By Ashley Breeding
Tucked in the Grand Canyon’s southwest region lies the remote Havasupai Indian Reservation. The land—at one time one of the most isolated spots in all of Arizona—has become a top destination for backpackers. At the end of a downward, 10-mile trek are some of the most spectacular views Mother Nature has to offer.
Joined by three friends, my adventure began as we turned off old Route 66 onto Indian Route 18, a bumpy “road” (decades overdue for repairs) that twists and turns through 60 miles of grassy flatland to the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead, which stands 500 feet above sweeping views of lush, colorful landscape.
A mile and a half of steep, dusty switchbacks led us down into Hualapai Canyon and onto a narrow, rocky path between towering walls of red sandstone that would steer us another eight miles to Supai Village, home to the Havasupai Indian Tribe, or “people of the blue-green water.”
Off to a late start and racing the sun to the canyon floor, we didn’t encounter many other hikers, only mule trains—Supai’s main method of import and export—that came trotting through, seemingly ready to flatten you in their path if you stand in the way of their tunnel-vision mission.
The town was unlike any I’d ever visited, dotted with maybe 100 small homes, a café, school, grocery, church, post office and clinic over 518 acres, and shared by families of horses, mules and stray dogs—all quite friendly if you share your trail mix. A few ATVs roved the dirt roads, but most people got around on foot.
The only place in the Grand Canyon still inhabited by native people, Supai is also one of the only places in the country that still delivers mail by mule. Tourism is the main source of income, so inhabitants are all very happy to greet visiting hikers.
Having arrived at the village just 10 minutes too late to grab a bite from the town’s café (maybe we should have hopped on a mule), we continued another two miles to the campsite, eager to slip into dry clothes and inhale propane-cooked tortilla soup.
And then we heard the powerful sound of cascading water—we had arrived at Navajo Falls, the first of the four waterfalls.
Suddenly we felt cozy, our hunger subsided. Peering over the edge of the cliff, our mouths agape, we drank in the sight of glistening travertine limestone water plunging 75 feet over the rocks. The contrast of the turquoise stream, red and brown speckled rock, and neon-green foliage wove an image that was nearly surreal.
The second waterfall we came to was Havasu Falls, the most renowned on the reservation. At 100 feet, it’s not the tallest—Mooney Falls towers at 200 feet—but the vast aquamarine pool at the bottom was nothing short of breathtaking. The sting of the early April water was equally so. (Tempted by fairytale blue hues, cliff-jumping and rope-swings, hypothermia disappears from concern.)
Cliff jumping, Havasu Falls
We camped along a trickling creek, a peaceful setting conducive to restful sleep and refueling for days more of adventure. We spent the daylight hours exploring new territory, our nights sitting around a communal bowl of stew and reinventing modern board and card games with ancient elements found in nature. (Note that you will need a propane tank for this excursion, as campfires are, annoyingly, not permitted.)
Two miles further we found Mooney Falls—accessible via a vertical downhill climb (there are belay chains to assist, and a few trusty hand and foot holds). This is where I discovered, after 27 years and, ironically, a skydiving adventure, a fear of heights. Superb timing. I had two choices: turn back or buck up. Since my second worst fear is missing out on the fun, I chose the latter, and was richly rewarded with a spectacular view at the base and gentler rapids and smaller falls in which to frolic.
Another three or so miles from Mooney takes you to Beaver Falls, the last of the four falls on the reservation. And another four or five miles from there will take you to the Colorado River. Regrettably, we didn’t make it to either of these on this trip, which only gives me further incentive to go back (It’s possible that I purposely did this to justify a return visit).
On the ascent back to real life, we encountered something truly unique and special: As we approached the third mile or so, we overheard a harmony of chanting, maracas and hoop drums. We followed our curiosity off the beaten path and discovered—to our bewilderment—a Native American ceremony on what we would later learn was sacred land. We watched as members of the tribe, naked and on hands and knees, backed themselves into a sweat lodge (the hut symbolizes a mother’s womb and if you enter face-forward, your children will be born breech, and deaf). An elder native man kindly invited us to partake in the ritual, and although we felt honored by the gesture, we declined (blaming six hours of profuse sweating ahead, though more honestly just uncomfortable with the “attire”).
We planned to reach the hilltop before sundown, but about a quarter of the way up the switchbacks, we were being guided by headlamps and climbing in pitch-black. I chose to see this as a bright side to the journey—we were all running on empty, dehydrated and out of water, and we couldn’t gage how far we had to go (“Any moment now…”).
By this time I was climbing in Crocs—my feet had swollen and blistered so badly that I could no longer stuff them inside my hiking boots—and was growing cranky. As the tears began to well, my friend cracked a joke, reminding us of a man we met on the way down: This man told us to send our backpacks up on a mule, and to hike back without any gear. We thanked him for the advice, but told him we were doing this adventure “the right way.” Suddenly, his way seemed like it was the right way.
I took something important away from this experience that would comfort me on many outdoor excursions to come: It’s when stuff goes wrong—or even just not-as-planned—that you truly find the most exciting and spiritual adventures.