One of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, Havasu Falls, lies deep within the tribal lands of the Havasupai, the American Indian tribe that has lived in the Grand Canyon for over eight hundred years.
A few years back, my daughter and I celebrated her high school graduation with a dream backpacking trip to Havasupai Waterfalls. Even then, it was difficult to secure one of the coveted Havasupai Reservations, and now, spots fill up as soon as they become available months in advance. (Skip to end of post for Havasu Falls booking tips.)
Here’s our story of an epic mother daughter journey into Havasu Canyon.
Havasu Falls Hike
Spying a spray-painted plywood sign pointing toward Supai Village, I hurried over the narrow bridge. For eight miles–down steep canyon walls, through a brief deluge, and over shallow flash flood streams in the valley—I had struggled to keep up with my 18-year-old daughter, Kayla.
Then, by mid-afternoon it had been hours since she surged ahead, and I was beginning to kick myself for letting her hike alone in the desert. I knew she wasn’t lost. The trail, well-marked by people and mules following an ancient path, could not be missed. But did she have enough water?
The trail is only steep for the first 1.5 miles from the trailhead, and after that it is mostly level hiking with a slightly downhill slant. The hiking is rocky and sandy, and pack mules going up and down canyon have to be avoided, but generally this is a moderate hike.
It is 10 miles to reach the campground though–a considerable distance for most of us. There’s no water for the first 6 miles and daytime temperatures from May through September are often above 105 degrees Fahrenheit even in the shade.
I worried about lack of water, but soon rain drops had me concerned about too much water.
The rain storm passed quickly. In its wake, I saw streams which I avoided because water seemed to be passing very quickly, fast enough to topple an unwary hiker.
I caught up to my daughter not long after the storm ended. Not only was she fine, she was lounging under a thick cottonwood tree lacquering her nails pink.
Entering Supai Village
I could see why it was important to limit the influx of visitors, both to preserve a fragile ecosystem and a way of life. Resources are limited, goods arrive by mule train, and trash must be carried out the same way.
Housing many of the 650 members of the Havasupai tribe, the village has all the modern trappings of an American town: church, school, grocery store, cellphone service, and a small but comfortable inn, the Havasupai Lodge.
But as we passed backyard orchards lush with ripe pomegranates, a horseman galloped toward us shouting, “hi-yah!”
Kayla stayed with me as we hiked the two miles to our campground, and together we got our first look at Havasu Falls.
The waterfall was even more beautiful than anything we could imagine. It was tempting to jump right in, but we wanted to set up our tents first. Plus, I was eager to be reunited with the duffel bags that had been carried in by mule.
There were many available campsites, both next to the creek and not. We chose one sheltered by scrub and red-rock wall, where a prior tenant had strung a clothesline. And I was delighted to discover remarkably clean composting restrooms surrounded by a grove of moonflowers that perfumed the night.
Kayla was in charge of packing the food for this trip, so meals were healthy if Spartan. Luckily, a couple of enterprising locals were making a killing thanks to the laws of supply and demand. $5 for fry bread, $10 for Supai taco? Sure, why not.
Exploring Beyond Havasu Falls
The next day we tackled the extreme skills portion of the trip. Fifteen minutes beyond the campground, sits Mooney Falls, with a 195 plunge that tops Niagara Falls.
But to get there, you have to climb through tunnels, chains, and ladders slippery from the waterfall’s spray. This is not for the faint of heart, or those afraid of heights.
I fell behind my daughter a few times that day as we traversed through creek beds, over log bridges, into wild-grape-covered meadows, and again up and down ladders.
I just had to stop to take a million photos. Every landscape was so stunningly beautiful, and this was a once in a lifetime adventure. I had to freeze every moment, every sight; while in my heart, I could see this was it, the last mother-daughter outing.
Apart, yet united, we hiked at different speeds, joining to tackle the tricky spots together. We approached Beaver Falls in tandem, and explored its pools as a team.
Together we sped back, desperate to escape the perils of the Mooney Falls ladder before nightfall.
The next morning, we left camp separately. Kayla, in the best shape of her life, wanted to hike back to the hilltop where our car was parked. Not being nearly as fit, I knew it would take me twice as long to hike uphill. I chose to go on horseback, an experience that I will always remember as the first time I bypassed cantering and went straight to a gallop.
My guide wasn’t so much interested in a pleasant ride as he was in getting to the hilltop as quickly as possible. Any time my horse lagged, he reminded us to move along. That is, until my horse noticed a few buddies being herded up the canyon trail and decided to pick up the pace himself. That’s when my superior horsemanship consisted of holding on to the saddle horn for dear life.
And yet, as fast as we rode up that narrow trail, I arrived only half an hour before my daughter. She bypassed hikers who had left camp hours earlier at sunrise, and was nearly as fast as a galloping horse.
Havasu Falls Booking Tips
- No walk-ins allowed. Havasupai Reservations have to be in place before arrival.
- Reservations fill up quickly. Best to have a Havasupai Account in place before reservations open on February 1, 2020 for arrivals on March 1 and beyond.
- All reservations are 3 Night/4 Day; Weekdays $100/person; Weekends $125/person.
- There are no designated sites. But not to worry. All the sites are lovely, set under sheltering trees along the creek bed.
Getting To Havasu Falls
- Parking is free at Hualapai Hilltop Trailhead.
- Pack Mules are available to carry backpacks from parking lot to campground, but they must be reserved in advance. $400 for 4 backpacks, size and weight limits apply. Packs must be dropped off by 10am on the way in, and 7am on the way back. See Official Havasupai Tribe site for details.
- Airwest Helicopters offers service between Hilltop Trailhead and Supai Village. Rates were $85/person in 2019, and were available first come/first served according to seasonal schedule.
Supai Village Restaurant and Lodging
- If you don’t want to camp, there is a Lodge in Supai Village (2 miles from Havasu Falls.) Rooms are $440 per room/night, and can hold 4 people. Advance reservations highly recommended.
- There is a Cafe serving burgers and Indian Tacos in Supai Village, as well as a shop for basics. Keep in mind that menu and stock is extremely limited due to remote location.
Lodging Near Hualapai Hilltop Trailhead
It’s a strenuous hike to and from Havasu Falls, so a long road trip on top of that would be a bit much. We were very happy to stay at Hualapai Lodge. Located a little over an hour drive from Hualapai Hilltop Trailhead, lodge rooms were clean, comfortable, and outfitted with all the modern comforts.
In-house dining was more than satisfactory, and the outdoor pool with hot tub is a pleasant addition. Passing trains can be a little loud, but earplugs easily takes care of that issue.