Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Havasupai - Paradise Lost?

Land of Blue Green Waters

Ask people for a "bucket list" of things they want to see and it's likely a fair number of them will mention the turquoise blue waters of Havasupai Falls.

Because of countless pictures of this idyllic paradise found in travel magazines and the internet, the waterfalls found in this tributary of Grand Canyon have become one of the most recognized scenic wonders in the western U.S.

Accordingly this well deserved reputation as a must see destination has led to a dramatic increase in visitation in recent years.  Like many popular attractions, demand has exceeded the carrying capacity of what is essentially a finite space.

This post will offer a look at not only the iconic landscape but a few of the challenges that surround getting to see it.

The Havasupai ("Havasu 'Baaja") People

For nearly 800 years the Havasupai people have called the Cataract Canyon region of the Grand Canyon their home.  As hunters, foragers, and farmers the people lived on the rim and in the canyons as seasons changed, ranging over a wide area.

By James, George Wharton
Like most native tribes, the arrival of white settlers in the 19th century meant being displaced from their territory.  In the 1880's all but 518 acres of  land was usurped by Federal decree, leaving the small band of natives with only a limited area along Havasu Creek.  Through hard fought litigation from mid-century into 1975 the tribe gradually regained control of 185,000 acres of land in and around the west rim of Grand Canyon.

Today nearly 650 people live and work in and around Havasu Canyon, with an emphasis on tourism surrounding the scenic environment.

Havasu (Cataract) Canyon

Havasu (also sometimes called Cataract) Creek is a tributary of the Colorado River and begins as a trickle on the south side of Grand Canyon. It flows for nearly 50 miles to the north before entering Havasu Canyon where it is supplemented by Havasu Springs, which flows year-round.

Because of dissolved calcium carbonate minerals, the water appears bluish or turquoise colored in the canyon bottom.  The calcium laden water also forms deposits known as travertine, leading to terraces and pools associated with major waterfalls along the creek.

The Cataract Creek drainage is the second largest tributary system on the south side of Grand Canyon, with a network of many smaller canyons that collect rainwater and snowmelt from a large area.  Consequently Havasu Canyon and the creek are subjected to large and relatively frequent floods during the summer thunderstorm season.

Getting There

All visits to Havasu Canyon begin at Hualapai Hilltop - a remote location that offers no services other than a starting point for the journey.  The village of Supai (tribal headquarters) is located in Havasu Canyon, 8 miles in and 2000 feet below the rim.

To get there you can do as the vast majority do and make the trek on foot.  Alternatively you can try securing a seat on a helicopter flying from the Hilltop, or hiring a horse to take you and your belongings into the canyon.


All visitors must secure a permit from the tribe before visiting, a process that has become so difficult for the average person that it is the subject of media articles and internet discussions.  As pictures of the incredible scenery have circulated widely on the web, the popularity of the falls has increased exponentially.

As a result when reservation phone lines (no web bookings) are opened up in February for the coming year, those seeking permits can expect constant busy signals and disappointment as permits for peak seasons (March - October) go quickly.

If you are successful in securing a permit, expect to pay $40.00 as the entry fee, with a charge of $17.00 per person per night for camping.  As most people spend 3 days to make the trip on foot, that means a visit will cost around $74.00 per person.

The Hike

To see the waterfalls and pools of blue green water, be prepared as a hiker to make a challenging journey.  From Hualapai Hilltop to the campground it is 10 miles and 2200 feet of vertical descent in what is primarily a hot, dry desert environment.

Once you reach the creek at 6 miles you'll have water and shade, but prior to that you'll be hiking in a canyon with limited cover and summer temperatures that linger at or above 100 degrees.

If you can make arrangements to do the trip in spring or fall that will help, but colder weather can mean limitations on desires and abilities to play in the water.

If your trip occurs during the warmer months, you can mitigate some of the unpleasantness by not hiking during the hottest part of the day, i.e. starting before sunrise.  Temperatures usually peak around noon to 4 p.m., and begin to decline as the sun disappears behind canyon walls.

Another key to a successful hike is to stay hydrated and eat plenty of snacks to maintain electrolyte balance.  It may also be desirable for some to hire a horse to pack in camping gear, thus lightening the load on the hike.

All visitors should be aware that summer is also the season for flooding.  Thunderstorms occurring generally from July to September can produce significant rain upstream - it is possible to experience floods even if skies above the main canyon are clear.  As mentioned earlier the Havasu Canyon watershed is very large, and storms anywhere in the drainage are reason enough to be on alert.

