Hike to Havasupai Falls is a mind-exploring experience - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Sports

Hike to Havasupai Falls is a mind-exploring experience

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Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 8:00 am

I stood perched on a rock, my Merrell hiking shoes keeping me steady despite the power of the rushing cyan-shaded water doing its best to push me off, when one thought ping-ponged through my mind as fast as my nervous heartbeat.

Should I or shouldn't I?

There I was, 35 feet above a pool of water in Havasu Canyon that was said to be 25 feet deep, and I was deciding whether or not I was going to take that last step off one of the world's most beautiful interactive waterfalls.

I had a hiking guide to my left, letting me know how he did it 10 minutes earlier. To my right was the guy who chickened out when he got to the same exact position I was and in front of me, albeit 35 feet below, stood my hiking group whooping and hollering.

In reality, I was by myself.

In thought.

Should I or shouldn't I?

More on that decision later, but it is also a good place to start because when you make the trek to Havasupai Falls as I did the first weekend of October almost every step is greeted with the should-I-or-shouldn't-I debate.

It starts with making the initial reservation (go to http://www.havasupaitribe.com/reservations.html). The process isn't always easy because catching a member of the Havasu ‘Baaja tribe is hit or miss, but you most certainly should. At least six months in advance. That is if you are an experienced hiker who wants to take in one of the most unique locations in the world.

Once you make the call there are two options - camping or staying in the cabins.

That's more of a personal choice that doesn't change the experience all that much. The cabins come with two queen beds and a shower in what is comparable to a 1.5-star hotel, but the trip is hardly about the accommodations and it is located close to the village grocery store and restaurant.

The campground is about 1.5 miles deeper into the canyon and that much closer to all of the waterfalls so the total amount of footsteps over a three- or four-day trip is much less and there is something to be said about sleeping under the starry night in a side canyon of one of the eight wonders of the world, surrounded by cottonwood trees, 400-foot red rock walls and piercing blue water.

With that said we chose the cabins because most of us did the camping deal at Bright Angel Campground below the South Rim and liked the idea of staying in the comforts of a room with a toilet that we shared among our group.

And our reward? A fully-loaded pomegranate tree just outside our front door that provided an always refreshing snack that was a tremendous treat.

It's one of those wonders that seem to pop up around each corner on the trip that is about four hours (west of Flagstaff) from Ahwatukee Foothills.

Another is having access to a natural spring at the base of one of the walls at the campground. When the bladder of my camelback started to run dry on our daily hikes it was incredible to taste water in its purest form.

Step by step

It's a fairly moderate hike with little elevation to deal with, but a lot of miles. It is 8 miles from Hualapai Hilltop to the Supai Village and cabins. The first 1 1/4 miles is defined by switchbacks and a drop of 1,100 feet in elevation. After that the drop in elevation is just 900 feet and is easy to maneuver.

It isn't too difficult - even on the way back up the switchbacks - but you put a lot of extra miles making trips to the falls each day. In our four days we did about 27 total miles. Your feet, legs and hips definitely feel it.

The land of the people

This place is so intriguing and probably nothing like you've seen before. The way the 400 or so natives live, communicate and share their space with tourists is amazing. To get a glimpse of their everday life is worth the trip alone. There are some things that can make you wince, but it is their way of life.

Within the village there is a café, a grocery store and a post office that allows you to bring less in your pack if you are willing to pay for the overpriced goods.

There are also churches, a school, recreation center and fields for corn, melons, etc.

Mooney and his friends

The landscape of the falls changed dramatically after the major flood in August of 2008 but, make no mistake, each one still has its own personality and all are worth the trip, let alone five gorgeous waterfalls separated by a mere 3.5 miles.

The first one is just 1 mile from the village and before the campground. It is called new Navajo Falls because it wasn't there prior to August 2008. It is the only one that visitors can't really get to and, therefore, the least popular, but very photogenic.

The second one, called Rock Falls, is just a quarter mile away, and bring us to my dilemma I mentioned earlier.

I stood at the crest of the waterfall mere seconds from jumping, my mind focused completely on the "should I" portion of my inner debate, when a helicopter flew nearby - reminding me instantly how remote of an area I truly was in and it stopped me dead in my tracks.

