For years, Havasupai was a place that only existed to me online. It was a place of turquoise waterfalls and red rock canyons. It was an empty place with no people, not even locals, a campground described but never seen, a band of mistreated horses hidden out of frame, an oasis in the middle of nowhere, ten miles from the nearest road that visitors simply arrive at, sometimes by helicopter.
The Havasupai themselves, a name meaning People of the Blue-Green Waters, were just busy signals and a disappointing refrain of “All booked,” after days of calling each year in early February. Havasupai is an Indian Reservation and for years the tribe only booked reservations to visit by phone. Since the advent of the internet and social media most recently, the azure falls have become a hallmark of bucket lists. The Havasupai live today with mixed bag of unrequested results.
For five years Alli and I would wake up at 6:00 on February, 1st and dial into one of the four reservation lines run by the tribe. Last year they introduced a website and it crashed in the first five minutes from overuse. Finally, this year, with two laptops and a phone ready to go at 5:55, we secured two nights on Labor Day weekend, the day after our wedding anniversary.
By the time we reached the turn off for Hilltop it was dark. Insanely dark. No lights for forty miles dark. So dark that it’s not recommended to drive at night because of animal collisions. We never encountered one of the many cows that amble across the road to graze on the desert plateau but instead, got to see two Arizona Javelinas scamper across the road, a mother and a tiny piglet that leaned close to its mom’s hind leg.
For how much Havasupai is photographed, it is very much a mystery. Like childbirth, we only see the pleasant photos and there’s a lot they don’t tell you for fear of dissuasion. So it was fitting that we arrived to the trailhead at dark, unaware of the surroundings that lay beneath a sparkling milky way.
At Hilltop, the parking lot was full and cars stretched for a quarter mile down the right hand shoulder. Some folks stirred, making dinner or setting up tents. We folded down the back seats of our rental and arranged our sleeping pads in the trunk and after thirty minutes, turned in. We slept like shit. We sleep in the car a lot on road trips but between discomfort, nervous anticipation and the occupying fear that we may never fall asleep, we each only logged about an hour and a half of decent rest. We gave up and were lacing our shoes by 4:45, fifteen minutes ahead of our alarm.
A few parties were walking to the trailhead whispering amongst one another. All we could see was their cool breath lit by their headlamps as they past. At the trailhead, a man sat hunched over in the cold.
“Reservation number,” he requested.
Alli read it aloud and he let us pass without verifying. We were off, descending the rocky trail by the dim glow of our headlamps. The trail crawls down the canyon wall a thousand feet in a series of steep and frequent switchbacks. Loose rock covers tamped earth and we kept our eyes and lamp beams focused on our feet. A quick moving party passed us ten minutes into our descent.
By 5:30 the sky was dusty purple and the wide canyon began revealing itself. Its furthest walls were at least five miles in front of us. To the left, it’s belly widened into a vast open desert. To the right, where we were heading, it narrowed and doglegged downhill into a still invisible slot. We could see the switchbacks winding down to an arroyo and we carried on, passing and getting passed by the handful of small groups along the trail. Since early July, the canyon had been closed to visitors because of flooding. It had only been open for a day before we arrived and there was a great sense of fortune to be on the trail.
By sunrise we were trudging through the arroyo. When we could, we’d jump onto narrow winding side trails cut into the creosote plants in cactus where more stable ground could be found. The trail to the village of Supai is eight miles and the campground is another two miles further, making Supai the most isolated town in America. My interpretation of the beta suggested the hike in was fairly casual, being mostly flat and gradually downhill to the village. The bulk of the path, though, was through the arroyo, a dried riverbed filled with five inches of loose sand and gravel.
A couple hours in, we were walking down the path and I smelled something pungent. I looked up and two horses were looking at me. They were standing in the trail eating the threads of grass clumped between rocks. I thought we must be close to the village.