Beginning of the trail

Hualapai Canyon

The hike begins with a moderate descent of the canyon rim, dropping 1000 feet into Hualapai Canyon in just about a mile.

Switchbacks into Hualapai Canyon
On this section in particular hikers will want to be watching for pack animals used by the tribe to transport gear and supplies into the canyon.

Unlike Grand Canyon trail mules used in the National Park, these animals are usually not tethered together and they travel at a faster clip.  They also sometimes have very large, bulky coolers or packs which take up a great deal of width, and inattentive hikers could be pushed off the trail or injured in a collision.

Untethered pack animals
Once the trail reaches the canyon bottom, the next few miles feature a relatively uninteresting walk in a broad sandy wash.  Little to no shade will be found along the way, and it won't be uncommon to share the trail with other hikers and pack animals.

The further downstream one goes, the more scenic the surroundings become.  At first modest walls of sandstone begin to climb above the dry streambed, eventually reaching several hundred feet high.

Additionally the wash bottom becomes narrower - this is definitely where you want to be sure of a good weather forecast.

At around the 6 mile mark, large cottonwood trees and other riparian vegetation mark the junction of Hualapai Canyon with Havasu Canyon.  Here is where the warm (usually around 72 degrees), bluish waters of Havasu Creek flow year round, providing people and animals with a necessary resource.

Soon afterwards, the nearly level trail reaches the village of Supai, home of the tribe and seat of Havasupai government.  It is here that visitors must register with the Tourist Office.

Anyone who comes here should recognize that all outsiders are guests of the Havasupai, and should behave accordingly.  The tribe has its' own government and rules, and operates as a sovereign entity.  Please respect the privacy of tribe members, and remember that people who live here tolerate the hundreds of thousands of tourists in order to generate vital revenue for the tribe.

There is a lodge in the village that offers accomodations if camping is not your thing.  Supai also has a variety of other services including a small market and emergency clinic.  To reach the campground you must follow the trail another 2 miles into the canyon.

Along the way you'll come to the first waterfall at about 1.25 miles - Upper and Lower Navajo Falls.  Prior to 2008, there was only one set of falls at this location, but flash flooding rerouted the creek and created 2 sets of cascades.  The main falls here are roughly 50 feet high.

At 1.5 miles the trail passes by the third set of falls - Havasu Falls.  Consisting of a single plume falling 100 feet into a travertine pool, Havasu Falls is one of the easiest accessed and more scenic attractions in the canyon.

The campground is 1/2 mile beyond Havasu Falls.  Sites are primitive, with a few outhouses and spring fed sources of potable water.  Continue hiking through the campground for an additional .25 of a mile and you will arrive at Mooney Falls, named for a white miner who plunged to his death in 1882.

Although easy to view from above, the approach to the base of the 200 foot falls is challenging, especially for anyone with a fear of heights.  Climbing down a steep and rugged cliff is required, and the rock face is often slippery from mist coming off the falls.  Although chains, ladders and handholds exist it's a precarious slope, with the added challenge of traffic moving in both directions.

The pool at the base of Mooney Falls is the largest of the three upper features, so getting to the base is definitely worthwhile.

It's possible to continue downstream all the way to the Colorado River by hiking an additional 8 miles.  The trail is often faint and rugged and requires multiple crossings of the creek.  About 4 miles downstream of Mooney Falls you will reach the last of the 5 falls in the canyon - Beaver Falls.

Most visitors only get to the 4 uppermost falls, and few ever make the complete round trip to the Colorado River and back due to the distance and difficulty involved.  Still ambitious hikers with multiple days can make the journey and visit more remote parts of Havasu Canyon.

My most recent visit was in June of 2016, and my overall impression was less than favorable.  Despite the beautiful natural setting I experienced crowding and congestion at both Mooney and Havasu Falls, and finding solitude and quiet was nearly impossible in the upper canyon.

There was significant amounts of litter along the trail, from both visitors and tribal members.  And given the cost of fees for entry and the size of the campground, it's hard to believe the tribe is not generating enough money to make much needed improvements to water, sanitation, and other campground infrastructure.

Setting sun rays above canyon walls
It is too bad that such spectacular natural features become victims of their own inherent beauty, and that providing access to such grandeur for the masses means diluting or in some cases eliminating much of what makes a place worthwhile.  While it's true that nothing diminishes the natural character of the waterfalls, it is sad to witness the commercialization of the canyon.  

Of course what often makes a place special is the challenge of reaching it, and the unique character of the environment.  Havasu Creek and the now famous waterfalls certainly fit that criteria - Just don't expect to have it all to yourself. 

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