Havasu Falls; An Epic Backpacking Trip

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One of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world, Havasu Falls, lies deep within the tribal lands of the Havasupai, the American Indian tribe who has lived in the Grand Canyon for over eight hundred years. 

In 2014, my daughter and I celebrated her high school graduation with an dream backpacking trip to Havasu Falls. Even then, it was difficult to secure one of the coveted Havasupai Reservations, and now, spots fill up months in advance. Your best bet is to sign up for an account well in advance, and be ready to make your reservation as soon as they open up, typically in February.

Here’s our story of an epic mother daughter journey to Havasu Falls.

Mother and daughter reunited after hike to Havasu Falls.

Hike to Havasu Falls

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 struggled to keep up with my 18-year-old daughter, Kayla.

Hualapai Canyon Cliffs - Grand Canyon West
Canyon cliffs on tribal lands of Hualapai people.

But 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. Did she have enough water?

Hualapai Canyon Cliffs - Grand Canyon West
Carrying enough water for the hike is imperative, at least 3 liters is the recommended amount.

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 are important to avoid, but generally this is a moderate hike.

Hiking Havasu Canyon - Grand Canyon West
Three hikers on Hualapai Canyon trail leading to Supai Village and Havasu Falls.

It is 10 miles to reach the campground though, which is a considerable distance. 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.

Red Rock and Gray Clouds - Grand Canyon West
Dark gray clouds and red rock canyons on a rainy day on the Hualapai Tribal lands.

I worried about lack of water, but soon rain drops had me concerned about too much water.

Flash Flood - Grand Canyon West
Rain brings the danger of flash floods.

The rain storm passed quickly. In it’s 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 the Hualapai 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 enter in by mule train, and trash must be carried out the same way.

Pack Mules - Hualapai Tribal Land
Pack mules led by native guide are used to carry goods to Supai Village.

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.

Supai Village Church

But as we passed backyard orchards lush with ripe pomegranates, a horseman galloped toward us shouting, “hi-yah!”

Supai Village - Hualapai Tribal Land
Rural Native American village amidst red rock cliffs.

Kayla stayed with me as we hiked the two miles to our campground, and together we got our first look at Havasu Falls.

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.

Havasu Falls Campground

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.

Fry Bread

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.

Turquoise blue Mooney Falls cascades down a 210 foot red rock wall.

Not content to merely bask in this accomplishment, we pushed on another three miles to Beaver Falls because; well, because only the few go that far.

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.

The Havasupai website warns hikers that getting to Beaver Falls required some work, but nothing prepares you for the Survivor-style trek needed to get to the conflux of Beaver and Havasu Canyons.

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 no-name horse lagged, we were reminded 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.

Our lives are headed in different directions now, but I hope that we’ll always circle back to each other.

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