Wednesday, July 6, 2016

on the road: solo hiking & camping in havasu canyon

Havasu Falls! Or, a 26 mile hike in paradise.

While I was sharing photos on the road I got a lot of questions about the 3-day hike into Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon that leads to the Colorado River. There are tons of hiking guides out there with much more seasoned, technical advice, but I'll give mine from the perspective of a solo female hiker.

(A stranger on the trail took this photo for me at mile 3 of 12. Look at that happy hiker, blissfully unaware of the blisters and aching muscles in her future!)

After a spontaneous whitewater rafting stop on the Salt River, I packed up my tent at sunrise and headed north towards the Grand Canyon. Accessible only by foot or horseback, Havasu Canyon is both unbelievably beautiful and fairly difficult to access, requiring a highly sought-after permit from the Havasupai tribe and a 12-mile hike. After searching and searching, I found this blog post, emailed a total stranger in the comments, miraculously got my hands on her extra two-night permit, and planned the rest of my trip around that weekend (reeeaaalllly hoping I wasn't being scammed.)

The trail to Havasu Falls starts at Hualapai Hilltop, a remote cliff edge at the end of desolate Indian Road 18, about an hour's drive from anything. The hilltop is nothing more than a small parking area, an outhouse, and the stunning and expansive opening of the canyon. Even the early evening view from the parking lot is breathtaking, offering hikers a peek at what awaits them below.

Like most southwestern hikes, the trek down past the falls and into the camping area is best started in early in the morning to avoid the heat. I tidied up my car, packed my backpack as light as possible, texted Mike a bit (I wouldn't have cell service for three days) and enjoyed the awesomeness of cooking on a camp stove overlooking the very edge of a cliff at sunset.

One or two groups started hiking down at night, presumably to set up camp discreetly on the canyon floor, which is technically prohibited but completely unenforced. I didn't want to deal with packing up my tent and gear in the morning so I slept in my car, as did a few dozen other hikers in the lot. Around 5am, car doors and excited voices form a group wake-up call all around the parking lot. I had the first part of the still-dark trail to myself, descending over 2,000 feet in just the first mile in a series of steep, winding cliffside switchbacks. The trail was well-maintained, but definitely not something I'd want to do in the dark.

The next 3 miles were an open canyon wash, flat and easy with a wide view of the ominous looking clouds in the distance. 

About five miles in, the rusty canyon walls start becoming taller, steeper and the trail narrows. The wash turns into a jumble of boulders and slick rock, requiring a little more navigation and caution, though still not difficult except for the weight of all my gear. It's impossible to get lost or disorriented. I kept a good pace going and only rarely saw anyone else on the trail, though the few people I did see really helped accentuate off the enormity of the sandstone walls.

The Havasupai tribe offer mules and horses to carry hikers' gear down to the falls and back up again for a fee, so every hour or so the pounding of hooves shook the trail and provided a good excuse for a break against the rocks. Truthfully, I am not an avid hiker at all, but there wasn't any point where my 5'1" self felt overburdened with a 40lb. backpack and a 10lb. camera. (The condition of the horses was also really sad. They looked overworked and had injuries and open sores from ill-fitting bridles and packs. I was happy to not be contributing to their load and would strongly discourage any hiker who cares about animals from supporting this abuse, either on their own hike or through an outfitter who uses horse packs.)

In Belize, I asked our yoga instructor Rebecca whether she meditated every day, and she answered no, not in the traditional sense, but that she often went for hikes and walks in the woods that offered her the same kind of calming, meditative rewards. About six miles into the canyon, I started to notice how meditative I felt; how no outside concerns had entered my mind for a while and how I was unconsciously focused on only putting one foot in front of the other, occasionally adjusting my pack, and silently noticing small things like flowers growing out of cracks in the slickrock or the occasional black-and-blue bird perching on sparse greenery. I felt extraordinarily energized physically and incredibly calmed mentally.

The bright red sandstone walls were sometimes smooth, sometimes pocked with little craters in which perfectly-sized rocks nestled, innocuous evidence of the thousands of hikers who had hiked in and out over the years.

Nine miles and four hours into the hike, the canyon opens up into a stunning, lush garden of cottonwood trees and foaming cascades of crystal blue water. The village of Supai, 2,000 feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon, has been home to the Havasupai people for over 700 years and is the last town in the United States where mail is still delivered by mule, since there are no roads into the village. The tribe runs the Havasu permit office, a low stone hut where hikers check in and pick up their permits; anyone without a permit should be ready to hike the 12 miles back to the top or pay double the camping fee. 