Shortly thereafter, in a narrow canyon we could hear a charge of hooves coming up the slickrock. Around the corner came a Havasupai man wearing a shirt with a western yolk and a cowboy hat, driving a band of horses up the canyon. We moved to the side and waved as they passed. He nodded and whistled to the horses to keep moving undistracted. Another man in a cowboy hat brought up the rear and stopped in front of us, pulling a small book from his saddlebag. He asked for our names and registration number and compared it with his book. We checked out and he moved on.
Two things I’d read over and over before coming to Havasupai was one, the locals were unfriendly and two, the horses were unhealthy and poorly treated. My eyes rolled out of their sockets each time I read one of these Trip Advisor posts and I’d have to pick them up off my lap and push them back in, intent to suffer another rant by people who are used to brown folks serving them cocktails in Cabo when they’re on vacation.
The locals were locals, just like any local getting a coffee or using an ATM in any city you might travel to. They’re there to live, not to please you.
The complaints about the horses seemed a bit more founded but so far that wasn’t true either. They looked healthy and strong. The canyon had been closed for two months so the horses and mules hadn’t been making as many runs up and down the canyon as usual so maybe that’s why they looked so good. Either way, people are racist and you can’t trust anecdotes. Don’t even trust mine.
A few minutes later we could hear music and thought we must be on the edge of the village. We rounded the bend of the slot canyon and saw a young Havasupai kid in his early twenties hanging out with two pit bulls, playing music on a small Bluetooth speaker. We kept on.
It turns out we were only about halfway to the village and we past some of the most beautiful red rock walls I’ve seen—towering, arching, bending, jagged, smooth, red, orange, and black, contrasted with bright green cacti, blue sky and an embroidery of cotton ball clouds. We were feeling an energy, something strong that was not ours, something to behold. Our legs ached but kept moving forward. We didn’t belong here but we were lucky enough to see it.
Finally, we entered a riparian zone and saw a sign for the village. Weaving through the twiggy trees we could hear water and suddenly got our first glimpse of the iconic, milky-blue mineral water. Even in the shade of dense trees the water popped unlike any we’d seen in person. A crew we were walking near, the one that had passed us at the top, remarked that it looked just like it does on Instagram. Even our modern, fucked up, online-comparison-obsessed brains marveled at the water’s authentic tones.
More mule and horse drivers passed us as we walked further into vernal Supai. There were meadows of tall, broad grass, old cottonwood trees scattered throughout them and piles of Sacred Datura lined the orange dirt road leading into town. All this was hemmed in by red rock walls at least three hundred feet tall, with blocky spires decorating the rim.
Juxtaposed by the beauty was our first views of the poverty that pervades Supai. Small homes dotted the canyon floor, some charming, some in disrepair, windows broken and boarded up. I’d never spent time on a reservation before, barely drove through more than a few. There’s this notion in America that settlers and the Army wiped out all the indigenous Americans, it was really shitty, but that was that. It was shitty, but Native Americans are still here and still being fucked with by a system they never asked for nor were invited to participate in in good faith. The Supai are capitalists now by force and live precarious lives buoyed by the tourism sector.
Alcohol is banned on the entire reservation but message boards in town still advertise addiction counselling and treatment. There’s a store, a cafe, a school, a Christian church, a lodge, many homes with horses in the yard. People ambled about, largely desensitized to what must be a relentless flux of new faces tramping through town every day for six months. It was peaceful and friendly.
The village of course didn’t always look this way. Worse, the Havasupai didn’t even have rights to the majority of their home canyon for decades. Before 1882, the Havasupai occupied an area the size of Delaware. That year the US Army seized all but 518 acres. The silver rush and railroad destroyed the land and Grand Canyon National Park used their scant property as their own. The tribe, its knowledge and its culture were suffocated. In the 1970s they reclaimed 185,000 acres but by that point, their only chance at survival was tourism.
We checked in at the tourism office in town and received our camping permit and wristbands. Eight downhill miles had felt much longer and setting off down the trail toward the campground was a grinding effort. Not far out of town, we came upon the first of the waterfalls. Navajo Falls is a wide cascade of vitriol blue pools in a sunny clearing below town. We stood and watched for a few minutes and our energy lifted.
