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Havasupai: A Grand Canyon Oasis Adventure

In the last ten years I have had some very exciting adventures, but Havasupai was beyond my expectations…

Day 1

The Havasupai Canyon is one of 600 side canyons off the Grand Canyon. The name Havasupai (or Havasu ‘Baaja) translates to “the People of the Blue-Green waters.” Living off the land for centuries, in 1882 the Havasupai tribe was banished to 518.06 acres. Due to an act of Congress in 1975, they were relinquished a total of 185,000 acres which is the size of the reservation today. Supai, the Havasupai city, is located 160 miles from the closest grocery store and all of the village’s supplies are brought in by packhorse, train, or helicopter. The village is home to 450 tribal members. There is a grocery store, café, post office, two churches, a school and a tourism office in town. The main source of income for the village is tourism. Havasupai Canyon is home to 200 foot waterfalls and blue-green swimming pools. A surprisingly lush oasis, it is considered the “Gem” of the Grand Canyon.

My daughter, Kasey, and I met our group on the first morning at the Old Town Scottsdale Marriott. There were 32 of us in the group ranging in age from 7 to 74! Talk about a diverse crowd. We were anxious to meet everyone and quickly introduced ourselves before splitting into three vans for our shuttle to Sedona. Along the way, our guide, Jessica, gave us her interpretation of the West. Everyone looked excitedly out of the van’s windows as the landscape changed from the desert of Phoenix to snow in the Sonoran Desert.

Upon arriving in Sedona, we were awe-struck by the unique architecture, including the Church of the Red Rocks, the Easter Egg house, and a mobile home park where all structures were painted the same color as the landscape. Local laws have since been passed to ensure that when homes or structures are built, they are not offensive to the environment. We even saw a McDonald’s with turquoise arches instead of golden arches! We made a quick stop at the local Safeway for ice and were back on the road.

It wasn’t long before we reached our first hiking spot at Oak Creek – a 3.5 mile hike along the ridgeline offering 360 degree panoramas of the Verde River Valley. After our hike, we stopped by the visitor’s center before continuing on to our shaded lunch spot. The kids were all hanging back by their parents keeping a watchful but hopeful eye on the others, wondering who would be the first to break the ice. Nick, our lead guide, explained that we’d be continuing via shuttle to our home for the night, the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn. He thanked us for our patience, explaining that the long shuttle today would put us less than an hour from the trailhead the following morning. With our tummies full, some of us slept while the rest spent time getting to know one another on our drive to GCCI.

When we reached the Grand Canyon Caverns Inn, I felt like I’d taken a step back in time along the famous Route 66. The front grounds of the inn are home to a fire truck and a dinosaur. The kids all bailed out of the vans and headed for the fire truck – its bells and sirens still work!

We enjoyed a late dinner and a walk under the stars before retiring for the evening.

Day 2

The next morning we rose very early for breakfast at 6:00 a.m.! On the road to the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead we had a contest to guess how many cars would pass us. Estimates ranged from zero to 15. The winner guessed there would be 3 cars in an hour!

When we pulled into the trailhead parking area a little over an hour later, there was a buzz of activity everywhere. A helicopter was already making one of its many daily flights to the village, packhorses were being loaded up with gear and our fellow hikers were coming in and out of the canyon.

Our guides, Nick, Jessica, Stephan and Jay, pulled us all together and laid out the game plan. Our total hiking distance to the base camp was 10 miles. The first 1.5 miles were switchbacks with a 1,000 foot elevation loss. The hike to the village was 7.0 miles. Our guides reminded us to step up to the right side of the trail when we saw packhorse trains coming. They explained that sometimes the horses don’t have a rider with them as they know the trail so well they could do it in the dark or blindfolded. An interesting fact: all materials including groceries, feed and mail are delivered to the village daily. The Supai post office has the last “Pony Express” mail delivery in the United States.

One of the guests asked Stephan, “What do we do if we get lost in the canyon?”

Stephan’s response was easy, “All roads lead to Rome. Eventually you will get to the village.”

We all went on our way at our own pace. The first views of the packhorses were a little intimidating. All of the natives on horseback were very friendly with smiles, hellos and nods. Kasey and I took our time descending into the canyon, stopping along the way to remove layers, take water breaks, and snap pictures. Off and on we met up and hiked with other members from our group, knowing all the while we were on the right road by the horseshoe prints in the red sand.

After about five miles we heard, “Hello ladies,” coming from the top of a rock! It was then that we met Josh, our base camp manager. He encouraged us, telling us we were at the half way point and almost to “Man Meets Bear” – the designated lunch spot. We refueled ourselves and continued on our way to the village.

As soon as we saw the cool, blue-green water, Kasey and I both splashed it on our faces and washed our hands. Kasey had her Chacos on and decided to test the water. “Brrrr! It’s cold!” she exclaimed.

