JULY, 22-25 2017
My first ever experience in the desert was also my first ever experience backpacking. It was a trip that required a lot of planning and a lot of “walking into the unknown,” as my boyfriend and I chose to backpack into Havasupai, unguided and unassisted by the pack animals and helicopter options. It was an eye opening, amazing adventure that has inspired me both artistically and as a lover of travel and the outdoors.
Early February 2017, after spending two days desperately calling the reservation numbers literally hundreds of times only to hear busy signals or get disconnected, I was able to secure two permits for Havasupai via the then brand new online reservation system. I swear it was all luck that we were able to get permits on the days we were hoping for at the beginning of a week and a half long trip through Arizona and Utah. We then had 5 months to gather the “stuff” we needed and read all the blogs on what we could expect on the hike in, while we were there, and the hike out. This also included lots of reading about weather, flash flooding and monsoon season.
Like I mentioned, I’ve read many of articles about the hike and how long it is. The general consensus of which I agree with is; from the trail head at Hualapai Hilltop to the sign that said the town of Supai is just ahead is 8 miles. According to some articles I read that’s where they stopped keeping track of milage and I think that’s really deceiving. From there it’s easily another 4 miles until you’ve actually walked through town, beyond Little Navajo Falls and beyond Havasu Falls to reach the entrance to the campground. Then, depending on where you want to camp you can count on almost another mile of hiking through camp to choose your spot. I didn’t really know this when we went and when we reached town we kept thinking we would “be there” around every turn. We were wrong as we still had about a third of our trip to go. No big deal though, we know for next time!
We left civilization with stomachs full of In and Out burgers and a rental car full of our gear. Oh and nerves, the farther we drove away from life the more nervous I became. I had never been in a situation like this. I’ve been camping countless times, but never did I have to hike 12ish miles through the desert with no water sources, no other people, no shelter just to get to my campsite. Looking back on it now I feel a little silly, but I can’t help it I always have a bit of fear of the unknown and my boyfriend and I both had never experienced this so we really didn’t know what to expect the entire time.
Finding Haualapai Hilltop was relatively easy. We arrived a few hours before sunset. We were lucky to find a spot to park right near the trail head but then stood there scratching our heads for a little while. “Now what?” we asked our selves. We knew most people came, camped at the hilltop and began their hike in the middle of the night to avoid the heat, but where do we camp, or better yet, where were we allowed to camp? There were a few random, uninhabited backpacking tents near the edge of the parking lot but honestly they were really close to the primitive bathrooms, and I wasn’t trying to smell that all night. We opted for the scenic option and chose a spot towards the edge of the cliff. As we began to set up our tent a few other parties arrived, some of which had been to Havasupai and others had not yet. Talking to everyone put me at ease. We watched the sun disappear behind thunderstorms in the distance, and then we all retreated to our tents setting our alarms for around 2:30am.
After lucking out and only dealing with a moderate windstorm and distant thunderstorms that never made their way to us through the night we packed up our tent, grabbed our packs, double and triple checked our gear, snarffed (yes that’s right, snarffed) down a few protein bars, put on our head lamps and began our decent. The trail starts (and ends on your way out) with a series of switch backs down the side of the hilltop. As we took our first steps on the trail we could see the head lamps of others below us and their distant voices echoing off the canyon walls. It was surreal. Though we were moving slow and cautiously I decided later on that I actually like to hike in the pitch black. It totally knocked away an anticipation you made in your head as you count your steps to landmarks in the distance. In the dark it’s just one foot in front of the other and the occasional stop and look around for the trail (which in this case meant looking for the discarded Arizona Iced Tea cans and other pieces of garbage along the way, gross, sad and true).
The elevation at the top of the hill is apx. 5,200 ft, the decent down the switch backs is a quick 1,000 ft drop over about .75mi and then a slow decent of another 1,000 ft until the edge of the village 7.5ish miles later. I’d say maybe 3.5mi into our hike we began to see light in the sky and our surroundings came into view. We were in the middle of a deep canyon totally surrounded by high walls of sandstone. It was really incredible. I’d read the hike to the village was relatively boring with little to see but as a life long dweller of the North Eastern part of this country I was totally fascinated. The path is mostly loose stone, like walking on a river bed or almost in gravely sand, which was a bit of a pain and you feel like you have to constantly be correcting yourself with your heavy pack on. Thankfully I had my trek poles and the sights alone were enough to distract me from the not-so-ideal footing situation.