We dragged ass past the lady selling fry bread chili cheese dogs from a trailside stand and marched downhill to see Havasu Falls, a hundred foot monster of blue. The red rock face surrounding the falls looked like a gothic cathedral with hanging spires of travertine, branches and debris cast by the lime in the water. It was like seeing a celebrity in real life.
Past the falls the campground was buzzing. I dropped my pack at a vacant site and took off down the trail in search of a good place to pitch camp. I reached the end of the campground and turned back, eyeing a couple vacant sites across the river. There was a perfect one, perched above the river in a sunny clearing. Unfortunately, the bridge across had been washed away weeks earlier.
I ran back to where Alli was waiting and she agreed the forge would be worth the privacy. Backpacks overhead, we waded through the waist deep river.
We were famished and set up the tent quickly to get to cooking. We’d kept things simple with dehydrated backpacker meals. I pulled out the stove and it dawned on me that I didn’t bring any gas. Since we’d flown to and from Dallas, we were supposed to pick up a canister of gas in Vegas but it had slipped my mind.
I decided I’d hoof the two miles back to the village to see if they sold gas in the store and if not, I’d buy us some burgers and figure out our problem the next day. Alli walked with me to fill up the water from the spring at the top of the campground. Near the spring was a family, an older woman with grown kids. Alli asked if we could use their stove to boil some water. Reluctant at first, she agreed and Alli made small talk while I sprinted back to our camp across the river to get our pot and meal.
A quick boil later and we were eating. Southwest something. It wasn’t good but it was good to be eating. I’d brought tortillas wrapped in foil from our Mexican the night before but in the short time since we’d left camp, squirrels had stolen them from the side of my pack. The squirrels were a relentless breed as we’d come to find out. Southwest something was fine on its own.
With some energy we walked back up the trail and down the steep bluff to Havasu Falls. The water was cold and vibrant green. Only a dozen or so people were down at water level, taking pictures or soaking in the naturally dammed pools just down downriver. The quota system and the effort to get there had preserved this place from inundation. But that was relative. Thirty to forty thousand people visit Havasupai every year and though Supai is a living town, no locals were at the falls, ever.
Twice since being in camp, we’d ran into the same group we’d encountered on the trail. We were acquaintances by now and the campground felt like a community. The nature of the campground, it’s layout, paths and sites, lack of vehicles or roads, felt unlike any we’d stayed in, front country or back. Romanticizing everything, it felt like a tribal village, maybe even the way it used to be down there. We got to cosplay traditional Havasupai life while they all lived in a rundown example of a white Christian town. It was all fucked up.
Walking through camp I recalled seeing a gas canister at a vacant site before I realized I’d left mine at home. Retracing my steps I found the site, still vacant and the canister still sitting on the picnic table. It was an MSR, rusted to hell on the seams and nozzle. It must have been caught up in the flooding all summer and retrieved from the overflow. I brought it back to camp and voila, we were cooking. More gratitude to the universe. We cooked another backpacking meal, sharing it straight from the bag and were asleep to the sound of the river by 6:45 while the sun still hung.
Fourteen hours later we woke to a beautiful morning. Sun glared off the jade green river running beside our camp. Squirrels ran about. Fucking squirrels. The evening before, while we were still at the falls the squirrels had returned for more. People were hanging their food from slings but, luckily, our site had a few five gallon buckets with lids and we kept our meals stored there. I’d forgotten about the beef jerky from the brewery in Kingman deep in my pack and the squirrels had bored a hole through the bottom of my backpack and the rainfly of our tent to get it. This was to be our first night in a brand new Nemo.
We didn’t end up needing the fly and were fresh for a day of exploring. We had some breakfast and took off toward Mooney Falls, another towering funnel resembling Havasu, downstream from the campground.
