Havasupai Falls Hike Overview
When the chance to hike to one of the most photographed outdoor destinations in the world comes around, you have to say yes. So, when a close friend reached out and said she had two three-day permits to backpack into Havasupai, I asked when, how much, and put in my vacation request immediately. We would spend three days hiking through glorious canyons, downclimbing slick rock, swimming in travertine pools, and eating frybread on the banks of Havasu Creek.
Havasupai, or Havasu Falls, is in a remote side gorge that flows into the Grand Canyon on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in northern Arizona. The area is one of the most picturesque in the American Southwest due to its turquoise waters, soaring waterfalls, and the striking contrast between the harsh desert and this lush oasis.
The hike into and out of the canyon is unforgiving, and makes the journey all-the-more rewarding to those who complete the 20-mile round-trip hike. The best times of year to visit Havasupai are spring and fall when the weather is just right for comfortable morning hiking and afternoons spent in the cool water.
Havasupai is a dream destination for many, and I was beyond stoked to descend into the canyon.
Havasupai Permits and Reservations
Permits for Havasupai are only available by reservation ahead of time. You have to book on the reservation website or by calling the visitor office in Supai, Arizona. Reservations open at 8:00 a.m. Arizona Time on February 1 and they go quickly. Similar to the John Muir Trail permits, hikers log onto the website and call in by the hundreds to book reservations in the canyon. Speed and good karma are your only assets in securing a permit and a spot in the campground.
Luckily, my hiking partner was able to secure our second choice itinerary for three days and two nights on Havasu Creek.
Havasupai Falls Trail Report
My good friend Mary and I had talked about hiking Havasupai since early 2017, and the plan was always to get to the canyon at some point. We had officially been hypnotized by Instagram: every outdoor blogger drools at the sight of Havasupai’s cerulean waters. When Mary texted me early one morning asking if I wanted to be on her permit into the canyon, I don’t think I ever typed so fast in my life. Yes!
Six weeks separated the permit purchase day and day one of the hike, and it wasn’t until week five when two realizations set in:
- Yew! I’m going to Havasupai!
- Oh, shit. I haven’t prepared at all.
Havasupai is a challenging hike. It’s 10 miles one-way to the only campground and requires an elevation loss of over 2,500 feet — you essentially descend to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. This was about all of the information I had. Maintaining my cool, I went into deep Google mode — researching our water needs, weather reports, blogs, and write ups on other hikers’ experiences. I run regularly to keep my cardio strong, but I knew the elevation loss and gain would be brutal. I did a few local hikes in Southern California with some weight in my pack and called it good for the potential suffer-fest ahead.
Packing for this trip took some serious thought. Late winter in the Grand Canyon area can be unpredictable. Storms can move in quickly, bringing the threat of floods and freezing temperatures. Alternately, heat is always on the table when high-pressure systems move in on the desert. I’m not an ultralight backpacker, and finding the balance between weight and protection proved more vexing than when planning my more frequent trips into the mountains.
It was just the two of us, Mary and myself, so we opted for the efficient Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 three-season backpacking tent. Supai Village (the small community in the canyon) fortunately has a weather station and we knew the highs would be in upper 60s and lows in the 40s: ideal backpacking weather.
I packed the Western Mountaineering SummerLite 32-degree down sleeping bag and the Exped Synmat Hyperlite MW for my sleep system. The Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody and Patagonia Capilene Thermal Weight Zip-Neck Top and Bottoms rounded out my nighttime attire for keeping the chill away. The Optimus Crux is my favorite backpacking canister stove, and I partnered it with the Optimus Weekend HE cookset, which is perfect for two people boiling water or preparing one-pot meals. To haul it all down to the bottom of the canyon, I used my trusted Osprey Atmos 50L which continues to perform like a dream.
After finalizing my kit and loading up the car, I drove from Ventura, CA to Phoenix, AZ over two days, stopping near Joshua Tree National Park to sleep in my car on the side of the road (sorry mom). I arrived in Phoenix later that afternoon and settled at Mary’s apartment near Arizona State University.
Mary had the stomach flu. Of course she did.
Thankfully, Mary bounced back quickly from the 24-hour bug, and we went to the grocery store to load up on provisions for the three-day trip. Oatmeal, nut butters, bagels, summer sausage, cheese, dried fruit, nuts, and crunchy snacks made up the usual trail food suspects. Upon returning to Mary’s efficiency studio apartment, our gear exploded onto every surface as we went about finalizing our kits before departing the next day. It’s always fun (and a little stressful) packing with a friend and comparing kits, giving advice, and making sacrifices together.