Past the check in, dogs and horses roamed freely in the village and the muddy trail criss-crossed over streams and down hills, finally leading to Havasu Falls, the enormous and impressive 100-foot waterfall that marks the start of an Eden-esque paradise.

Mind blown.

One more short, steep downhill hike lead to the canyon floor, where the crystal blue pool splits into gurgling streams that weave and wander between the narrow red walls, shaded by thick cottonwood trees and vines. The half-mile long 'campground' was actually just kind of a free for all, with tent spaces dictated by the path of the streams and makeshift bridges... basically my dream campground. 

I set up camp on a little patch of land between two waterfalls and made lunch, enjoying the soft creek murmur and the company of two roaming dogs. Other campers were on larger and smaller land patches, or on the side of the canyon up right up against the red walls. The entire campground consists of two composting outhouses, a little shack selling flatbread, a spring-fed faucet for drinking water and a few scattered picnic tables. There are no showers, electricity, cell service or campfires.

Interestingly, hikers reserve the limited permits over the phone but don't have to pay until they get to the village, meaning there's no penalty for reserving one and not using it, which may have explained why the campground was half-empty on a Saturday.

By necessity, my gear for both White Sands National Monument and Havasu was pretty spartan. There are great backpacking gear reviews out there by more knowledgeable people, but I wanted to link to what I like using, all of which fit into a backpack I could carry alone easily. In my 65L Osprey Ariel pack, I fit a 3L water reservoir, trekking poles, change of clothes/swimsuit, first aid kit, water filter, mini lantern, tent, down sleeping bag, sleeping pad and pillow, foldable propane camp stove and a single pot, spork and cup. I brought dehydrated meals, instant coffee and a box of Annie's bunny mac and cheese.

My camera and lenses added about ten pounds, and in the future I would have allocated weight for a hammock and a mini bottle of wine. Some groups near me had coolers, floats, large camp chairs and more stuff that probably made their experience more pleasant but necessitated paying for a mule to bring down.

(Altogether, backpacking gear isn't much to look at. If you see a photo of someone in vintage leather boots making coffee in a glass pour-over on a scenic mountain-top, be assured that they didn't hike there.)

Anyway, the next morning my legs didn't work. I laid in my sleeping bag for an hour wondering what the heck I did to myself, then popped an Advil and stretched a bit before heading down the rest of the canyon.

This is the rest of the canyon. Mind blown again.

The winding blue streams that meander through the campground join together to form Mooney Falls, which plunges over rock formations into another stunning turquoise pool. Getting down to this one is a challenge: narrow tunnels are cut into the slick, wet rock, and a series of steep carved steps, metal hand holds, chains and ladders bring you into a lower canyon nearly 80 feet down.

The near-vertical steepness of the ladders and chains leading into the rock tunnel and the mist blowing from the massive waterfall makes this descent a little challenging. The river once again splits off into multiple meandering streams, which cascade over mineral walls for two more miles through a canyon floor covered in lush, primordial vines. Half of the trail is wading through water or over more teetering bridges and walkways.

Beaver Falls, a popular swimming hole and cliff-jumping spot, marks the end of the trail and Havasupai land, although intrepid hikers could keep going until the confluence of the Colorado River or even further. I spent a few hours swimming, reading and chatting with other hikers.

The next morning it was time to hike back out of the canyon, which I did with a group of guys who had camped nearby. Hiking with Hector, Orlando and Mike was fun and definitely made the five hour trek uphill go by much faster. Around mile 8, we noticed a flower collecting dew, and next to it, a boulder with a bunch of shell fossils from millions of years ago when the canyon rock was part of the ocean.

The one thing I'd do differently next time is start the hike out earlier; we got to the final mile of steep uphill switchbacks around 2pm when the sun was blazing and it was so strenuous that we were stopping every 100 feet or so to huddle in any available shade due to the incline and heat. Finally we got to the top -- 26 miles completed! -- and it felt awesome. After driving to Seligman, we grabbed dinner, then they headed back to Phoenix while I found a retro motel on Route 66 and started planning my next stop in Zion National Park.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

on the road: new mexico camping and arizona rafting

I recently returned home from another month long cross-country road trip. This one was amazing!