The woody campground gives way to hot desert, where the cliffs only bear cactus and some grasses. The trail appears to end as well and a sign informs you that from here on out we can’t exactly call it a trail and they can’t exactly recommend you keep going but if you were to it’s this way. So we followed the switchbacks cut into the ledge for twenty yards until we reached the mouth of the tunnel.
Mooney Falls takes its name from D.W. Mooney, a miner who died falling off the falls in the late 19th century. His mining companions couldn’t retrieve him and threw his boots over the falls as memorial. Days later the miners saw an Indian wearing the boots and they asked him how he got them before the Indian showed them a route down the cliff through a narrow tunnel, the route Alli and I found ourselves on now. The miners blasted the natural tunnel wider and secured chains and spikes to the harrowing cliff. This was all becoming apparent to us now. Things were getting spicy and it felt like a fantasy, lowering ourselves down the slick mud by chains to the water crashing thunderously before us into a painted pool of neon blue.
We got down safely and hung our hammock between two of the trees growing on the island in the middle of the river. The sun was hot and we dunked in the water and swung from a small rope swing on the side of the river. We lounged in the hammock and bathed on the rocks. It was incredible and again, only a dozen or so people were there, including the acquaintances that were now casual friends.
We’d decided that we wouldn’t hike the three miles down from Mooney to Beaver Falls but by midafternoon I was getting restless to explore. I decided I’d venture a bit down river and told Alli I’d be back in an hour. After thirty minutes of running through the lush canyon—narrow trails cutting through head high broadleaf shrubs, under trees, across placid sections of the river that looked more jungle than desert—I decided I had to push on. I figured I must be close to Beaver Falls too. At fifty minutes I still wasn’t at the falls and decided to turn around. I stopped at a series of narrow bridges crossing the river and plunged myself into one of the deep holes, smearing the sweat from my body before surfacing and turned back.
Back at Mooney Falls, the sun was starting to sink below the canyon wall and the temperature sunk with it. I was glad I turned back when I did and running four miles in soaked Keens had smoked my feet. We clawed our way up through the travertine tunnels, tired and hungry for dinner.
Since we were leaving at 4:00 the following morning, we decided to move our camp to the trail side of the river. Something about wading through waist deep water in the dark with a full pack before you put on your boots for a ten mile climb out of a canyon. As we were rearranging the tent, it started to sprinkle. I pulled out my tattered rainfly and put it over the tent. The damage wasn’t awful, most of the holes were near the bottom edge, but a couple near the top would need to be patched. I tried medical tape, band aids and paper. Nothing really worked and we wished for the clouds to move, which within thirty minutes they did, up the canyon toward Hilltop. Another stroke of good fortune.
We made dinner, Chili Mac and Thai Noodle, a pretty good combo and we devoured it. We walked to the spring to fill up our water for the next day and use the bathrooms. We turned in and played a few rounds of Crazy Eights before nodding off. In bed you could hear people coming to and from with take-out from the chili dog shack. Someone walked by the tent with a plate and it smelled delicious.
“Mmm, frybread chilidog,” I said aloud to Alli. “Smells delicious.” I must have still been starving.
Ten minutes later I smelled the same thing, but no one was walking by. The smell was coming from my sleeping bag and it was Chili Mac mixed with Thai Noodle, not take-out. Everyone likes their own, right?
At 4:00 we were already raring to go. We broke down camp surgically without speaking and were on the trail by 4:15. With just our two headlamps visible we started up the sandy trail beside the roar of Havasu Falls. In pitch black, the two mile hike into the village seemed to go by quickly and we were pleased to have among the steepest miles behind us.
The town was quiet and only a few stray dogs stirred, moving between trash cans to forage. We stopped at the tourism building where Alli emptied some rocks from her shoe. In the glare of my lamp, I noticed a black and red dot in the middle of a spider web just beside Alli. I don’t think I’d ever seen a black widow in person but I knew it instantly when I saw it. Alli didn’t seem to mind so long as I kept my eye on it and it didn’t move. She finished tying and I looked away momentarily. It was gone! We moved quickly and laughed that I had failed at my one job.