If something should go wrong there'd be no ambulance nearby to take me to the local hospital. Any major injury - like a head trauma - would not be treated until after someone radioed for a helicopter and I was flown to a hospital in Flagstaff I assume.

It ended my daredevil thought, but it didn't take away from my experience at my favorite waterfall. Behind the waterfall is an area hikers have access to and allows for a one-of-a-kind experience.

After that you come across Havasu Falls about a half mile later. It's a large waterfall that has a series of wading pools and a large river that takes you down to the campground. This is a spot where we decided to hang out one day, just reading and enjoying the beauty.

The final two falls - Mooney and Beaver Falls - require a bit more strenuous activity to get to. To get to Mooney, which is higher than Niagara Falls at 220 feet, you have to use chains, spikes, ladders and enter little caves to just make it to the bottom.

Footing can get slick when it's raining and it's not a great idea to look down at times or think about how secure the ladder was, which can lead to another should-I-or-shouldn't-I moment. In fact there were people when I was there who decided not to descend.

If they truly never made it down to the bottom of the most famous of all of the Havasu falls then they made a huge mistake. Breathtaking comes nowhere close to the feeling of standing below the sheer power of nature. Your eyes focus on one section of water as it cascades over the side of the summit and you follow it all the way down to the splash into the main pool.

It is just an awesome image.

The final trek - unless you decide to go all the way to the Colorado River - is to Beaver Falls and this one requires some patience and good navigating skills. Everyone says stay to the left and you will get there.

We didn't listen. We wanted to experience it all. So we walked straight down the ankle-high river for what seemed like hours. I was leading the way, coming across several should-I-or-shouldn't pitfalls.

Let's just say it was a good thing I bought the insurance on my camera and smart phone.

I came to one spot while leading our pack and had to decide to go another direction or take a leap off a mini-waterfall. I took a stick and reached down and hit what I thought was bottom. I started to slip off the edge so I jumped.

It was over my head and I surfaced quickly, but both my phone (still don't know why I had it with me considering there is no reception) and camera were submerged. So my relatively cheap trip ($160 for lodging for three days, about $400 total) became much more expensive.

Soon after we moved out of the river and got back on the trail (where we came across some big-horned sheep) and eventually got to Beaver Falls. It was gorgeous in its own right, but probably my least favorite. When I return I will definitely make sure to go back, but if you only have so many days it is the one to skip.

Dicey situation

The whole time we were down in the canyon it rained just a tad each day. Nothing to worry about in our minds. Only we hadn't realized it was raining above the rim most of the time.

When we were making our way back to the cabins on our final full day, Doug and I were the last ones of our group out. Soon after we got past New Navajo Falls it looked like someone had turned on a fire hydrant as a rush of water started ripping past us on the left-hand side of the trail.

We were back to our room within 20 minutes, took time to shower and when we started heading to the café for our last meal we noticed that the natives were all looking at the rim and in the distance we could see chocolate-colored water cascading over the side of the rim.

Then when we went to dinner we came to realize that the trail we had just come up not 45 minutes earlier was essentially gone. Flooding had started and if I had made one more stop to rest or take pictures who knows what would have happened to us.

Soon after that the helicopter was transporting campers - 2 miles down into the canyon - back to the village.

It was pretty scary in reality because we were essentially at Mother Nature's mercy. It is pitch black at night and we had no idea if the flooding subsided during the night. We didn't really sleep much and left at 5 a.m. the next morning.

Portions of the trail back to Hualapai Hilltop were gone. We had to find our way at times and there was no one else around to ask for help. We found out later that is because the Tribe closed the trail and didn't let anyone else come down.

We missed the turn - or at least some of us did - to the switchbacks that would have taken us back. So we had to back track and added about an extra hour and a half to our trip back out of the 8-mile trail.

Turns out the trail was closed. The rangers wouldn't let anyone down or out. The tribe stopped accepting reservations for months, but it's now open again.

When I relay this somewhat harrowing experience to people who ask how the trip went they always ask if I would do it again.

Invariably, it once again comes back to that pertinent question.

Should I or shouldn't I?

There is never a single second of hesitation.

I most definitely will.

(Editor's note: For an idea of directions, cost, history, gear and additional pictures of the Supai people and their world, go to www.havasupaitribe.com).

Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or jskoda@ahwatukee.com

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