We passed a couple of old, dilapidated buildings that once were probably the homes of the Havasupai. Now they are weathered piles of boards with tall stalks of grass growing around the foundations. A sign read “cross here to the village and take the bridge.” We stopped to see huge minnows swimming in the water. As we approached the fringes of the village we were a little uncertain of which direction we should head to reach the café and post office. Along came a packhorse train so we decided to follow. Wouldn’t you know it – they took us right to the village.

We walked to the store to buy postcards and then to the post office, which was right next door, to get stamps and mail the cards. Across the square we saw some of our fellow hikers resting in the shade. The village was more modern that I thought it would be, with a new school (K-8) two churches, a health clinic and a tourism office. All of the homes were equipped with electricity, water, and dish TV. The community is in the process of building a new community center. When it is done, it will have a basketball court with lights so the kids can play at nighttime.

Feeling rested, we decided it was time to trek the last 1.5 miles to the base camp. Everyone had packed their swimsuits in their backpacks and we all had visions of the “oasis at camp.”

Promptly after leaving the village there was a dramatic change in the landscape. Trees and grass were lush and green with spring flowers coming into bloom. All of a sudden, we heard the sound of water and approached the first of the falls, Navajo Falls, off to our left. We stopped to take in the colors and the sounds and snapped a few more pictures. A few minutes later we heard the thundering of the 200 ft Havasu Falls.

As we approached our base camp, we were greeted by Jay who told us it was only a little further. Congratulations! We made it! It was time to explore the cool water and get the red trail dust off of our bodies. The water was so clear you could see the bottom, and the water is a constant 72 degrees all year long.

The horses that carried in our gear had already been unpacked and Josh had set up our tents. The camp was two levels with the tents set up near the river bank and the kitchen, dining area and guide quarters above.

While the guides were busy preparing dinner, they brought out trays of cheese, crackers and fruit to keep the hungry hikers at bay. Dinner was a great treat! We feasted on a mixed grill of steak, chicken and shrimp; couscous; salad; and dessert. Afterwards everyone was worn out and ready to hit their sleeping bags. Guided by our headlamps, Kasey and I found our tent. Inside we relaxed and got ready for bed with the sounds of the rushing river to lull us. We talked and laughed, happily looking forward to the day to come.

Day 3

The sun rose a little later in the canyon, so it was dark until 6:15. The guides were up and had cowboy coffee ready for those of us who needed a little extra jolt to get going in the morning. Breakfast was French toast, hash browns, fruit and grilled chicken apple sausage. The kids were all stirring and the adults sat in the “dining hall” sipping coffee and juice. Stephan rang the breakfast triangle and there was a mad rush by the kids to get the first pieces of hot French toast.

After breakfast, 30 of us assembled and headed out towards Mooney Falls, which is 196 feet tall with thundering cascades! We trekked down the trail, through a cave, and out onto a chain and ladder system that allowed us to lower ourselves into the canyon. Miraculously, all 30 of us made it down. Our reward was waiting at the bottom – our first water crossing of the day.

As we hiked along the canyon to Beaver Falls, the trail became a narrow path and the area was totally covered with wild grape vines. I imagined being in Jurassic Park and wondered how those grapes ended up there. The terrain ranged considerably from easy to challenging. We reached the section before Beaver Falls and Nick asked, “Who’s doing the dry crossing and who’s doing the wet crossing?”

Kasey raised her hand with mine right away and said “Carolmon and I will do the wet!”

The next words I heard are, “If you do the wet crossing you have to jump the falls.”

“What!?” I exclaimed.

The guides proceeded to explain that to get to the end of this part of the trail there is a 20 ft jump off of the rocks into the pools below. I thought, “I’m not crazy,” but eventually I decided that if seven year old Cal was doing it I could too.

We had our first practice at a six foot fall where we all jumped in and got carried a short distance downstream. After hiking and swimming a few more minutes, we reached the top of Beaver Falls. With careful instruction from Nick, each guest made the leap into the blue-green pools below.

It was my turn. The sound of water rushed in my ears as I saw Nick point to the footholds. I was on auto pilot as I carefully placed my feet and pushed myself off the rocks. I was airborne only briefly before I felt my body plunge into the water below. I couldn’t believe I’d just done such a crazy thing! Filled with adrenaline, I swam to shore. We gathered as a group and cheered on the rest of the jumpers.

A short time later the rest of the group was safely down from Beaver Falls. We reunited with the “dry route” hikers and made our way to the lunch spot. Everyone was still talking about the jump and how exciting it was. Today’s hike was an in and out. After lunch we began the 4.0 mile trek back to base camp.

Going up Mooney Falls was definitely easier than coming down. As we got closer to the base camp, everyone stopped at the water filtering plant to refill their hydration packs and water bottles.

Upon returning to camp, some guests lined up for the solar showers while others sat down to relax and read or look through their digital photos from the day’s hike and jump. The guides were busy in their camp kitchen preparing the evening’s menu. Appetizers were edamame and pot stickers followed by a main course of Asian stir-fry, complimented by key lime pie for dessert.

