the treacherous cliffside path at the beginning of this hike in the introduction (the photo of Mooney falls was also taken from this trail).

Once safely to the bottom, the path meanders along and occasionally through the creek, passing flora as diverse as cacti and palm trees (the latter an invasive species, methinks).

hiking in the river
The brothers at a river crossing

What Beaver Falls lacks in looks, it makes up in personality. Rather than a single, massive waterfall, it consists of numerous smaller falls and pools great for swimming. We even gracefully leapt from one of the smaller falls, such daredevils were we.

Dr. C’s Advanced Hiking Tips
-When hiking in water for most of the day, sandal straps result in the most impressive blisters.
-When you roll your ankle, look angrily at the ground and curse whatever dared trip you. If the ground was flat, blame your shoes.
-It can be a fun challenge to scramble over rocks holding both hiking poles in one hand. Give it a try!

2. The United States Postal Service Cool fact: the post office in Supai is the last one in the United States to which mail is still delivered by mule!

mule near the trailhead
A postal worker hanging out by the trailhead

3. Navajo Fry Bread: If you don’t feel like bringing your own food—and have a healthy gallbladder—I highly recommend the different fry bread dishes served near the campground, especially the tacos.

4. The Stars. An almost-full moon meant I couldn’t check seeing the Milky Way off my bucket list, but the stars were still pretty incredible. On the bright side, I was followed by my moonshadow after the moonrise each night.

stars over havasupai campground
Stars over our campsite.

5. Disconnecting. For most of our 3 days there, it was complete and utter radio silence. Our phones became mere cameras and boomboxes.

Unplugging was an anxiolytic experience, and one that I will try more often in the future. Growing up before the cellphone (let alone smartphone) age, my friends and I laughed and loitered away many evenings without the glow of the screen. It’s much easier to focus on the person right in front of you when your phone is not silently summoning your attention. My brothers and I enjoyed this wonderful escape into the past for the few days it lasted.

Our guide, as it turned out, had just returned from 6 weeks (!) of zero bars on a rafting trip down the Colorado. She had no idea what was going on in the world. I was envious.

6. The Future. For much of the past 1000 years, Supai’s remote location has limited access and population. These days, the Havasupai Tribe acts as gatekeepers and intentionally limits the number of visitors. I suspect they will continue to do so well into the future—but perhaps not forever.

If they ever decide to open the tourist floodgates, a tsunami of people may very well overwhelm this relatively small oasis in the desert. Money and tourism have a way of spoiling a place, so try to get there before everyone else does.

Are you ready to schedule your trip yet? Have any of you been there already?

9 Replies to “Wanderlust: Havasupai”

  1. This is actually next on our list. I’ve lived relatively near it for much of my life, but just never gone. Now that it’s “discovered” I’ll have to compete with all the masses. I’m worried about the weeks on the phone with a busy signal.

  2. It may have been discovered by the masses but, as long as you get that elusive permit, it will not feel crowded whatsoever while you are there. It would be a great camping trip with children, but I’ll have to wait until mine are a little older.

    Dr. C

  3. Wow! This looks amazing! Thanks for sharing such cool trip (and great pics). How much was the guide? Did you do any fishing?

    1. The pictures didn’t even really do it justice. And the waterfalls were freaking powerful! Someone unfortunately drowned at Beaver Falls a few weeks after we were there.

      The trip was about $900 per person for three days, food included. If you can get your own permit, you can do it for a fraction of that cost, but by the time we decided to go they were long sold out.

      We are not fisherman, but there were fish. Sorry that’s not very satisfying if you like fishing 🙂

  4. Hey Dr. Curious,

    This looks gorgeous! Visiting natural sights in the US are some of my most favorite budget-friendly options. Although this one didn’t seem that budget-friendly? Worth it with the guide, though. Not sure I could feel OK about doing that long of a hike in the heat without one.

    I’ve always heard of Havasu but didn’t know it was this nice, so thanks for sharing!

    1. As we did it, it was not the most budget-friendly. If one is persistent and insane enough to call for three weeks straights in order to obtain a permit, one can camp for a mere $25 per day. Either way you do it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

      The hike was wonderful in April. I would imagine in August it could be near-hell.

      Muchos gracias for stopping by!
      Dr. C

  5. Holy smokes I want to go. I’ve never heard of this place before but clearly I am missing a ton of stuff. Thanks for sharing and I know that I will definitely be on the phone trying to see if I can reserve things next season 🙂

    1. There are rumors that they may switch to an online reservation system in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled! I have traveled fairly extensively around the world, and it was without question near the tippy-top of the most naturally beautiful places I have been.

      I’ll be looking forward to your trip report!
      Dr. C

  6. […] I really need to find my way to Havasupai. Two of our physician blogging friends have reported on their trips to this picturesque spot. Julie @ Choose Better Life shared Hiking at Havasupai. Dr. Curious @ My Curiosity Lab captured similar stunning images in Wanderlust: Havasupai. […]

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