Every year since graduating high school, I've taken a road trip of at least 1,000 miles somewhere, most of them alone. Being out on the road with the radio, my tent and miles of unknown ahead is just something I enjoy a lot and I don't know exactly why. It's become an integral part of my work -- I travel, take photos, bring them home and make them into art -- but it's also my happy place, and where I feel very alive and challenged.

Just like last year, this spring I had a convenient break between commissioned paintings and summer shows and, as always, felt an aching pull towards long open roads and new adventures. Mike is still finishing up grad school, so on the first day of April I packed up our Toyota 4Runner with my camping gear and art supplies and headed out to spend a month on the road alone.

During last year's 5-week road trip, I fell in love with the Southwest but didn't get to spend much time exploring it. This year, I loosely planned to spend 3-5 weeks entirely in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, with a few specific destinations but mostly just leaving my itinerary up to chance and fate. I wanted to do more hiking and explore more small towns, and generally feel a little less rushed from one place to the next. The first two days were the exhausting but necessary long-haul drives due west from Boston to Indiana and then southwest Indiana to Oklahoma, punctuated by fast-moving thunderstorms, gas station coffees and a few stunning roadside camping sunrises. I pitched a tent one night and slept on top of my car's roof the next.

Every time I have the fortune to experience a hazy Oklahoma sunset or frost on a Kansas field, I'm reminded there is no such thing as a "fly-over state"; the oft-unappreciated landscape of middle America is just as breathtaking and humbling as any coast or mountain state, in it's own timeless, expansive way. After waking up in Oklahoma I headed west through Texas' northern panhandle, where the land is flat, gold and dry; the sky wide, deep and blue; the highway sprinkled with exits leading to bright red dirt roads and Route 66 ghost towns. Here are there, sprawling wind farms with rows of towering turbines suddenly take over the horizon and then end just as abruptly, massive modern technology giving way again to the quiet wind-rustled farmland.

Thanks for the color-coordinated horses, Texas!

It felt like a good idea to head south early on and try to avoid any lingering cold and snow in the Rocky Mountains, and White Sands National Monument seemed like good first camping spot. Heading west, the flat gold ranchland of northern Texas slowly gives way to the rockier, sagebrush-and-cattle guard dotted desert of eastern New Mexico. Turning south, I spent three hours on Route 54, an incredibly remote 2-lane highway that doesn't pass through much other than cattle range and railroad ghost towns nearly all the way to the Mexican border.

White Sands is like another world! A 275 square mile valley of rolling white sand dunes encircled by two mountain ranges, it offers hiking and sand sledding, as well as the opportunity to tent camp (no facilities at all) in the backcountry area of the dunes. There are only six backcountry permits available per night and no reservations -- you have to apply in person the day you want one -- so I was beyond relieved to walk up to the ranger's desk at 5pm and get my hands on the last permit left. I loaded up my backpack with all the gear I'd need for the night (tent, sleeping bag, inflatable pillow, warm clothes, camp stove, propane, dehydrated food and wag bags), my camera and 3 liters of water and quickly set out for my campsite.

(This is me, happy to have reached the backcountry camping area before dark!)

The camping area is a short 1.2 mile hike up and down over the dunes, made moderately difficult by the soft, rolling sand, no sun or wind protection and a 40+ lb pack of backcountry gear. I planned for this to be a test run with all my backpacking gear, thinking it was just a mile hike back to my car if I forgot something or need to bail, but the "trail" was just footprints in the sand marked by a few brightly painted sticks and there was definitely no possibility of finding it in the dark.

Six tent sites are spread out between dunes, so once the sun sets and day hikers have left, it feels completely empty. Occasionally I'd see the silhouette or headlamp of one of my camping neighbors on a far-off dune but other than that I felt completely alone in this eerily silent rolling moonscape. 

I get a lot of questions about whether it's safe to travel alone and if I ever feel frightened sleeping in a tent by myself. Backcountry camping in White Sands actually felt more safe than some other places I've camped, because there were no animals or other people (besides the other tent campers) to be nervous about. There was nothing

AND THE NIGHT SKY. I mean, is this for real? It was mostly clear all night, except for a soft haze that lay over the San Andres Mountains and reflected light from (I think) Las Cruces. With no moon, the Milky Way was out in full glory.

