In a remote Native American enclave near the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon lies Havasu Falls, a stunning spill of blue water falling 90 feet over red rocks.
One has only to lay eyes on a picture of the incandescent pools of Havasu Falls, somewhere between beryl and cerulean, to feel its pull. The vibrant basins of the rippling natural pool are a study in contrast with the stunning force of the waterfall that crashes into them, spilling 90 feet over red rocks. It is, simply, beatific. And the falls, at the bottom of a narrow gorge near the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon National Park, are about a 2-mile hike north of Supai Village in one of the most remote indigenous-American enclaves in the country.
The place had summoned me from the moment I learned of its existence about a year earlier. I thought that when I went I’d be instantly transported by wandering among a relatively sparse population, if but for a few long moments, living on one of those Technicolor landscapes nature bestows on you, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime.
I planned carefully. I would take a trip, family in tow, and descend the canyon’s depths. So we flew to Phoenix, drove and stayed in Sedona and then made our way to Seligman, the birthplace of the historic Route 66, then to the end of Indian Route 18, and ultimately the Grand Canyon’s Hualapai Hilltop. Once there, we would wait for a helicopter down to Supai.
If you go
Not accessible by road, Havasu Canyon is managed by the Havasupai Tribe rather than the National Park Service. The Havasupai Tourism Enterprise manages the 200-person campground near Havasu Falls as well as a pack-horse business that provides optional access to the trail (928-448-2121, Havasupai-nsn.gov). Camping fees are $17 per person, per night, plus a $35 entry fee per person and a $5 environmental fee.
Dining and lodging
The Havasupai Tribal Cafe (928-448-2981) is the only restaurant on the reservation. The Havasupai Trading Post sells groceries although the tourist office recommends backpackers bring their own food because of limited supplies (928-448-2951).
Nearby Havasupai Lodge has 24 rooms, starting at $145 per night (928-448-2111 or 928-448-2201).
A number of outfitters provide access, as well as camping gear and meals. On the higher end, Austin Adventures offers a five-day Havasupai Hiking Tour with departures March through October from $1,698 per person (austinadventures.com).
More affordable, Wildland Trekking runs a three-day trip March through mid-May and mid-September to early November, plus four-day trips in summer, from $930 per person (wildlandtrekking.com).
Four Seasons Guides offers three-day Havasu Falls hiking trips supported by pack mules (from $895) as well as other trips that combine the falls with visits to the South Rim and kayaking in Black Canyon (fsguides.com).
The exhilarating ride was piloted by a man whose manner was like a stoked cowboy’s. My 3-year-old son, Marceau, sat quietly, scanning everything he saw out the window with eyes wide open.
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When we arrived, we were, indeed, transported, but it wasn’t to a different world. I stood on the landing pad of the helicopter in which we’d descended, holding my toddler’s hand in the searing heat. Then, as the sound of the chopper receded, it was replaced by the drumbeat of hip-hop music pouring out of loudspeakers. As we approached a nearby cafe, we found its source. A group of teenagers, descendants of some of North America’s most ancient people, dressed in basketball shorts, oversize T-shirts and slide sandals with socks. They were Havasupai or Supai, as locals who live on the reservation refer to one another.
After months of planning and hours of road-tripping, my husband, Sacha, my 18-year-old daughter, Djali, Marceau and I felt at home, despite being in a remote area of the park visited by only 20,000 people annually. That drumbeat may as well have been the unfurling of a grand welcome mat.
The Havasupai people — they call themselves Havsuw ‘Baaj, or “the Blue Creek people,” although they are known by the Hualapai derivative of their name, Havasu, or “blue-green water,” and pai, “people” — while hospitable were also insular by nature. But the teenagers blaring hip-hop, other locals and tourists hiking to and from the campgrounds were chilling on the deck of the only place to eat on the reservation, a food desert whose menu consisted of the same fried and greasy fare, with the exception of Indian tacos, found in many rural and low-income communities.
