Oasis in the Desert: Havasupai Falls

June 15, 2016
Mooney Falls, Havasupai Falls Arizona

When people think of Arizona, they usually think of spartan land dotted with cacti and perhaps an occasional tumbleweed.  Sometimes they remember its the home of the Grand Canyon.  But what they may not realize is Arizona is full of amazing natural wonders and jaw dropping beauty.  The Havasupai Falls are one such wonder.

The Havasupai Falls have been on my list forever, but somehow or another (usually the inability to obtain permits), we never made it there.  This year we decided it was THE year, no matter what.  Turns out, it was worth the wait!

What and Where Are the Havasupai Falls?

It’s a common misconception that the Falls are located in the Grand Canyon.  The Havasupai Falls are actually located on the Supai Reservation in Havasu Canyon, which is a side canyon of the Grand Canyon.  This canyon was carved out by a Havasu Creek, created by a spring, which flows into the Colorado River.  It is not located within Grand Canyon National Park.  The land is regulated and cared for by the Havasupai Tribe (the name means “people of the blue-green water”).

The Havasupai Falls are a series of five waterfalls:  Fifty Foot, New (Little) Navajo, Havasu, Mooney, and Beaver Falls.  In 2008, massive flooding in the canyon caused the “old” Navajo Falls to dry up and created the New Navajo Falls.  It also changed the flow of the Havasu Falls, making it more narrow.  Swimming is allowed in all but the Fifty Foot Falls because of unstable ground and landslides nearby, according to our guide.

Havasu Falls, Havasupai Falls Arizona

Standing at the bottom of Havasu Falls

Why the Water of Havasupai Falls is So Blue

The water has been stored underground in limestone caverns for an estimated 30,000 years.  During that time, minerals such as calcium leach into the water, creating the turquoise color we see as it flows through the canyon.

Havasu Creek, Arizona

Turquoise Blue Waters of Havasu Creek

How to Get to Havasupai Falls

The trail begins at Hualapai Hilltop (parking lot located here as well), which is about a 4 hour drive from Grand Canyon Village on South Rim.  From Phoenix, it’s about a 6 hour drive.  Keep in mind there are NO services at the trailhead, including water (just toilets).  When we arrived from our hike out, there was a little stand selling various drinks and snacks, but I don’t know if it is there regularly.  The nearest towns with services are Peach Springs and Seligman (the latter is the inspiration for the movie “Cars”).

Helpful Tip:  Be sure to fill up with water (you’ll need about 3 liters to get to the village) PRIOR to driving to Hualapai Hilltop.

This is NOT a day hike!  You must stay at least one night in the canyon, though 2-3 nights is recommended.  And you must have a permit from the tribe in advance.  These can be quite difficult to come by, as you must call the number and cross your fingers they answer the phone!  To my knowledge, reservations are usually made about a year out, making a last minute decision to visit nearly impossible.  They did check for permits at the campground and at a checkpoint during our hike to one of the falls.  The website states they allow up to 250 people, but we noticed (and were told) they often allow far more.

Distances:

  • Trailhead to Supai Village:  8 miles
  • Supai Village to Havasu Falls/campground:  2 miles
  • Campground to Mooney Falls:  1/2 mile
  • Mooney Falls to Beaver Falls:  3 miles
Havasupai Trailhead

The view from the trailhead

Ways Into the Canyon

The hike isn’t technically difficult and depending on the time of day, there is shade at various spots throughout.  But you can be sure you’ll be feeling the hot desert sun for a good portion of your hike.  The trail begins with a serious of switchbacks and downhills which drop you down into a large wash.  You’ll follow this wash the majority of the way until you see signs for Supai Village.  Trail markings are scarce, but there are plenty of people on the trail and not many ways to get lost.  Be sure to yield to horses/mules as they have the right-of-way.  Beware that in the wash, the horses/mules aren’t always tethered together and are allowed to run free.  Be sure to get well out of their way (I personally almost got ran over…I am not kidding).  If you are on the switchback portion of the trail, move to the wall side of the trail to avoid an accidental fall over the edge.

