Monday, July 20, 2009

People of the blue-green water

Excerpted from my blog, "Glaciers to Red Rock" at
My boys – Jeremy, then 15, and Brad, then 17 – and I made the trek to Havasu Canyon one year between Christmas and New Year, which turned out to be an ideal time to visit. We had the place almost to ourselves (not counting the folks living in Supai, the small village inside the canyon), and the weather was cool and dry (mid-70s during the day, mid-40s at night).

Havasu Canyon is not a place you visit on a whim. You must get reservations at the only lodge inside the canyon or for one of the campsites downstream from the village. You must purchase a pass just to visit the place during the day, which keeps the crowds down. You also must drive around the big ditch called the Grand Canyon, which means a trip hundreds of miles out of your way through Nevada or Utah and then parallel to the Grand Canyon to a remote place called Hualapai Hilltop inside the Hualapai Reservation. This is the trailhead to Havasu Canyon.

We got to the hilltop in early afternoon after leaving in the morning from St. George, Utah, and parked alongside a handful of other cars. This also is the staging area where mule trains take supplies into Supai. It was warm and sunny and perfect hiking weather.

The trail begins an immediate and steep drop down switchbacks before settling into a dry wash and continuing a more leisurely descent toward the canyon. It’s a quick hike, all downhill. After about six miles or so, we crossed Havasu Creek and turned north toward Supai. We reached the village about 30 minutes later.

Supai is a quiet, dusty place with comfortable, small homes, a church, a school, a post office, a meeting hall, a small store and a smaller café. There seemed to be about as many dogs as humans. The lodge turned out to be clean and comfortable with few amenities. My boys were horrified to see that the room had no TV. There were no telephones, either.

It had been a pretty easy hike, so after an unspectacular but reasonably priced dinner at the café we meandered down the creek a mile or two, coming upon Navajo Falls before darkness sent us back up the trail to the lodge. It was still early, so we went to the lobby and borrowed some books from a selection of Reader’s Digest condensed volumes. The quiet in the room was downright unsettling, particularly since it was not broken by passing traffic outside.

We got up early the next morning and had an unspectacular but reasonably priced breakfast before heading downstream to the waterfalls for which Havasu Canyon is famous. We went past a number of small cascades before arriving at the highlight of any Havasu Canyon trip, Havasu Falls.

When we visited, Havasu Falls was a twin cascade of about 100 feet, each stream containing roughly an equal volume of water. I have seen older pictures of Havasu Falls that show only a single stream of water. From time to time flash floods race through Havasu Canyon, wreaking havoc in the village and changing the character of the falls. A particularly destructive flood in the early 90s required the tribe to bring in a company to artificially reconstruct the travertine terraces below Havasu Falls. By our visit, the travertine had re-formed completely and had returned, I was told, to its original, natural state. In 2008, flash floods again scoured the area, leaving Havasu Falls a single stream and once again demolishing the travertine. Once again, the tribe is working on repairs that will likely take years.

The trail follows the creek until it reaches the top of Havasu Falls, at which point we followed the trail along a cliffside. To our right, we could see the falls from various vantages, each a stunning sight. Eventually, we made our way to the pool at the foot of the falls, where I spent 90 minutes or so getting pictures from every conceivable angle. It is here where you'll understand why the word "havasupai" means "people of the blue-green water."

We ate a light lunch and picked up the trail again to find Mooney Falls, less than two miles downstream.

Mooney Falls is a different story altogether. It’s a drop of more than 200 feet in a single torrent. At its base is another pool of turquoise water and more travertine terraces. From here, the stream begins a rapid descent toward the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River.

I am, regrettably, extremely afraid of heights. My palms get sweaty as I write this, recalling the view of Mooney Falls. The sandstone drops straight down on all sides of the falls and the trail is chiseled out of, and sometimes tunneled into, the side of the cliff-face. Despite my deep desire to photograph the falls from below, I couldn’t bring myself to inch down the trail to the base of the falls. All my pictures, therefore, are taken from a vantage point about three-quarters of the way to the top of the falls, but away from any real or perceived danger. Sometimes it’s a real pain to be a wimp.

I shot all the pictures I could and we made our way back to Havasu Falls, where we snacked and I took more pictures. Reluctantly, we eventually made our way back to Supai for more unspectacular but reasonably priced food, a hot shower and condensed books.

Having hiked 10 miles or more the first day and another seven or eight the next, we decided to schedule a horseback ride back out the next morning (especially considering that hiking out was going to prove a whole lot more work than hiking in).

After breakfast the next morning (unspectacular but reasonably priced), we got on our horses just outside the lodge and, led by a couple of Havasupai men, made our way up the trail. My boys took particular glee at my inability to coerce my horse to do anything I wanted it to, particularly when I resorted to yelling “hiyah” (usually followed by assorted curse words). For months after the trip, my boys thought it clever to yell “hiyah” whenever they wanted to tick me off.

Aside from the cursing, the trip back up the trail was pleasant. It was in the 80s that day, making us glad we chose the horse ride instead of making the long climb on foot. We arrived at the trailhead at mid-day, with plenty of time to drive back to St. George. We had lunch in Kingman. The food was unspectacular but reasonably priced.

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