Away from the Grind

Havasu Canyon

by Roger Ludwig

Havasu Canyon is a spell binding place where you would be sure to find spring buzzing and blooming around you. It’s not so much south but down, deep into a side canyon of the Grand Canyon, on the Havasupai Indian Reservation of Northern Arizona, a 943 mile drive from Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Let me paint a picture of your campsite. Redwall limestone soars 600 feet to the clear blue sky in front and behind you, etched with desert varnish. The new leaves of ancient cottonwoods are vibrant in shocking spring greens. To your right a twin waterfall of sparkling white arcs 100 feet to plunge into a turquoise pool overflowing its terraces to form the stream passing your camp. This is Havasu canyon, an oasis bursting with life in the midst of the desert. Strong colors of the purest blue, green, coral and turquoise stand side by side. This is the Shangri-la of the South West.

There is no noise but the water’s voice, at once roaring, now chortling, bubbling by. Tranquility eases into your soul. Why so quiet? The only way in is to walk. Or hire a horse. Or drop in by helicopter. On the way you pass through the village of Supai, population 450, the last place in the United States where the mail is delivered by mule. Havasu Canyon is a perfect escape from Wyoming winter during Spring break.

The trailhead is at Hualapai Hilltop, at 5,200 feet altitude, the dead end of Arizona Hwy. 18, 60 miles north of Route 66, west of Seligman, AZ. Here a large dirt parking lot balances at the edge of a precipitous drop into the dry reaches of Hualapai Canyon. It will be filled with the cars and trucks of the Havasupai Indians who live in the village of Supai 8 miles below, joined by the rigs of fellow visitors. In mid-morning Havasupai wranglers arrive with a string of small horses and mules for moving the mail, groceries, some tourists and their duffles. If you’re hiking you begin by walking around the horses, watching for road apples and stepping off the rim to descend the knee-jarring switch backs to the dry stream-bed 1000 feet below.

It may be winter on the rim but you’ll be warm by the time you reach the bottom. This is Grand Canyon country. You’re traveling down the wedding-cake layers of cliff, slope and bench, cliff, slope and bench. Compared to the south rim at Grand Canyon village, you’ve driven down and through the first two layers and are now at the Coconino sandstone, what the Indians call the white cliffs, the upper border of their world below. The trail descends the cliff, then traverses the greenish Hermit Shale, dropping you into the top of the red Supai formation.

Here the canyon is bone dry; the trail, dust and rocks, bright in the sun. It’s hot. There’s no shade except for what you can find along the deepening cliff sides. About 6 1/2 miles along you’ll notice a little water seeping from the gravel floor. Another turn or two brings you to the junction where Hualapai Canyon meets Havasu Canyon and the flowing waters of Havasu creek. A hiker steps from the desert into this corridor of life like walking through the doorway of a dry sauna into a greenhouse. The shade of the cottonwoods, willow and box elder invite you into a luxury of humidity, grass and brush. Birds flit from branch to branch above. The creek is clear and translucent. The secret to its sparkle? The water carries a distillate of limestone that it has deposited along its bed, coating it white. It produces the tropical color we associate with the Caribbean where sea covers sand.

The Village of Supai

Turning left, the trail continues downstream another 1 1/2 miles to Supai. The canyon opens to form a broad, flat-bottomed bowl, walled in by towering cliffs of rust-red rock. Here are the pastures, gardens and homes of the Havasupai peoples. The rock walls are capped with various monoliths. Two appear to stand guard over the town. These are Wigleeva, the guardian spirits of the tribe. Legend has it, that should they fall, the canyon walls will close, destroying the village and the people.

The trail becomes the town’s main street, wide enough for two pack horses to pass. Children trot their ponies, riding bareback. The quiet is startling. Life without the infernal combustion engine sounds like something from a distant age. You’ll pass a number of government issue houses before your come to the Tourist Office to check in and get your permits. A little further along the trail opens into the town square. It’s ringed by small wooden buildings – Post Office, store and town cafe. This is a place to set-a-spell, quench your thirst and look around.

The “Pai”-meaning “people”-moved into the area south of the Grand Canyon around A.D. 1300, long before the Navaho. They hunted on the plateau rims, traveling with the seasons, gathering plants and seeds for food and medicine. During the summer they farmed various canyon floors. When ranchers and prospectors came into the country in the 1860’s conflict erupted between them and the 13 Pai bands. The U.S. army defeated the Pai in 1869 after a bloody three-year campaign. The officers combined the 12 bands that fought into the Hualapai, meaning the “Pine Tree People”. The one band that did not fight remained distinct as the peaceable Havasupai, “The Blue-green Water People”. The two groups of Pai now have separate reservations.

In 1880, President Rutherford Hayes granted the Havasupai a reservation of 38,000 acres. Two years later miners were encroaching. Fearing that their reservation would be taken, Chief Navajo insisted on a smaller reservation of 518 acres, the area of the village. No mineral deposits or grazing lands were included to tempt whites. In 1975 President Gerald Ford added 185,000 acres to the tribe, restoring what they had sacrificed, plus a small part of their historic plateau.

The people are quiet and generous, seeking to live in harmony with all life. You’ll find elders sitting at the town square, visiting with their neighbors. Direct eye contact is rude. The small bands of colorful back-packers pass through almost as if they are not seen. Life is quiet and tranquil. It’s a reminder. This is time to relax.

