Waterfalls of the Havasupai Reservation in the Grand Canyon, Arizona are world famous and a once-in-a-lifetime destination for many people. In March 2016, we got lucky enough to snag last minute permits to this coveted paradise. The impromptu journey would challenge and enchant us all at once, as well as teach me a lesson about finding flow in my life, both outdoors and in.
Finally, on the 50th phone call, someone answered.
“Oh! Hi! I’d like to know about the availability of permits.”
“All booked up for the next four months.”
“What about cancellations? Do people ever cancel and those dates open up?”
“Oh yeah all the time.”
“Well, are there any cancellations on… Thursday?”
“Really? Can I have that date?”
No way. We had just snagged a last minute permit for Havasu Falls!
Most people schedule this months ahead, and have that long to prepare, but we had to leave the next day. Ready, set, go! Let the madness begin.
Part of what makes an outdoor lifestyle so great are the frequent opportunities to get away, slow down, and relax. But that part only comes after scrambling to finish a week’s worth of office work in one day, figuring out trip logistics, coordinating group plans, packing all the gear, and buying food. This is why it makes sense to never clean out the car and subsist on bars all the time, right?
So with our messy cars made even messier, we hit the road and drove into the night. We dozed somewhere along the highway and woke up at first light to begin the hike. Luckily, what we lacked in sleep we made up for in stoke. We counted on this, along with gravity, to get us down the 10-mile hike into the canyon. Getting out would be a different story, but we would worry about that later.
Despite the minimal prep time, we felt adequately equipped with camping gear, warm layers, and cameras. We decided to keep food to a minimum because the Havasupai sell delicious tacos and run a few convenience stores in their village. Some trail mix, Bricks Bars, and breakfast food was all we needed to carry.
We had done our research and knew what we could expect out of this rugged trail and the village destination. Clearly not everyone had done so. Along the way we encountered rolling coolers with their wheels broken off, abandoned on the rocks in the canyon. We saw people grunting uphill shouldering garbage bags instead of backpacks, and parched faces that had obviously not brought enough water. Let this be a lesson in how NOT to hike Havasu. It is not a short nor easy walk.
Yet even as we secretly snickered at the struggle train that was hiking out, we started to get tired ourselves. The nonstop schedule of the past few days was wearing on us, and we were still a few miles from the falls. As you get deeper, the canyon opens up and the sun beats down, and we felt the temperature rapidly increasing. We trudged through the village, stopped briefly to claim our permits and buy some food, then continued on to the waterfalls.
All it took was one look at those turquoise waters and we felt rejuvenated. The stoke was back. After dumping our things at camp we went straight to the water. We felt so much lighter without heavy packs, and fatigue and hunger were suddenly forgotten. The rest of that day was packed with swimming and shenanigans. We even stayed up late to photograph stars and moonlight on the falls.
The next day’s plan was to hike the additional miles to Beaver Falls, but it didn’t need to happen. Our sore bodies reminded us that camping trips, while adventurous, are also supposed to be relaxing. With the 10-mile uphill still ahead of us, we decided to do nothing in the morning but chill.
After all, this is only the natural pace of things. Water flowing through the canyon does the same. It rushes through rapids then charges off a huge waterfall, but as soon as there’s a chance it settles and sinks in a calm pool. It recirculates and retraces its steps, then pauses and lingers, until the time is right to plummet off on the next adventure.
The morning was spent lounging at Navajo Falls, and getting there early earned us a private waterfall for a while. It’s no wonder the Havasupai call their canyon the center of the universe. It really is paradise.
After enjoying the idyllic pools, it was time for our next rapid, figuratively speaking. The hike out. It started off fine, as most gradual uphill journeys do, but the miles of alternating boulders and loose gravel wore on the feet and legs, and just when we were really ready to be finished, it was time for the steep part.
As darkness descended, we climbed for the windy and dusty canyon rim. My legs burned and my knee screamed from an aggravated ultrarunning injury. I saw myself ending up like one of those sad, wheelless coolers forsaken on the rocks, but I kept moving. No one was having fun at this point, trudging uphill in the dark, but we knew it was worth it for what we had just experienced.
Finally the turbulence was over, and we reached the next lull--the top. The drive home was brutally sleepy, but we crushed it back to Flagstaff and concluded our trip.
This seems to be a healthy flow: push hard when it counts, but take the opportunity to relax afterward. Sleep well and eat right whenever you can, allowing your body to recover in-between spurts of endurance. Whether you are a super athlete or a weekend warrior, you probably already follow this schedule to some degree, but consciously tuning into your body and finding a balance will maximize your potential. Then when it comes time to test your limits, you can do it without fear of burning out. You can go non-stop for a whole day or more, as long as you stay properly fueled and have adequate rest time set aside afterward. So do it. Get out there and have your adventure, conquer your challenge, and love it.
Tips for hiking to havasu falls
- Plan far in advance. You can reserve a permit up to 4 months before the month of your trip.
- Call 928-448-2121 or 928-448-2141 or 928-448-2180 (or all of them) to reserve a permit. You must request specific days, rather than ask what is available.
- Don't give up on making phone calls to the reservation office. It may take 50 phone calls before one goes through. Have everyone in your group call a few times per day.
- When you go, be prepared for a long, hot, difficult hike.
- There is no water along the trail. Bring plenty for the hike as well as a collapsible container to fill when you get to camp.
- Be aware of horses and riders coming up and down the trail. They move fast and don't stop.
- You can buy all the food you need in the village near camp, but it can be a bit pricey.
- Camp only in designated areas and leave no trace. Campfires are not allowed.
- This is home to the Havasupai people. Be respectful of residents' privacy. Do not take pictures of people or property without permission.
how to get to havasupai
- The closest major airport is Las Vegas, NV.
- You must drive to Hualapai Hilltop via Historic Route 66 and Indian Rd 18, which are both paved the whole way
- Drive time from Las Vegas is approx. 4.5 hours, from Flagstaff, AZ approx. 3 hours, and from Phoenix approx. 5 hours
by Jesse Weber
I am a travel/adventure writer and photographer, currently base camped in the Northern Arizona Highlands, where I run trails, climb rocks, ski mountains, and paddle rivers. In my free time, I am working on a master's degree in environmental science and policy.
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