Further up trail bats flapped in the bluing twilight, plumes of bees—which Alli’s allergic to—hovered over the Sacred Datura. There seemed to be such danger amid the calm. The sun rose as we were entering the riparian area outside of town and we saw our first glimpse of the river. The rainstorm that teased us the evening before scattered showers across the broad canyon above, rain that funneled down into the narrow river below. It was gushing a foot above where it flowed two days prior and what was crystal turquoise was now a torrent of chocolate milk. Parts of the trail were washed out and we pushed through thicket for ten minutes to find narrow runoff streams to cross.
We had ridden such positive energy the entire time we’d been here, arriving a day after it reopened following months of closure, having perfect weather, finding the gas, avoiding the rain and now, having had a tiny, perfect window to experience the magical place before it flooded a muddy brown again. And while the rain had stopped, the clouds persisted and we crossed our fingers they’d stay to block the midday sun.
A few miles up the canyon we started passing folks hiking in. We didn’t have the heart to tell them about the river. They’d come so far expecting otherworldly blue. I hoped they’d appreciate what lay ahead regardless but I wasn’t going to volunteer to describe it for them.
By 10:00 we were nearly to the switchbacks. They deep arroyo had taken it out of us and we looked forward to the switchbacks if only for the stable earth and promise it was all nearly over. We saw the Indian who verified our reservation on our way in. He had just turned away two parties trying to sneak in without reservations. I felt happy for him to at least get the satisfaction of kicking some people off his land.
Whenever locals passed I would thank them for sharing their home with us, for inviting us here, etc. I don’t know if I was being overly sanctimonious but I grew up in a vacation town and I know what it’s like to deal with tourists. I can’t imagine what it’s like for truly indigenous people to invite colonists to their ancestral home because economics now insist they do. Most of them reciprocated with waves or your welcomes.
Below the switchbacks we took a break under a slab of sandstone for some shade. The sun was now peeking out intermittently between dissipating clouds. We had water and some ginger biscuits from the airplane, the only food we had left. Alli was suffering a bit and she asked a local if she could get a ride on his horse.
“No rides,” was all he said, as much as Alli expected. Suddenly, we could see our group of friends coming up the trail. One of them had some extra Gatorade and offered it to Alli. The electrolytes gave her a boost and soon we were halfway up the switchbacks. She dug deep and we all finished within minutes of each other, Alli and I holding hands as the trail ended. Other familiar faces we’d met down in the magic canyon were topping out too. It was all serendipitous and overwhelming and transformative. Looking down at the gaping desert below it’s hard to realize what is hidden below, even having just come from that place. The delirium of the arroyo slog feels like a fever dream and you wonder if you just hallucinated the last two day in fact.
We said goodbye to our friends and thanked the locals at the trailhead.
“Tell your friends to come,” one said. Despite its popularity and the incessant tourists and the trash they bring and the booze they smuggle and the nose they turn, these people need the traffic or face disappearing.
The Havasupai that’s ubiquitous on Instagram tells hardly any story. Sometimes it tells straight up fiction for the sake of the shot. The canyon is gorgeous and the water is that of fantasy but there’s a power in the canyon, not the one for me to feel and reflect here on, but one for the Havasupai people to reclaim.
When their land was returned to them in the seventies, the Havasupai returned without much of the culture and customs that made them Havasupai. I hope they can find those things again and center it in the experience those who flock here pay to see. Not for the benefit of white people’s cultural safaris, but to insist that we visitors understand where we are and honor it. The depressed town and tiny church are unsuitable replacements. The Havasupai shouldn’t go back to 1882 but they deserve the agency and reparations to determine where they do go from here.
Havasupai is not a park. There are no bus lines or gift shops. There’s no search and rescue to pick you out of whatever you’re over your head in. More than any other distinction though, there’s no visitor center exhibit teaching tourists about the indigenous people that used to live there, that were exterminated or expelled. They’re here, in a paradise that is and is not.