At dawn we began to catch up to parties that had left before us. One after another we would pass them. Occasionally when we would stop, they would catch up to us and then once again we’d pass them. We were (in my novice backpacker opinion anyway) flying with under 20 minute miles. Another bit of info I had in the back of my mind was how long this hike would take. From what I read, many blogs would say upwards of 6-8 hours. Our hike in was a total of 5 hours 7 minutes, which included the time it took to stop in town and check in. Our time out was 14.24 miles in 6 hours exactly (I went back and checked my stats from my sport watch)! I was/am so proud of us.
After we walked through town, little homes began to thin out and we were once again surrounded by nature. The path began to open up and the sound of the creek increased. I began to get really excited. The water was blue! Blue like the hundreds of pictures I had seen all over social media! We walked passed Little Navajo Falls, I really wanted to explore but I knew that was out of the question. Then we began to walk down a fairly steep hill. The thundering sound of water echoed around us. We were coming upon Havasu Falls. I almost started to jog down the hill out of joy, but my tired shaky knees wouldn't allow for it. We rounded a bit of a corner, I looked back over my right shoulder and there it was! We were there. We had done it. We hauled our butts into the desert to this place only a few are able to see. I felt a huge wave of emotions wash over me, but aside from that I had noticed for the first time just how hot it had gotten now that the sun was above us. With that, we snapped a few photos and continued down the path to camp. Once we reached camp we were spent. We didn’t walk far into the campground before we plopped our gear down in a shady spot and said it was good enough for us. It was a good spot, I had no complaints! We ended being really close to one of the springs which turned out to be incredibly convenient.
We spent that whole day, and the whole next day exploring the area. I was a little sad we did not get to Beaver Falls but our bodies were tired and sore and needed the rest. Next time. This place is unreal. Seriously. Pictures will never ever do it justice. It also wasn’t as crowded as I expected. There were people their with their obnoxious animal and food shaped pool floats, many of which inevitably were punctured and left behind as garbage (don’t do that), but for the most part everyone was pretty cool. We were all there for the same reason and it honestly felt somewhat communal. Later that first day a family from Switzerland came in with a guide. They went and explored while their guide set up their camp. She came over to us to introduce herself and make sure we didn’t mind having the family there, it was a rather large came for just 5 people so we she wanted to assure us we wouldn’t be suddenly surrounded by a mob. She then gave us two frozen bottles of water. I’ve never been more excited over ice. I was really grateful to have her next to us as she would be able to periodically give us some advice as well as weather updates from her SAT phone.
Later that first day we walked through the camp to Mooney Falls, walking up to it is breath taking. I think the words I used again and again were “Holy shit.” I know I said this above but I'm saying it again, there are no words, no photos that can do this waterfall and the surrounding area justice. As if the waterfall wasn’t good enough, the decent down is just incredible. Tunnels, chains, polished hand and foot holds, sketchy ladders. I guess it may not be for the faint of heart but it was everything my little mountain goat soul loves. Our second day we actually packed our stove and made lunch at the picnic table that was right there in the creek and the base of Mooney with a few new friends we had made. Just a casual picnic in Havasu Creek. No biggie.
We swam, hiked, explored and oohed and ahhed the entirety of our short 48ish hours there. I will say this though, our joy and excitement was interrupted however with intermittent bouts of confusion, worry and game planning. We visited Havasupai during monsoon season and most of our conversations with others usually ended up at “What time are you leaving?” “Are you staying tonight or leaving later today?” “Have you heard a weather report?” “Any word of flooding upstream?” We heard many warnings and stories of flash flooding and the almost constant grey skies and threat of rain admittedly had me rattled now and then. It was a weird unfamiliar situation for me. No way of contacting the outside world and because we were down at the bottom of the canyon we could not see any weather approaching, it would just suddenly be on top of us. One day a storm came along as we were out and about, the only indication a storm was approaching was the sudden change in wind and hearing the thunder bounce off the tall rocky walls. It was simultaneously really wild and ominous but spoiler alert, we survived. All-in-all I’d say we made out just fine weather wise. We even beat a storm on our hike out!