If you hear music playing it’s likely to be Reggae. Many are Bob Marley fans. Marley’s son, Ziggy, paid a visit to the village once at the peoples’ request. Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are popular, too. Teens, like teens everyone, are tuned in to their Walkman’s. Their groove? Hip-hop. Some tourists wish the tribe would resist the influences of other cultures yet I don’t suppose any of us would like to be limited to our ancestral music, food and clothing.

There is a modern lodge for those who don’t wish to camp. Advance reservations are essential. For most it’s time to buck on the pack and stroll through the rest of the village and on down the trail. There are three big waterfalls along the creek, now a rushing 38 million gallons of flow per day. The first, named in honor of Navajo, is 1 1/2 miles below the village. The water divides into several beautifully spaced rivulets, falling 75 feet, splashing onto different ledges to gather in a pool before heading downstream. The falls are coyly hidden from plain sight by trees. It’s worth a stop to view the falls from various scenic points.

The Falls and Campground

1/2 mile further the trail brings you to the top of Havasu Falls. You’ll hear its roar first before coming to the drop where the creek hits a boulder in midstream, splitting into two perfect twins which crash 100 feet to the aquamarine pool below. The mineral deposits have formed massive travertine curtains spreading from both sides of the creek, stained red from the dust of the rock of the Supai formation. The trail, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s, takes you down to the floor of the canyon. The creek has formed pools with white terraces at varying levels. Fellow hikers will likely be splashing and swimming in the wet spray and splendor of it all.

The campground, which can hold 300 people when fully occupied, stretches along the stream for a mile, shaded all the way by massive cottonwoods. The canyon has now become narrow and steep with sheer red walls rising 600 feet to the sky. There are picnic tables at the campsites and scattered porta-potties along the way. Water is available from Fern Spring bubbling from the canyon wall midway along on the left. It is recommended that you purify the water before drinking.

As you pick your site and set up camp there are two things you should know about: dogs and rock squirrels. The Havasupai dogs freely roam the camp. They are quiet and peaceful and always looking for dinner. Your food must be tied or boxed out of reach. The acrobatic rock squirrels are fun to watch as they climb, dig and chew–as long as it’s not your dinner they’re stuffing into their cheeks. They can climb anything, even a thin cord, and will chew their way through your pack or tent if they smell anything tasty. Scott Victor, with Four Seasons Guides, recommends Ratsacks, stainless steel mesh bags for your food. They can not be chewed through and are available from www.armoredoutdoorgear.com . They still need to be tied high up to get them out of your gear and away from the dogs. A second option is to secure all food in a pot with the lid wired shut and hung out of reach.

Biodegradeable soap is necessary. You also will want some water socks or sandals as you wash, swim and splash in the pools and creek. The travertine is sharp and will cut bare feet. Don’t forget a swim suit.

The campground area was traditionally off limits for the Havasupai. They used it only to cremate their dead. Most still avoid it even though a cemetery above the falls holds their dead today. Miners established camps here to blast for silver. Mine tunnels enter the cliffs at several areas nearby.

The campground comes to a sudden end at the third falls, the single rush of Mooney, hurtling nearly 200 feet into space, a drop higher than Niagara. The water crashes into the pool far below. It looks like this is the end of the road. But a slim path winds and cuts its way through tunnels blasted into the tavertine walls. Chains and rods are strategically placed to give hand and footholds for the delicate way down. Spray keeps the path wet and slippery. It’s a memorable trip to the bottom.

These falls were called the Mother of the Waters by the native peoples. Daniel Mooney was amongst a group of prospectors exploring the canyon in 1880. He asked his mates to lower him on a rope so that he could prospect beyond the falls. The rope caught on the sharp rock with Mooney dangling below. As they sought to free the rope by raising and lowering it the rope frayed and broke, dropping Mooney to his death. His body lay there for ten months until his friends returned, built a wooden ladder and buried him in the travertine where he fell. So now it’s called Mooney Falls.

Beyond the falls the trail continues to the Colorado River. The trip to the river from the campground and back is a long day’s hike, 14 miles round trip. Three miles below Mooney there are a series of steep rapids called Beaver Falls. Here you enter Grand Canyon National Park. Near these falls the trail climbs the cliffs to a high ledge above the creek on the right side. Above the oasis you’re back in the desert. At the river the elevation is below 2,000 feet, in the Sonoran zone of cactus and mesquite. You have passed through spring and have found summer.

Spring break in Havasu Canyon is heavenly. Be sure to spend at least two nights. Three or four would be better. It’s a good trip for kids 12 or 13 years and older if reasonably fit. You can make arrangements to have your gear taken out by pack horse. Havasu is not a place for solitude, although you can find it beyond Mooney Falls. The trail to Supai is heavily used by horses and smells like it, too. There is more litter than I’d like to see. The campground can be very dusty as well. But there is no place else in America where aquamarine waters gush over red rock walls beneath a piercing blue sky shaded by the greenest of leaves. There is not a motor in earshot. The peace is effervescent. Even the dogs don’t bark.

IF YOU GO

Call for camping reservations: 928-448-2141 or 928-448-2121.

Entrance fees are $35 per person.

Campsites are $17 per person per night, children 12 or under, $8.50.

Environmental Care fee is $5 per group, refundable if you pack out a sack of trash.

50% down is required to make reservations. Credit Cards are accepted.

For more information, including the lodge and horses for riding or packing, see the Havasupai web site at www.havasupaitribe.com.

The store, cafe and post office accept cash only.

Grand Canyon Trail Guide: Havasu for $2.95 is excellent at www.grandcanyon.org under “trip planning”.

Comments

Hiking

Aug 14, 2009

Really fantastic and indepth blog.

Thanks !!!

Reply

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