View along the trail

The canyon wall views as you hike in the wash

Horses along the Havasupai Trail

Two renegade horses we spotted along the way

Self Hike/Camp:  As I mentioned before, you must have a permit in advance (visit their site for more information).  Anyone caught without a permit will be fined and forced to leave immediately.  As I mentioned above, the trail isn’t terribly difficult, making a self-guided hike fairly easy.  It’s extremely important to keep in mind you are hiking through the desert, with some elevation.  Be sure to drink plenty of water!  The desert is dry and the most popular times to visit Havasupai Falls is during warmer months (okay, let’s be honest-it can be HOT!).  Perfect conditions for severe dehydration and heat stroke.  Not to mention you are likely carrying all your own equipment and supplies.  It was over 100° the day we hiked into the canyon…talk about blazing!

Helpful Tip:  You can pay to have a mule carry your camping gear into/out of the canyon for a fee.  Many folks agree this is the way to go.  Just keep in mind your supplies will often arrive a few hours after you will, so be sure to have anything you may need immediately with you.  Also, be sure you get a receipt to show you’ve paid for your belongings to be transported.

Ride a Horse:  If you don’t feel like taking a hike, you can ride a horse into/out of the canyon.  You must still have a permit and make these arrangements in advance.  You may also bring your own horse, but you’ll be required to provide your own provisions for the horse (and don’t forget your permit).

Accommodations:  Campsites are first come, first serve and scattered throughout the area, including some next to the creek.  There are composting toilets in a few locations, as well as fresh spring water spigots for drinking water.  There are some trashcans, but it’s preferred you pack your trash out.  Otherwise, there is no running water, showers, or electricity.  There is no cell service, either.  There is a small food stand near the first set of toilets that sells fry bread and whatever selection of gatorade or soda they have available.  The village does have a cafe with limited service and a small grocery.  There is also a public drinkable water spout outside the village office (I suggest you refill here before hiking the 2 miles to the campground).  If you are really, really opposed to camping, there is a guest lodge in Supai Village.  Again, these arrangements must be made ahead of time.  Keep in mind the village is approximately 2 miles to Havasu Falls.

Need to Know:  Do NOT take pictures in the village!

Guided Tour:  This is the route we went and are extremely happy we did!  It’s certainly a more expensive option, but totally worth it for us.  We are not campers and don’t have much in the way of our own equipment, so leaving that worry to someone else was extremely appealing.  Secondly and most importantly, we decided we had time to do this trip about 3 months prior, so there was no way we’d be able to get a permit.  We contacted a few reputable companies and found a spot with Wildland Trekking Company.  Our guide was Brian Nelson and we had an awesome time!  I highly recommend Wildland and Brian.  Note:  This was a self-funded trip, no sponsorship

Helicopter:  Yep, that’s right!  You can take a helicopter into/out of the canyon.  Again, you must have permits and make these arrangements in advance.  If you hiked in and decide you just can’t possibly hike out (hey, it happens!), you can still ride the helicopter out.  It’s first come, first serve and I am told the line can get long.  Contact Airwest Helicopters for more information.

Helpful Tip:  Be prepared for rain!  Even if the forecast says 0% chance, be prepared!  We had only a slight chance of rain during our trip and it POURED down rain.  The canyon walls began filling with waterfalls that were absent previously and the creek water level rose.  While we didn’t need to evacuate or have anything other than soaked clothes, it’s important to know a monsoon rain can cause flash floods.  Bring a waterproof jacket, quick drying clothes, and a waterproof tent!

Fifty Feet and New Navajo Falls of Havasupai Falls

Fifty Feet and New (Little) Navajo Falls (pictured above) and partial shot of Beaver Falls (pictured below)…seriously need a drone for these shots!

Beaver Falls, Havasupai Falls, Arizona

What to Do at Havasupai Falls

I am assuming you are here to see some waterfalls, so let’s get to it!  The first set of waterfalls you will see after passing through the village are the New (Little) Navajo and Fifty Feet Falls.  There is a view point above the falls if you are interested in taking pictures from above.  You can hike down to these falls and go for a swim as well.  You’ll probably see quite a few people jumping off the falls into the pool below, but doing so is at your own risk.  Jumping off at Fifty Feet Falls is highly discouraged as the rock below is sharp and people have been injured and killed.