As is common in deserts, the temperature dipped from 82 to 34 degrees overnight and I woke up absolutely freezing! The cold also completely drained the battery in my camera and phone, so I only had a few minutes to take photos as the sunrise overtook the rolling sand, highlighting the ripples and footsteps with electric shades of periwinkle, cream and pink. After my camera died, I started some water boiling on my camp stove, made coffee and blueberry granola outside my tent and sat in the slow-warming silence.

After packing up my gear and hiking out, I headed west over the San Andres, through Las Cruces, where I pulled over to take a photo and ran into biker Slyde Mike and his Harley, Byrd. You know those people who you just happen to get into a conversation with on the subway or some other random place and the conversation just flows like you've known them forever? I could have talked to Slyde for hours. Moments like that make me grateful for the random happenstances of life -- right places, right times -- and wonder about the ones we just miss by minutes or seconds.

Passing through Hatch (the green chile capital of the world!) I stopped to ask directions to a gas station and ended up getting a chile-roasting tour and a few jars of free salsa.

How funny is this emergency chili sign?

A few miles from the Mexico border I went through my first ever border patrol checkpoint. Out of nowhere, the road diverted under a massive structure with dozens of cameras and scanners aimed at my car and a bunch of border patrol agents eyeballing my Massachusetts license plate. I confirmed I was a U.S. citizen and passed through unceremoniously.

There are so many random things to appreciate on the road and learn more about. This metal sign outside Silver City advertised some of the century-old brand symbols used by livestock ranches in the area. Branding is a fascinating part of old west history... brands can be ornate, either representative of family heritage or location. They can also be the result of ingenious changes made by cattle rustlers to turn an existing brand on a stolen animal into a new one, such as turning an S into an 8, or a line into a 4, etc. and effectively changing ownership of the animal.

After a lot of desert driving I made it to City of Rocks, a tiny state park in the middle of the southern New Mexico desert made up of 40 million year old rock formations. Each campsite here is tucked tightly into the crevices of these huge 50 foot volcanic stones, accompanied by rabbits, quails, great horned owls and a coyote or three after the sun set. I hiked around the rocks at sunset but didn't stray too far from my tent after dark due to the high number of rattlesnakes there.

My only solid plans were made when I got my hands on a last-minute permit to hike Havasu Canyon in northern Arizona, so I left City of Rocks, meandered around the continental divide trail and crossed into Arizona. I still had three days before my Havasu hike so I stopped in Tucson for some supplies, spent a day camping and hiking at Catalina State Park, then took the advice of two guys at Summit Hut and headed north towards the Mogollon Rim in hopes of finding something cool. Route 60 winds north for hours through dry hills dotted with saguaro cacti, rolling piƱon forests and, very suddenly, opens up to the most spectacular canyon view.

Like most beautiful places, photos don't do the Salt River Canyon any justice. Dramatic red striated cliffs plunge down into a lush green canyon through which the Salt River churns and boils. Immediately after surprising you with this panoramic view from above, the road drops over 2,000 feet in a series of intense switchback turns that bring you all the way down to the canyon floor. 

I saw that long dirt road winding alongside the river and decided to find out where it went. Crossing the bridge brought me into Apache land, where a few hand-painted signs advertised whitewater rafting. A Native American woman selling jewelry on the road pointed out that there was no cell phone service here (or an hour in any direction!) but recommended driving down the cliff-hugging dirt path to talk to the whitewater guides in person. So I did!

By sunset I was setting up my little blue tent in the guide camp. Because the area is so remote, a few dozen guides spend two months living alongside the river in tents, campers and buses during it's short spring rafting season. Despite being the random stranger who just kind of showed up in their camp, everyone were really kind and friendly, and the next morning I was whitewater rafting beneath the towering walls of the Salt River Canyon. My guide Mike put us on a tiny two-person shredder raft, which made the rapids even more exhilarating than being in a larger 10-person boat. 

Several times on the river I kept thinking about how 24 hours before, I was standing on the ridge of the canyon alone wondering where that winding dirt road in the distance led to. No matter how many unexpected adventures I find, I am always amazed and grateful for the kindness of people I've met while traveling alone. After a long day of rafting, I shared dinner with Mike and the guides, then went to bed early so I could get an quick start to my next stop, a 3-day backpack into Havasu Canyon.