The Havasupai Tribe are the “People of the Blue Green Waters,” and that’s no joke. That’s the one thing the pictures do justice. The water (depending on weather) really is that color! When we were there it was a little more milky colored than other times because of the rain. I was just incredibly thankful that it wasn’t brown as that can happen if there’s been an over haul of precipitation upstream. Something that fascinated me almost more than the water and waterfalls was the vegetation. Everywhere along the walls were ferns and moss, it was other worldly, it's one of the reasons I loved our camp site so might. We were right along a spring near the canyon wall and it was just covered in little feathery ferns. It is truly an oasis.
A few times we thought about leaving early because of rumors of bad storms coming, but we decided to stay and I’m glad we did. On our last night we ate dinner as rain rolled in, we packed up as much gear as we could and retired to our tents with another 3am wake up call. By the time we woke up our Swiss neighbors were already gone and the rain had stopped. Their gear waiting with heaps of other gear for the mules to carry at the edge of the campground. As we walked by the loads of backpacks and duffle bags waiting to be strapped to the mules I thought about what would happen if I just shoved my big green pack in the middle of the pile and played dumb when they reached the top later that day. We can all dream... or just pack lighter packs next time.
The way out was a lot like the way in, though this time we walked through Supai in the dark. Dogs from the village would walk along with us for stretches and disappear off into the darkness. We hiked with a group for a while, a family with a young boy and a few couples, but this time the tables had turned. Everyone left us in the dust, the difference was they only had day packs on. The whole way out we did not see another backpacker, every single person had little light packs on and clearly used the pack animals to carry their gear. A few people I saw didn't even have packs, just bottles of water! Despite being slower than the other hikers our time was still right on track. I was in a groove and it felt great to just go. Until three quarters of the way out the terrain suddenly became steeper, and steeper. My pace slowed, my breathing increased, my shoulders began to burn from the straps of my pack pulling down on them. My mind grew panicky thinking about how tired and sore I was becoming and we still have the last section to go, the switchbacks. This is when I decided I preferred hiking in the dark. I kept thinking I could see them ahead, I kept looking for the signal light at the ranger station at the top of the hill as an indication that “the end was near," but couldn’t find it.
Then a mile or so later, we were upon them, the switchbacks. It was brutal. I would round a few corners, and tell myself “one more before you stop,” sit, rest, pant, drink water, find my boyfriend down trail and make sure he was ok, get back up, round two more corners, repeat. Then it was every corner, then it was every 50 steps, then every 20 steps… I would stop and feel myself becoming choked up between weezy breaths. Overcome with emotion and frustrated at my lack of “toughness” and athleticism. I thought I was in better shape than this. Granted I did have a 65L pack on my back full of water and heavy camera equipment that I insisted on bringing with. But still… People would walk by and say encouraging things to me, and I just remember making breathing noises in response. I couldn’t muster words. Slowly the hilltop became closer and closer until I could hear the murmur of the people gathered around the ranger station waiting for the mules to arrive with their belongings. I recognized almost all of them from the trail or camp. I could see the Swiss family there. Finally, after what seemed like hours I made it to the end of the trail. The small crowd let out a few cheers and someone I had spoken to earlier said “Yeah, go Philly!” I just looked over, smiled and almost jogged over to our car (now even more thankful for the close parking spot we had). Even those last steps from the edge of the trail to the car seemed like the length of two football fields. In reality it was less than 50ft. I Dropped my pack off my back and let a few dramatic tears well up in my eyes wondering if I would ever catch my breath again and wondering if I would ever be so thankful to finish a hike in my whole life. Not before turning around and jogging back down the trail to find my partner. Still unable to catch my breath I found him rounding the second to last switchback. I unclipped his and carried his sleeping bag and we finished together. The ranger could see the lack of skin on my shoulders from my pack and made a comment about it. I laughed it off and felt like a goofy newb. It had started to rain, the wind was stronger at the top and the temperature was now noticeably colder than I remembered. Sweaty, dirty, and shivering I could only think about the peanut butter and slices of bread we had lifted from the hotel continental breakfast four nights prior. It was glorious.
We drove away while everyone continued to wait in the cold and rain for their gear, it was then I was thankful I opted to carry my pack out. We headed towards the Grand Canyon’s South Rim laughing, delirious and recounting our whole experience. A few hours later we stopped at a little touristy spot along Route 66. When we wandered inside my boyfriend was delighted to find bathrooms and free coffee, I was excited about the two dogs with the older man working the register. I asked to pet the dogs and he asked if we were coming form Supai. “Yep! How could you tell?” I asked sarcastically. We stuck out like sore thumbs amongst the throngs of retirees and families who had just come out of tour busses shopping for postcards and key chains.
