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.


  1. I found you on Insta while you were on your trip and my friends and I were on holiday in Zion NP, I'm sure you get asked this all the time but do you not get nervous traveling by yourself? Especially the camping and being alone at night. Love your travels!

  2. I just wanted to say this is awesome and you have definitely inspired me to hike this one day :)

  3. What a magical place. I love that you do this by yourself and that it inspires all your beautiful art. You are truly living life to the fullest!

  4. This is a wonderful place. A good place to visit for vacation.

  5. Wonderful blog, I admire these hikers to enjoy so many beautiful scenery to get some special experience.

  6. Incredibly beautiful pictures! It's really an absolute delight to watch your clicks. Some are breathtaking.

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  7. I really like and appreciate your post.Thanks Again. Keep writing.