This post is also available in: German
Standing on the edge of the towering cliffs, we see a dusty trail switchbacking into the wide canyon before disappearing into the haze of the morning light.
Apart from taking a pricy helicopter, this is the only way to the isolated community of Supai, that awaits with the promise of a cool coke some 16 kilometers beyond the rest of the world at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai, the people of the blue-green water, have lived and thrived in this remote sidearm of the Grand Canyon for the past 800 years, but Havasu Canyon is also home to a paradisiacal landscape of waterfalls and lush vegetation. This little Garden Eden of tumbling waterfalls in the midst of the otherwise arid landscape of Arizona is hardly a secret and tourism is the main income of the canyon’s inhabitants. But luckily, the remoteness and the hard hike required limit visitor numbers considerably.
Now, in the middle of winter, we are the only ones there.
During the four hour hike, we see no one but the mule and horse trains thundering over the rocks, carrying goods and mail from the road all the way to the remote village. Supai is the only village left in America who gets its mail delivered by mule and we are lucky enough to meet the mail man on our way through the canyon.
Dressed like a cowboy in a weathered leather hat and jeans, he leads his mules over the trail littered with tricky rocks and nods to us, as he rides deeper into the canyon. We follow, albeit slower. We started out on top of a wide valley and after hours of hiking, end up walking through a narrow slot canyon with walls so high that they block out the sun almost completely. The trail that leads deeper and deeper into the canyon is made of a mixture of sand and clay. The kind a child would love to dip his hands into, play with and build fancy buildings formed in wild imaginations. Walking is hard though, as our feet sink and slip on the uneven surface.
And then, when we think we couldn’t go any further, the canyon opens up and the sound of running water announces the pocket of civilization just around the corner.
The town of Supai is made up of small one story houses with peeling white paint jobs and big fenced in yards. Horses stand tied up in the shade waiting to be loaded with goods, others reach their heads over the fence to get a quick pat on the nose. In the center of town, a small, lone restaurant and even smaller convenience store provide the only sustenance for travelers. Supai has a somewhat run-down, derelict look, but at the same time is very lively.
Two siblings play amongst rusting clatter strewn across a yard, chasing each other around obstacles in a mad game of Cowboys and Indians. As soon as the girl sees the two weary hikers, she comes running, black hair flying wildly in the wind.
“Bang, bang, bang”, she shouts. The green plastic revolver in her right hand is aimed squarely at my chest. Her excited brother, only steps behind, is clutching a similar weapon.
“You’re dead”, she says, as I do a dramatic dying pirouette in the midst of the dirt trail. The two horses watching lazily from the sidelines barely blink at the performance. Brendan meanwhile observes that this isn’t very nice, to ambush weary travelers on the road like this.
“Don’t worry, I’ll shoot her with the nice bullets now” she says, running off again after three more bangs.
Resurrected I wearily make my way down the path again. After hiking on the trail all morning, the blister I developed earlier has gone numb, a positive side effect that sadly doesn’t extend to the rest of my aching feet. Every step hurts as we reach the last two miles of the hike, but at least the end is almost in sight.
Soon we are rewarded with the sound of falling water and around the next bend in the road, the dense foliage opens up and we get a view of pure beauty.
Wide streams of water tumble straight and fast into the blue-turquoise pool below, swirling around the bigger boulders lining the basin and collecting once more into a river to continue the descent into the canyon. In the backdrop, the dramatic orange and red walls of the canyon glow in the sunlight, creating a scene that looks straight up too perfect, too idyllic and too surreal to be true.
This incredible waterfall, surrounded by bright blue pools and glowing green foliage in what is otherwise dry, desert like landscape, is something you’d expect to see in the scenes of a fantasy movie or at most in an artfully created painting, but not in real life, where tour busses usually drop off yelling tourists by the hundreds at a spot this spectacular.
But here we are, completely alone in this small paradise and the hike further down Havasu Canyon proves to be equally breathtaking.
It’s almost like an artist took a paintbrush and splattered the landscape with vivid watercolours. Around every bend of the trail, another waterfall awaits. Some look like tiny steps, formed by levels of boulders in the stream, others are tall and skinny. What they all are have in common is the turquoise colour.
Eventually, we arrive at the most famous one of the waterfalls, Havasu Falls, and it is easy to see why this cascade seems to be the main attraction. If possible, the falling water appears to be even bluer than before, tumbling down into a deeper section of the canyon in a perfect arch. Again, the collecting pool of water forms an oasis in the otherwise barren canyon and it is here that we finally drop our heavy packs and set up the tent.
Although the air is chilly in midwinter, we decide to hike up our pants and go explore in the knee-high pools formed by Havasu Falls. Surprisingly, the water is mildly warm and feels soothing on our aching feet as we dig our toes into the bright white mud below.
After spending the night wrapped up in our thickest jackets, but still shivering in our sleeping bags, we decide to hike even further into the canyon, to what we heard is the secret beauty of Havasu Canyon.
We arrive at Mooney Falls just as the sun reaches the canyon walls and spills over the edge in a haze of dazzling light. After our eyes have adjusted to the sudden brightness, we see that the mist rising from the awe-inspiring waterfall has formed a powerful beam of light pointing into the canyon below. Mooney Falls is taller, more powerful and more spectacular than the falls before and we find ourselves at a loss for words at the creation in front of us. A barely recognizable trail leads down the cliff edge and we have to balance like goats on the steep rocks in order not to tumble into the abyss next to us. We shoot until our batteries are blinking red and empty, before shouldering our packs again and hiking the long way home.
Planning your trip to Havasu Falls:
- Hiking is by far the cheapest option to get to Havasu Falls. But, and here’s the but, the hike is very strenuous and long (16km/. Bring good hiking boots and make sure every member of your party is in decent shape. If not, there is the option to ride a mule or horse there or take the helicopter – but be prepared to shell out some money.
- Entrance fee as of 2015 is 35$, environmental fee is 5$, camping is 17$ per person and night and the one and only lodge offers rooms at 145$ per night. I can highly recommend the campground, it is beautiful and located right at the edge of Havasu Falls, while the lodge is a 2 mile hike away.
- I suggest you bring your own food into the canyon as food options are very limited and rather expensive in Supai. Definitely make sure you carry enough water for the long hike, there is no where in between to fill up and you won’t find drinking water until you arrive in Supai.
- Start hiking early in the morning. Many people underestimate the length of the hike and thus arrive too late at the falls or even get caught in the canyon in the dark. We started our hike around 9am and arrived at the falls around 1:30pm, with plenty of time to spare for exploring and taking photos.
- And, guys, don’t forget to bring a sturdy tripod and your filters to capture those stunning waterfalls appropriately!