We topped off our free coffee with Wendy’s just outside the park gates. When we arrived at the lodge in the park it felt like we stepped into Valhalla. Air conditioning AND showers. So sad considering we only spent a few days “roughing it.” I wouldn’t even really consider it roughing it but you know… We bathed and promptly passed out for a grand total of 16 hours. At one point I remember waking up around 5pm asking Nick if we could get up later and watch the sunset, then next time I awoke it was after 6am.
Since then I’ve looked at the pictures from that place a countless number of times. I’ve even made one of my favorite little watercolor paintings from my on going “Crystal Visions” series. I’m still incredibly inspired by that place and I’m sure over time I will make more art from these images and my memories.
A FEW WORDS ON GEAR:
I didn’t want to make this post a fact sheet, rather a recounting of my experience. That said, I do want to make a few notes on my decisions for gear based on my experience and research.
Boots vs. Trail runners
This is something I tossed back and forth on for a long time. I’d never hiked this far, in this environment with such a large pack. This made my footwear choice really difficult. I researched what I can only imagine as the whole internet. I even posted a little forum on Trip Advisor starting a discussion on what shoes people would recommend wearing. I was torn, I really didn’t love the idea of lugging around heavy boots through the desert, but I did want to be comfortable and have support when/where I needed it. I never once got a straight answer either. I ended wearing my Salomon Quests, of which I love and are 100% comfortable and took a pair of Chacos for tooling around and wearing in the water. My boyfriend opted for his Brook’s Cascadia’s and had a pair of water sneakers from Salomon. I didn’t hear him complain about his feet at all and despite the wobbly trail he didn’t suffer any ankle pain/injuries. I for one have rubber ankles. I’m constantly rolling them but usually don’t suffer from any pain. In retrospect I think I would have been just fine in my Cascadia’s and maybe even more comfortable. Wearing my boots around, relacing them constantly to change in and out of while down there was kind of a pain and they are super cumbersome. But that’s just me and my experience! I’d say, if you’re in a similar spot to me consider your ankles/legs/feet and how much support you typically need through your footbed and ankle as well as other considerations, like ease of taking them on and off, weight, place to store them, etc. Bottom line, I unfortunately don’t have a black and white answer for you, which was what I was looking for prior to our trip.
Camera Gear and Art Supplies
This was another series of decisions that I bounced around with leading up until moments before we closed the car and started our hike. I chose to take a my Canon 6D, a rented 24-70mm Lens as well as my super wide lens, extra batteries and a waterproof bag. I also had to bring a small tripod to shoot the stars (of which we never saw). I did have a go pro with me on that trip but I left it behind as I had my super wide lens packed. Last minute I also decided to leave behind my paints and sketch book. For those of you who are familiar with the gear I mention above you’re also aware of how heavy it is. And I felt it. Looking back on it now I question if my camera really captured anything really different from what my phone or the go pro could have shot, which I’m sure is making EVERY photographer reading this cringe. It all comes down to what’s more important, having the gear to get the shots you want or a lighter pack. You have to weigh the pros and cons. If/when I go back again I’m sure I will deal with the same struggle but depending on my gear situation I may opt to leave my heavy SLR behind and bring a super light paint kit, go pro, and water housing for my phone instead.
Ultralight, quick drying towel
Bring one. Bottom line. You’ll use it for many things. I’ve said this over and over since our trip, I think my towel was maybe the most useful thing I brought. The most useful thing I found it was good for: I used it as a liner on my sleeping pad in lieu of a sleeping bag which brings me to my next point.
If you are in a tent and you go in the summer I’d highly suggest leaving it behind. It was super warm and extremely humid every night. Next time I will bring a bag liner and maybe a small down jacket depending on what the weather looks like. This is for summer time only! If you are bringing a bag in summer months, especially during monsoon season opt for a synthetic filled bag, not down. For mean this would be a really big piece of gear that I could deal with not having a free up a bunch of space and weight off my pack. On top of that, I would roll mine up everyday and put it in it’s dry bag which got old, but I really didn’t want a wet sleeping bag to deal with.