Havasu Falls is the next set of falls just before the campground.  During our visit, there were a large number of people here and large floaties/intertubes in the pools.  Not exactly the peaceful nature scene I was expecting.  But let me tell you, after that long, hot hike, there was nothing more I wanted to do than jump into that (cold) turquoise water!  And it was still beautiful and incredibly amazing, nonetheless.

Helpful Tip:  Near one of the smaller falls, you will notice a yellow piece of caution tape.  Keep away from this area.  The current is strong and has sucked people down the falls and onto the rock below, resulting in some serious injuries.

Havasu Falls, Havasupai Falls, Arizona

Our first glimpse of Havasu Falls

 

Havasu Falls, Havasupai Falls, Arizona

Lesser pools & falls of Havasu…notice that piece of yellow tape

About a half-mile from the campground you will find Mooney Falls.  It’s an easy walk and you just follow the trail right through the campground.  Let me tell you, Mooney Falls is stunning!  Standing at approximately 200 feet, it is taller than Niagra Falls (though certainly not as wide).  To get closer to the falls and to venture on to Beaver Falls, you must climb down the wall.  This climb isn’t for the faint of heart, at least in my opinion.  First, you pass through two tunnels (okay, that’s fine and dandy, unless you’re super claustrophobic), but then you must scale down the (slippery) wall using a series of ropes, chains, and equally questionable ladders (though I am told these are a recent upgrade-its predecessor sported a few rungs made of twigs tied together).  Some folks may not find this at all nerve racking, but I did!  If you fall, you will likely be seriously injured, what’s not scary about that?!?  Anywho, people do it all day, everyday without much issue.  At the bottom, you will find plenty of space to enjoy that gorgeous turquoise water.

To get to Beaver Falls, you can follow the trail from here (which again, isn’t particularly well marked).  Alternatively, you can simply follow the creek down.  However, the latter way will take you longer as you must navigate other smaller falls and varying depths of water.  The trail mostly follows the water and does require a few creek crossings.  I personally wore my sturdy, close-toed water shoes the entire hike, but others in my group chose to change in and out of their hiking shoes for the water crossings.  The trail is about 3 miles, so be sure you have enough water to drink.  The trail does have a few ascents/descents, including a few very short ladders to climb, but is relatively easy.

Beaver Falls is actually a series of smaller waterfalls, but no less spectacular than the falls you’ve seen already.  It’s a really fun area to explore.  But of course, if you want to see all of Beaver Falls, some scaling of the canyon wall is required.  This time there are a few much shorter, but still slippery wooden ladders in addition to side scaling a wall using your hands (some places a rope is available) and feet.  Did I mention this isn’t really my kind of thing?  I did it, but it just adds a little more danger than I prefer!  Aren’t rattlesnakes and scorpions enough to worry about?  Argh!  There are some places you can avoid this wall scaling by jumping off the fall into the pool below, but our guide asked us to refrain from jumping off any of the falls as people have gotten hurt.

Beaver Falls, Havasupai Falls, Arizona

Another set of the tiered falls of Beaver Falls

Okay, so I know it probably seems like I have talked a lot about “dangerous” stuff.  Maybe instead of encouraging a visit, I have deterred you?  I hope not!  The Havasupai Falls are SPECTACULAR and should be on any self-respecting bucket list.  But I didn’t quite know to expect these things (probably because the people I know who’ve been aren’t scaredy cats like me).  At any rate, scaling walls and shady ladders should not keep you from visiting.  I would do it all over again because it was SO worth it!  I just want to mentally prepare you.

Climbing to Mooney Falls

The rigors of climbing down to the bottom of Mooney Falls

Along these same lines, if you are looking for an isolated, peaceful experience, you likely won’t find it here unless you come during off season (way too cold for swimming…unless you bring a wet suit?).  Our guide said April/May are often less busier with decent temperatures.  September is still monsoon season and he didn’t recommend visiting during that time.  Regardless, the word is out on this amazing place and the people come in droves.  Alcohol is prohibited, but let me assure you there were large numbers of people breaking this rule well into the night.  We didn’t experience any real peace and quiet during our stay.  Party scene and “rock climbing” aside, we had an amazing trip exploring this oasis in the desert!

Is Havasupai Falls on your bucket list?  Do you have any other “oasis in the desert” spots?  Click on the “comment” below to leave a comment or join my email list.

 

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