I had long believed that the call for reparations to descendants of African slaves should be expanded to include Native Americans, and the situation of the Havasupai was a stark reminder of why. They were forced to relocate to this narrow gorge after roaming freely for centuries across some 3 million acres of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, according to the tome “I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People,” regarded as a bible to many tribal elders. The 2010 census recorded the poverty rate on the Havasupai Indian Reservation at 37 percent, twice that of the state’s.
As we stood looking at the people before us, their will was apparent. They have kept key aspects of their culture intact, like the Havasupai language, which is part of the Hokan family of languages. (They are the only Native American community in the country where every tribal member, about 500, speaks the language.)
By the time Sacha and Danoff, our guide, joined us almost a half-hour later, Marceau was running around the deck yelling “Hi!” to the diners, while Djali and I picked at our Tater Tots and an Indian taco. It was time to go, and we grabbed our gear. We wouldn’t be seeing the locals again. We said farewell, thankful for their hospitality.
Our lot, close to Mooney Falls, was separated from two other small parties of what looked (and sounded) like college frat boys by a stream flowing into the Colorado River. We arrived late afternoon and sat on a picnic table at our home base snacking on trail mix and cranberry oatmeal cookies while Danoff pitched a green tent that slept four comfortably. He hung a light inside to keep Marceau from freaking out in pitch darkness. Djali, deciding she’d confront her fear of the dark, slept in a burnt-orange hammock affixed to two trees, with the sound of rushing water underneath her.
The next morning, we rose early and, fortified by the oatmeal Danoff made, walked about half a mile to Havasu Falls. The cactus-lined walk over tiny pebbles and terra-cotta dirt didn’t feel like a walk at all; it was more like a free-floating glide, one of those iconic camera dolly shots from a Spike Lee Joint.
Once at the falls, two things happened that were beyond our comprehension.
First, as I looked at the water crashing into pools below, it felt as if the cool mist coated our parched bodies like a salve. It was an experience no photograph could have captured. From the moment we dipped into the shallow part of what felt like a living tepid body of water, we became still. Tiny schools of fish swam around us, mesmerizing Marceau.
We sat in Havasu’s warm waters, taking breaks to eat lunch and record as much as we could of our surroundings in those hours. Being cleansed at Havasu Falls was like an intense natural high.
That high came crashing down later that day when we witnessed the second incomprehensible thing. I saw a man from the other side of the stream throw a deck of cards, one by one, into the stream, just for fun. Danoff called him and told him to stop. He did, begrudgingly. We tried to collect the cards that had made their way to our side of the stream and placed them in the bags of garbage we had accumulated and would be packing out with us.
By the next morning, we started to feel as if we were coated with chalk, most likely because of the high concentration of calcium carbonate in Havasu Falls that gives it its iridescent blue-green hue; the dips in the natural pools were worth the minor discomfort.
We hiked around Carbonate Canyon, along Havasu Creek, where we could see the remnants of silver prospecting. We began and ended each day at Havasu Falls, the most crowded site on the campgrounds. In between we soaked up the rare chance to spend time together, free of digital distractions.
On our last full day at the campsite, we traipsed in the midday heat to Lower Navajo Falls and the spectacular Upper Navajo Falls, before heading back to our campsite for lunch. It was then that Danoff suggested we make the sharp approximately 200-foot descent into the mammoth Mooney Falls.
As we stood close to the edge watching visitors descend, I felt vertigo coming on: There was no chance I was going to make that downward climb with Marceau to the fall’s base. Djali, realizing that she wasn’t as afraid of heights as she had thought, decided to go down with Sacha and Danoff. Marceau and I waited back at the campsite, watching from the hammock as the water rushed down the stream, until it lulled us into a deep siesta.
Our last night at the campsite, with the exception of Marceau’s fleeting tantrum, was still and easy. Djali napped in her hammock until dinner was ready, and Sacha, still amazed that he had decided to go to Mooney Falls, was amped. “My stomach is still doing back flips from that last mission,” he said over dinner. “But I’m glad I did it.”
That night I contemplated the end to our clan’s digital fast. And though I would have given almost anything for a warm shower, I wasn’t entirely ready to jump back into the virtual reality that had brought me here in the first place.