Friday, June 15, 2012

Journey to the Grand Canyon Oasis

Day #1 - From The Hilltop to Supai; Havasu Falls & The Campground 

     At five o’clock in the morning on Monday, May 14th I was awoken by my best friend, love, and faithful travel companion Brett.  I arose from our tent at Mather Campground in Grand Canyon National Park.  We packed up the car and were turning South onto Highway 64 just as the sun was peeking over the horizon.  
     Highway 64 met up with Interstate 40 in seemingly no time at all, the desert sun already burning away the chill of morning air.  From this point it’s a good 150 miles to the Hilltop, and there is no guarantee when you will see the next usable gas station.  The Hilltop has no services, and you’ll need to be able to get back out onto the main road after your Havasu adventure is complete.  So fill up your gas tank somewhere between Williams and Ash Fork.  If you’re heading in from the West, I’d suggest filling up in Kingman.  And don’t forget last minute water and snacks. 
     43 miles later, we got off at the exit for the town of Seligman, which took us onto the original Route 66.  Driving on it, the past is evident.  Along the way there were a couple ghost towns packed with memorabilia along the “main drag”.  Old cars from the 50’s, their tail-fins rusting slightly, statues of Betty Boop and old gas pumps with their glass bulbs still intact, that sort of thing.  There appeared to be some motels still in use along with a cafe or two and perhaps a small gift shop, but it was hard to say for sure.  
     Eventually 66 brings you up into the Hualapai Indian Reservation.  A few miles after that and there will be a sign for Hwy 18.  This is the only highway that will take you to Hualapai Hilltop.  The checkered road that you see on Google Maps or your Atlas that takes you through a town called Williams is strictly 4x4 only and is impassible to most vehicles.  It’s widely advised to avoid that road.  
     From the turnoff onto Hwy 18, it is approximately 70 miles to The Hilltop.  It took a little over an hour because of the slow speed limits and the numerous cows meandering across the roads at their leisure.  In my prior imaginings I’d always envisioned Highway 18 as a desert road, empty and stretching up to the horizon, but this wasn’t so.  It was surprisingly hilly, the ground covered with thick desert greenery and sprinkled with the most fascinating dead trees, their limbs coal black and reaching vertically into the sky.    
     We arrived at the hilltop at 9 in the morning.  This whole adventure to Supai was an enormous learning experience for me, so let me fill you in on what I would do in retrospect.  I would not have started this day out at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  I would have camped or lodged somewhere near as possible to the entrance of Highway 18, in either Seligman or Peach Springs, and I’ll tell you why.  It’s obvious but it stands to be repeated:  The desert sun gets HOT, even in the middle of May, so the more hiking you do before those rays stretch over the canyon walls, the better off you will be.  From my experience getting out of the canyon, I found that the sun didn't start hitting the canyon floor until 8:30 to 9:00.  (Please remember this is May, so those times will vary according to the time of year that you go.)  
     Where was I?  Oh yeah!  9 in the morning and we’ve just arrived at The Hilltop.  And so the adventure begins....
     This is the view from the very first switchback of the trail:

This guy greeted us right before we started down:


Here are the main things you need to know before planning a trip to Supai.  

The Hilltop:

About a mile or so before the actual Hilltop came into view, the right side of the road was packed with cars.  It seems that during the busy season and on the weekends especially, the parking lot fills up quickly.  It is on the small side, but it seems you’re allowed to park anywhere along the road within reason.  As it was Monday morning and the weekend crowds were trickling out of the canyon, we got a spot right up front.  There is a night guard at The Hilltop.  There were Supai natives selling water and Gatorade out of the back of a truck.  There was a line of horses ready and waiting for riders and packs.  There are also restrooms.  
Getting there:  
From The Hilltop, it is a 1.5 mile descent and then another 6.5 miles through the bottom of a canyon to get to the village.  From the village of Supai, it is another 2 miles to the beginning of the campground.  There are no vehicles allowed.  You have three options for getting to Supai.
  1. Take a Helicopter into the village.  It leaves directly from The Hilltop.  It will get you there quickly, but just know that the helicopter does not fly every day.  To determine the days that it goes into the village and how much you’re allowed to carry on, such as bags etc, I would suggest calling the Havasupai Tourism Office.    
  2. Ride a horse.  There is also the option of putting your pack/bags on a horse so that if you choose to hike in, you can do so unencumbered.    
  3. Hike in with your pack.  This is what we did, carrying our packs and in them everything we would need for the next three days... and I mean everything from food and water to first aid and camping supplies. 
Staying there:  
There are two ways to stay inside the village.  Stay in the lodge or the campground.
The Havasupai Lodge is located in Supai.  From what I have read, it is simple and small but pleasant.  There is no phone or TV, but there are showers and A/C.
The campground is located precisely between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls.  It is a 2 mile hike from Supai to the beginning of the campground.  The creek runs directly through it, with sites on either side.  It is nicely shaded, and the sites are marked by a picnic table.  There are no fires allowed.  There are three big outhouses located throughout.  The maximum capacity is 300 people.  The campground is 2 miles long, and you can choose your own site.  It is worth it to walk further in to find a more secluded spot.    
You will need to get a permit.  It’s available at the tourism office when you arrive inside the village.  This applies for each individual, no matter where they are staying.  You can buy it right along with your choice of lodging.  
A reservation is absolutely necessary for the lodge, as it only has 24 rooms.  If you’re planning on staying there during the peak season, then reserve immediately.  Reservations began February 1st of 2012 and the lodge was filled by the first day for the entire month of May. 
Reserve your spot for a campsite as well.  I’ve heard stories of people hiking into the village with all their stuff and being forced to turn right back around because they did not have a reservation and the campground was already full.  This most likely isn’t the case during the colder months but I’d make one just in case.  
Food and Supplies:  
There is a cafe in Supai.  The days that it is open and its hours vary, so I wouldn’t necessarily rely on it.  There is a market when you first enter the village, and a second one further on.  There is an array of snacks and treats; keep in mind that they’re marked up about three times the normal price you’d pay for them elsewhere.  Just be aware and be prepared so that you don’t get stuck a day without food.
There are no health services available, so make sure that you’re fully equipped with your own first-aid kit, bandaids, moleskin, aspirin, and whatever else you would need in case of an emergency.  
Getting back out:  
You can reserve a horse and/or a spot on a horse for your pack.  Sign up at the tourism office 24 hours in advance.  The helicopter is first come, first serve.  Just remember that it doesn’t leave every day, and also that the locals and vendors of Supai are allowed to go ahead of you.  Put your name on the helicopter list first thing in the morning and be prepared for a wait.  The time varies depending on the day and the season.  As you’re standing in line grumbling, just remember that you could be walking 10 miles out, where the last mile and a half is a vertical climb in the inevitable desert sun up a sheer canyon cliff.  :-)
Costs as of May 2012:
Permit:  $35.00 
Lodge: $145.00 w/ $40.00 deposit each night
Campground:  $22.00 per person each night (this includes a $5 environmental fee)
Helicopter:  $80.00 one-way
Horse:  $70.00 one-way
*Call the office for the most accurate list of prices during the time of your visit.  They are subject to change throughout the year; also ask about the cost of a horse carrying your pack for you if you so desire.  There is also a 10% sales tax.

Mileages starting from The Hilltop:
Village of Supai:  8
Havasu Creek:  6
Rock Falls:  9
Havasu Falls:  10
Campground:  10-12
Mooney Falls:  12
Beaver Falls:  15
Colorado River:  20
     The first mile and a half of the hike is a steep descent down into the bottom of Havasu Canyon.  It goes by relatively quickly.  The whole time I was walking down into the canyon, all I could think about was how painful each step was going to be on the way back up.  When you get to the bottom of the canyon, you see this sign:

     It would have been nice to see a sign like this every couple of miles but this is the only one.  By this time it was about 10:30 in the morning and the air was still relatively cool, but the sun was over the canyon walls and slowly warming everything up.  The temperature was in the 70's when we started out and eventually made its way into the lower 90's by the time we were done.  The rest of the hike to Supai is flat, and a good portion of it is sand.  What isn’t sand is gravel and slickrock.  I am told that it’s an easy to moderate hike compared to the rest in the Grand Canyon.  I can’t compare it personally because I have never hiked inside the Grand Canyon, only at the rim.  
     We brought two liters of water each and I wouldn’t have wanted a drop less.  In the summertime heat, I probably would have needed at least three liters if not more.  Make sure to rest frequently, at least once every hour.  Bring food for the hike.  Take advantage of every piece of shade!  Every once in a while there is a nice little shaded ledge like this one that Brett is sitting on:

     It is a fun hike when the sun isn’t blasting upon you, and it’s neat to see the other groups of people along the way.  We passed a group from England that was being taken in by a guide; we saw families with kids as young as 10 years old, people well into their 60’s, and lone hikers that included both men and women.

     Every forty minutes to an hour you can hear the helicopter overhead.  It’s a bit disconcerting to hear something so loud and intrusive in what is one of the most remote places in the US but you start to appreciate it after a while, because its proximity to the ground lets you know how close you’re getting to the village.  
     One of the best things about the hike is the horses.  Supai is the only place left in the US that still gets its mail taken out by horseback.  Infact, every bit of food and supplies is taken in either by the helicopter or the horses.  The first group of horses that we saw were carrying out the day's mail.  They were followed up by horses saddled for riders, and others were carrying supplies.  A Havasupai rider is usually at the head of the pack, with a second one following at the back, and there is usually a dog or two at the very end, panting, covered in sand, and clearly enjoying itself immensely.  It’s a rule to always stop and get to the far side of the trail to let the horses pass.    
     The first sign of relief is when the canyon walls close in tight around you and you start to see green trees like this:

Pretty soon after that, about 6 miles from where you started, you will see Havasu Creek:

     Once I saw the water all I wanted to do was jump in.  It was so beautiful, clear as glass and the most lovely aquamarine color.  The pictures don't lie.  The water really is that beautiful.  You just have to see it to believe it.  Instead of jumping in though, we kept going, and it was a quick two miles until the village began.  I read that it takes the average person 3-5 hours to make the hike into the village.  Somehow, we managed to do it in 3.5, which I thought wasn’t too shabby for a couple amateurs from Iowa.  We definitely did not take as many breaks as we should have, but our late 9:30 start had the sun pressing against us, so we hurried.  
     The village begins with a wide road of sand with big wooden fences lining each side.  Behind them there are fields, horse corrals, and the homes of the Havasupai Native Americans.  Their homes are modest and well kept, with the exception of a couple whose yards were filled with litter and garbage.  That was sad and disappointing, as was a horse corral with some very thin horses tied up on short ropes in the hot sun.  One of them had an open wound that seemed to be festering.  It broke my heart.  It was probably the only bad thing I saw the whole trip, but it sticks with me just the same.  
     There is a market at the village entrance.  Out front under a shade tree there was a big group of hikers sitting and eating push-pops; just another little thing you don’t expect to see in the middle of nowhere.  The village opens up into a sort of circle and that is where the tourism office is.  This is where you check in, and is also a great spot to fill up on water, which is free and drinkable without the need of treatment.  In the circle there is another market, the cafe, the lodge, a church, and the helicopter landing field.  To the left is the path towards the falls and the campground. 
     Those two miles from the village to the campground were exhausting.  The sun was officially overhead as well as laying heavily inside the sand at our feet, reflecting the heat of the day at us from all angles.  I thought we were never going to see Havasu Falls.  Thank goodness for the water in the village.  I drank another liter just in getting to the campground.  We took a lot of breaks under the trees that become abundant; we sat listening to the widening creek.  About halfway to the campground you get your first look of why you came here in the first place:
     This is a new waterfall, created in 2008 by a massive flood that swept through the canyon.  The Supai people have named it Rock Falls and it is 100 feet across.