Grand Canyon Views
We left early on Monday morning to get a head start on the 5-hour drive to Hualapai Hilltop, and the scenery along the road was gorgeous. When we arrived at the lip of the canyon, our jaws dropped. Even if you’ve been to the Grand Canyon, little can prepare you for the view you receive at Hualapai Hilltop: spectacular.
We settled into the crowded parking lot and erected a tent between our two cars. The nearest campground to Hualapai Hilltop that’s accessible by vehicle is over two hours south of the parking area, so most people sleep in their cars or pitch tents in whatever flat spot is available. We felt safe enough, although my sideview mirror was broken off when we returned to our cars. Break-ins occasionally happen at Hualapai Hilltop, so leave your valuables at home and lock your vehicle!
The night was cool and mild on the canyon rim. We woke with the sun, hungry for breakfast, ready to hit the trail. We filled up on oatmeal and coffee, hoisted our packs, and began our descent into the earth. We lost over 1,000 net feet of elevation in the first two miles alone. I have to climb up this on the way out… I thought to myself as we navigated switchback after switchback.
The trail itself is well-maintained and easy to follow without a map, and we made it surprisingly quickly to the floor of Hualapai Canyon. After descending from the sprawling upper canyon, we dipped into a narrower slot canyon with red-orange sandstone walls towering over us. Some people feel claustrophobic in canyons. I, however, felt comfortable with the cool canyon walls hugging me closely as we dropped deeper and deeper into the strata of the plateau.
We saw our first cottonwood trees through the canyon: a sure sign of the seasonal waterways that nurture these beings in such an uncompromising environment. Willows, grasses, moss, and ferns appeared at seeps in the rock walls. Life found refuge, even here.
The trail continued, wide and clear. I gazed at the water-smoothed stones, when, all of the sudden, we heard it: thunder in the distance. Closer. Louder. On top of us. But, no clouds in the sky. Ripping around a bend in the canyon’s course a team of eight mules led by a man on a beautiful horse kicked up dust and rocks. We flattened ourselves into nearby brush and watched in amazement as the mules galloped through the canyon.
The services of the canyon’s residents and their pack animals are available to bring your items into and out of the canyon for a fee, if you don’t want to hike it in and out yourself. The other option is by helicopter: another type of thunder found in the canyon. A helicopter runs regularly back and forth from Supai Village to Hualapai Hilltop, shuttling residents, tourists, and their respective supplies. The whirlybird does shatter the tranquility a bit, and it isn’t how I would want to experience the canyon. To each their own.
Reaching the Bottom
We started to hear another sound upon arriving at a bright emerald wall of cottonwood trees. We’d finally reached the junction with Havasu Canyon and its namesake creek. The air was fresh and filled with the smell of flowing water and the energy it brings to the desert. We were getting close.
We came across a fenced-in ranch that signaled our entrance into Supai Village. Following the parade of hikers, we arrived at the visitor center office to check-in before heading to the campground two more miles down the trail. We knew the campground was an additional walk from the office, but it felt like an eternity finishing those two final miles. Once we saw Havasu Creek, though, that fatigue turned into awe and pure joy.
Meandering past Fifty Foot Falls and Havasu Creek below us, our jaws dropped to the red dirt. I never thought the water could be that blue in person. I thought that filters and Photoshop witchcraft were obviously involved. I was wrong.
The canyon narrowed as we approached Havasu Falls. The roar of falling water and trails of mist filled the air — we stood transfixed.
Absorbing the wonderland before us, we finally arrived in the campground and began the search for our campsite. Mary did way more research than I had, and she revealed that the best campsites were across the creek and away from the crowded side-by-side sites. We mounted a log strewn across the creek and ended up at a dreamy creekside campsite nestled against cottonwoods and willows.
Unable to rest for even a moment, we changed into our sandals and headed back up the trail to find ourselves a waterfall. The lower cascades which create Navajo Falls were crowded with people and cheap inflatable floaties. We scooted along a barely-visible trail against a rock outcropping and found the real gem: Fifty Foot Falls. A single family and a group of young locals were wading in the shallow pool accented by a wall of crashing water.
The magic continued even after sunset, as we settled in for our first night under a narrow strip of brilliant stars shaped by the undulating walls of Havasu Canyon.
Waterfalls Worth Hiking To
The following morning we had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and loaded up our day packs for our hike to the next grouping of falls: Mooney and Beaver Falls. If you think getting into the canyon was an adventure, then the hike to Mooney and Beaver Falls is an epic in just a couple miles.