Although we were all very tired from the day’s activities, the laughter was constant at the dinner table that night. The group, adults and children alike, were especially bonded after the big jump at Beaver Falls. Jay, the intern, played games and sang with the kids after dinner. They were all wound up and having a great time shouting that none of them were ready for bed.

Kasey and I wandered out into an open area to look at the stars and were joined by our friends, Jeanne, Hollar, Jen and Ginger. We all turned off our headlamps and searched the solar system for constellations.

Day 4

Waking up our second morning in camp, I had a small sense of sadness. It was already our last day! I enjoyed another great cup of cowboy coffee with breakfast, which was comprised of omelets, hash browns, toast and bacon. Wow, these guys were really making me feel like a pampered queen!

After a late, leisurely morning in camp, we did two hikes. Our first was to an area about a mile uphill from camp called Navajo Falls. It was a series of small falls with the highest point being around 75 feet. A few people in the group jumped again. The first jump was about 20 feet and the second was 40 feet. The lower pools were refreshing, but they were also pretty crowded with other groups.

Our group headed back to Havasu Falls, the thundering 200 foot waterfall with nice sunny pools at the bottom. It was a little challenging to follow the travertine foot trails that were under the water but really cool to cross over the lagoon to the other side. After relaxing we headed back to camp for lunch.

That afternoon, some people opted to stay at camp, take advantage of the hammocks, and do some reading. The rest of us headed back to Havasu Falls. There was a cave behind the waterfall that the guides wanted to show us. Since I am not a strong swimmer, I stayed behind with a group of kids on the bank and watched them splash in the pools. After a few minutes, I saw Josh pop out of the falls into the pools, followed by Kasey who was laughing the entire time.

Now we had to make a decision! We could either go back to camp or hike further – down to an old lead mine in Carbonite Canyon. We opted to continue. We all donned our headlamps and walked into the caverns for a tour, following our trusty guides through the tunnels. After a few minutes, we gathered in one opening and had a “moment of darkness and silence.” It was a little nerve racking to stand there in the blackness.

We came out of the mine and down into the canyon where the group again split into smaller groups. Kasey and I hunted for fossils and rocks, making some great finds! We looked so long I had a back ache from stooping over. Even still, I believe I could’ve looked for rocks and fossils all afternoon.

Our farewell dinner that night was Italian themed – a complete carbohydrate load that would supply us with enough energy to hike the ten miles out of the canyon the next day. Appetizers were artichoke and spinach dips followed by a main course of spicy marinara sauce and pasta, grilled Italian sausage, sautéed green beans, and garlic bread topped off by tiramisu for dessert.

The general mood after dinner was a little somber. We all took turns talking about trip highlights. The guides were inspiring with their words of encouragement and praise to all of us. As things started to wind down, Nick informed us that it would be an early morning with breakfast ready at 6:00 AM!

I thought I was tired when I returned to our tent. Kasey and I both read for a little while before we turned off our lights. Usually I have no problem going to sleep, but that night I stayed awake for a while thinking of how special the place truly is and what a wonderful experience it has been to be there.

Day 5

I awoke early to the sounds of the river. Kasey was still sleeping peacefully. I knew coffee would be on, so I strolled to the kitchen for a cup. Others were already up and milling about. We sadly removed our gear from our tents, filled our CamelBaks, and packed our lunch.

Kasey and I were on the 10 mile trail out at 6:45 am. Along the way we hiked with Jen and Jeanne. Hollar was ahead of us. We kept stopping to take pictures or enjoy a few last views of the falls.

Kasey was ahead of me on the last two miles of the trail. I knew that the evil switchbacks were coming soon. The last 1.5 miles of the hike were up the canyon with a 1,000 foot elevation gain. I took my time meandering like one of the pack horses. Finally I spotted the top of the ridge and the heli pad! I made it out in 4:30 hours.

There was a small group waiting at the Hualapai Hilltop. We cheered for our comrades as they made the final twists and turns up the trail. I wouldn’t have missed the hike for anything! It was awesome and unlike any other place I’ve ever been.

The last member of our group to make it up the trail was nine year old Max. We all gathered at the trailhead to cheer him on as he rounded the final corner. You should have seen the grin on his face – it was priceless!

Our journey was almost over. We made one final stop along Route 66 at the Snow Cap Diner, which proudly displayed the craziest décor I have ever seen! It was a great place to conclude the trip. The restrooms looked like wooden outhouses, the jukebox had the best selection of music, and the burgers were as big as my head! Here we said our goodbyes to part of the group (they were headed to Flagstaff) and the rest of us shuttled back to Phoenix.

One of our guides on the trip spoke the last night about alliterations: the repetition of a leading consonant sound in a phrase. It must have made a big impression on me because the words tumbled like rocks in my head Thursday night. Friday morning when I woke up I had “Embrace Enchantment Experience Exquisite Exhaustion” rolling around in my head! That is what I came back with from Havasupai. I am thankful that the land is protected by the reservation; it truly is the Gem of the Grand Canyon.

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