     It is a short walk down a rocky hill to get to it and people were jumping off the top down into the pool below.  You’re also able to walk behind it.  We didn’t explore this one, just viewed it from above as we were driven for Havasu and our campsite.  And oh yeah, we kind of just wanted to be done with the hike already because we were on our 11th mile and were dead tired.
     We were sandy and sweaty, which is an abominable combination if you think about it.  I kept looking at Brett and seeing that he looked just as I felt: like hell.  That last mile was a mixture of laughing at ourselves and wincing with pain.  There was a tourist group that passed us, a few ladies in their 40’s who were trotting down to the falls from the lodge, decked out in beachwear and looking us up and down.  One chided at us from over her shoulder that we should drink more water, and not in an all-too-friendly way.  I thought of the eight minute helicopter ride she’d probably taken to get into the village and wanted to throw my sleeping bag at her head. 
     All the sudden we found ourselves at the edge of a cliff and saw that the creek disappeared over that edge.  We rounded the corner and sure enough there it was:  Havasu Falls!

     You then walk down around the side of the cliff which is a little bit steep but I’m certain just about anyone could manage it, and it’s sandy so that makes it easier.  I couldn’t take my eyes off that beautiful water.  It was like a living dream.  I’d imagined this very moment so many times, but this was better.  We climbed down to the foot of it, dropped our packs and just stood in the spray of the thundering waterfall.  In a minute I had my shoes off and was wading in the water; in a second I was fully submerged in the blue pool, still wearing my hiking clothes.  Brett looked at me like I was crazy and then forgot himself and joined me.  I don’t know how long we stayed in the water, getting as close under the falls as we dared, the force of it trying to keep us back.  The water was shockingly cold but after all those hours of sun and sand it felt like a pure slice of Heaven.  After our baptism we sat in the sun at a picnic table and ate our lunch, delirious with exhaustion and happiness.
     You walk up the far side of the falls and there is the campground.  It is shaded, lush, and gorgeous.  The sites range from big groups to tiny singles, each is defined by a picnic table.  There are no fire rings.  Some people chose to camp hugging the canyon wall, others next to the path, but most prefer to be right next to the blue creek.  There are sites on each side of the creek.  In the Summertime, I could easily see how at full capacity the campground could get very crowded and congested.  It’s clear the Havusupai put as many sites into the area as possible.  But on a Monday in the middle of May, the campground was barely half full and we had our pick of some amazing sites.  This is the one we chose:

     This is the view downstream from our site, and there was no one next to us on either side:

     Here is our little site mascot.  These guys were everywhere, but this one was particularly brave:

     Towards the beginning of the campground, against the far West wall of the canyon there is a spring.  The water does not need to be treated.  This is where we got all our water for the time we spent there.  You cross a tiny wooden foot bridge to get to it.  If you can’t find it, some friendly camper will no doubt point your way there.  It’s called Fern Spring:

     All around there was lush foliage and these flowers were blooming.  I’m not sure what their proper name is but I just called them moonflowers.

     We walked about halfway through the campground to find our site.  Here are some photos of some nice empty sites, and another of an occupied one:

     The great thing about this campground is that you can walk around at your leisure and choose any site that you want.  Though you may be extremely tired when you arrive at the campground, it's worth it to take a rest and then continue on into it to find your perfect site.  The campground is two miles long and sits neatly between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls.  There is a big site almost within viewing distance of Havasu at the very beginning of the campground.  And there is a spectacular site right at the very top of Mooney Falls.  Both of those sites, not surprisingly, were taken.  The next time I visit this place I'll be hoping to hook that Mooney site, because can it really get any better than camping in the shade in the middle of a narrow orange canyon, right next to a pure blue pool that tips into a straight 200 foot plummet of one of the most gorgeous waterfalls on the planet?  *sigh*  But even still, I was very happy with the site we found for ourselves.
     Here is a picture of the gorgeous creek which widens and tapers and creates perfect little pools all throughout the campground.

    These dragonflies were everywhere, orange as the canyon walls:

     By the time we got our tent set up it was around 5 in the evening.  I had just experienced some of the most intense and yet beautiful hours of my life.  We tossed all our belongings inside our mesh sanctuary and just lay there resting for a while, marveling at how sore we were from the hike, hurting in places we never knew existed.  We stared up at the trees, while listening to the creek, and planned out the rest of our precious time there... which was already slipping away much too quickly.  

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