The path winds from the canyon bottom to the top of the cliff over which Mooney Falls crashes. We knew there would be some ladders, but we didn’t know we had to climb down through caves and down slippery, mist-slickened hand holds polished by decades of repetitive use. With a few deep breaths we descended the chains and ladders to the bottom of the cliff. It was easy to forget in that moment that we had to climb back up.
Our fear faded back to wonderment as we were bombarded with the shower of Mooney Falls — a 190-foot fall draped in moss and long-dry calcite deposits. We stopped and took countless photos before moving down trail towards Beaver Falls.
After ascending and descending several more ladders and quietly observing a bighorn sheep just off the trail, we overlooked Beaver Falls. Step after step of white travertine surrounded by azure pools and shaded by cottonwood trees: paradise.
We spent the next few hours eating our lunch, taking in the sun, dozing with the white noise of the water. The sun became hot and the water called to us for a dip. A new friend we met while hiking took pictures of us and we returned the favor. Did it have to end?
We saddled back up and began our return to camp. Sun-kissed and smiling we saw another female bighorn with a spring lamb staring at us calmly through the cacti and vines. Another reminder of the abundant life brought to this place by Havasu Creek.
Exhausted, we stumbled into camp for a nap and some quiet time, followed by Indian fry bread at the food stand setup under a tent at the bottom of Havasu Canyon. (Yeah, there are food stands in the canyon!)
Sleep came and went quickly, and we woke to a chilly, overcast morning: a stark contrast to the last two days of sunshine and swimming. We broke camp and packed up quickly to get a head start on the day — there was a good chance of rain.
The journey out of the canyon was challenging as we struggled to regain that 2,500 feet of elevation while hiking through driving wind, rain, and temperatures in the 30s. Hualapai Hilltop came into view after several hours and lots of laughs, despite the strenuous hike. The hike up is hard, I won’t lie, but it’s made sweeter by the memories made in the canyon.
When thinking about our trip to Havasupai, I wouldn’t change anything, except maybe extending the trip to the maximum four days permitted by the nation. I would have liked to hike to the Colorado River, ten additional miles north of the Havasupai campground, to see the confluence of the streams. But the weather on our third day was poor anyway, so that extra day may have been spent holed up in our tents out of fear of flash flooding upstream.
Another aspect of the trip does, however, give me pause. Remember: Havasupai is an Indian reservation. The Havasupai, or “People of the Blue-Green Water”, have reportedly lived in this area for over 800 years. It’s hard not to feel like an intruder when you walk through the village of Supai and then set up camp on the banks of their local stream. The history of the creation of the earliest American national parks is one of displacement and at times violence in the name of preserving beautiful places. The Havasupai were isolated in this canyon by the United States government during the establishment of Grand Canyon National Park, and it can be easy to forget the troubled backdrop to this most beautiful place.
The past looms large, but the present poses challenges as well. There have been reports of the pack mules who shuttle gear being overworked and appearing to be in poor condition. Many of the yards in Supai are littered with trash, but I couldn’t tell if it was the refuse of tourists or locals. Like many American Indian nations, health problems continue to be a concern, and the ongoing threat of uranium mining and other destructive extractive industries threaten the Havasupai’s home and way of life. Tourism is an important part of the Havasupai economy and helps to support the community, but is enough being done to ensure the benefits of visiting dollars are not outweighed by the costs of American expansionism?
Despite my reflections, I would absolutely recommend the hike to Havasupai. It is possible and essential to travel to this place with respect for the people and the land.
Finally, this trip in particular came at a time in my life when I needed it most. I separated from my partner of over seven years four months prior to the canyon, and was still recovering from the Thomas Fire: the largest wildfire in modern California history, which devastated my home county. Not only was my home, my friends, and my employer threatened and disrupted, some of my favorite local wild places were ravaged by fire and mudslides or closed off due to potential dangers. I had gone four months without backpacking, the longest I’ve gone in the last five years. I was still sitting in a state of depression and fog when Mary invited me to hike Havasupai, and I cannot thank her enough for her timing, intentional or otherwise.
I am not many things. I am not a runner. I’m a person who runs. I am not a foodie. I’m a person who eats a lot. But, I am a backpacker, and I am most alive when I have a pack on my back and dirt under my feet. Havasupai reignited my love for this activity that has become a passion and an obsession, and I am so grateful to this place for restoring my spirit after one of the most challenging times of my life.
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