Backpacking Supai: 3 Nights with the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona

Hava-what?

Supai, AZ is known as the most remote town in the contiguous United States.  It can be accessed only by foot, mule, or helicopter.  It’s also the capital of the Havasupai Indian tribe and has become a popular hiking/adventure destination in recent years due to the breathtaking water and waterfalls in Supai.

The main attraction of Supai? The water! (Notice the tents above the falls?  That was our site!)

I (Tim) have gone backpacking several times with friends in PA.  Hannah came across Supai while planning RV destinations in December 2017 and jokingly sent it to me as a suggestion for the next backpacking destination.  I then jokingly sent to to two hiker friends from Pittsburgh, and to my surprise, they were instantly interested.  We then recruited another friend and started discussing dates.

 

Permits and logistics

One does not simply walk into Supai.  You must have a campground reservation to hike (no day hiking allowed) – and they’re extremely hard to get.  Reservations became available by phone or via the Tribe’s online reservation system on Feb 1st at 8:00 AM and sell out quickly – as in within minutes for popular dates.

By the end of January and a significant amount of research and discussion, we had decided to stay for 3 nights / 4 days and had a primary date range picked out with two backup date ranges.  I was at my computer at 8am on Feb 1st with a credit card and our notes and began refreshing the page.  A few minutes later, the reservation system opened and we ended up with reservations for 4 people for 3 nights for our preferred date range!

Out of curiosity, I went through the reservation process again 10 minutes later and found that nearly the entire season had been booked up already (at least when trying to book 3 nights for 4 people).  Wow.

The price for three nights for 4 people?  Nearly $1k.  Pretty steep – and from what I read it goes up nearly every year.  We obviously chose to hike the 10 miles into and out of the campground with all of our stuff, but campers can also elect to rent pack mules to carry their stuff while they hike in/out or even pay for helicopter rides.  No thanks!

The damage for four people

Now that we had reservations, our RV route planning incorporated this and brought us to Williams, AZ the day before the hike started.  The rest of the hikers – Garrett, Jake (my brother-in-law), and Abe – made the epic journey from Pittsburgh the night before. They flew from Pittsburgh to Phoenix (with a layover) and then drove 3 hours to Williams the evening beforehand.  They finally got to their hotel around 1AM PDT… so 4AM their time (EDT).   My father-in-law also made the trip and spent 4 days exploring Williams and Grand Canyon National Park with Hannah and Calla while we were hiking.

Hannah, her dad, and Calla enjoying Grand Canyon NP while we were in Supai

 

Hiking in

The four of us got together at 5am the day of the hike and drove 2.5 hours to the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead parking lot.  We finally made it after hours and hours of travel for the other 3 guys!

The four of us on our way in

The first mile includes ~1,000 feet of elevation loss.  It’s switchback after switchback after switchback.

A pack mule returning to the start of the trail by itself

There are also lots of pack mules on the trail.  We saw groups of them harnessed together with packs on their backs and also by themselves; apparently they know how to get back up to the top of the trail without supervision.  We had read about inhumane treatment of the mules but saw no sick or injured animals and witnessed no mistreatment.

Easily the group’s favorite picture. The unknown hiker in Havasu Canyon (it’s actually Abe with terrible lighting).

After the initial descent, the rocky trail took us through tall red rock canyons and formations.  We came to the actual town of Supai after 8 miles and the campground came 2 miles later.

Hiking in the shade
The “suburbs” of Supai proper on our way in
Supai’s general store (we visited it on day 3 but also passed it on the way in)

 

The campground

We arrived at the campground around 2pm.  Campground reservations are not site specific which means we had to find a spot once we arrived.  The campground spans both sides of Havasu Creek for approximately 1 mile and ends at Mooney Falls.

It appeared that nearly all of the good sites were taken as we passed through, but Jake and Abe got a pro-tip from a construction contractor on the best site after he noticed their military gear and struck up a conversation.

That tip turned out to be gold as we hesitantly approached the end of the campground (the top of Mooney Falls) and realized that the absolute best spot in the place was vacant.  Scroll back up to the top of this post and look at the first picture.  You can see Abe’s hammock above the falls on the right.  Yeah, we were stoked.

It turns out that we were a bit too close to the edge of Mooney Falls and had to move back a bit after a handwritten note was left at our campsite from a ranger.  Apparently we weren’t supposed to camp passed the red tape (note the red paint on the tree in the picture above) but we had no idea.  No problem, we just moved back 10-15 feet.

Campsite setup #2 after having to move a bit back from the falls

The best part of our site was the ability to sit near the edge of the falls and take it all in.  The path down to Beaver Falls (covered below) was clearly visible as well which offered lots of entertainment.

Taking it all in at the top of Mooney Falls
Morning coffee with a view

We also had access to the creek directly behind us, which made rinsing dishes or clothing a cinch and also put a dip in the amazingly cool blue waters seconds away from camp.  This was seriously the best spot.

The amazing Havasu Creek was right behind our site (so were the falls, so we swam a bit further up for safety’s sake)

We booked the trip for late April due to other commitments, excitement, and also climate data.  For some time the forecast predicted lows below 30 degrees at night.  That would have sucked.  We lucked out in the end – not only did we have probably the best spot there, we also had perfect weather.  It was around 90 in the day and in the 60s at night with no humidity.

The walls of Havasu Canyon are extremely high and steep.  There are lots of shadows in these pictures, and that’s because the canyon only seems to get 4-6 hours of direct sunlight each day. The dry air combined with 90 degree heat and full shade was just about perfect.

On top of the world? Nope, just Mooney Falls!

We had read that the squirrels are awful in the campground.  We joked about it but also brought dry bags and paracord and hung our food to prevent scavenging.  Those squirrels are completely unafraid and we got burgled anyway.  Abe found a squirrel eating through the foil pouch of a freeze-dried meal after stepping 15 feet away for a few minutes.  We all were woken up one night by a raccoon feasting on my food a few feet away from us after climbing a tree and descending down the paracord like Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible.  They’re huge and completely unafraid.  Many people use 5-gallon buckets to keep food safe, but they may also use the mules or helicopter to get it in there, who knows.

We had enough food regardless.  There’s nothing wrong with a little squirrel spit in your dinner.

 

The falls

The main draw of visiting Supai is the spring-fed blue-green water.  It’s what brought the Havasupai people to the canyon and how they survived in the extremely arid environment.  The water is actually clear but appears to be blue-green due to the high limestone content in the water and how it reflects light.

The Mooney Falls descent.  Come on, how bad can it be?

There are four main waterfalls in Supai:  Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls.  Navajo and Havasu are on the way in to the campground but we returned to explore and swim in both later in our stay.

Havasu was pretty crowded but offered a few places to jump from rocks (not shown here and not near the actual falls) and swim.

Havasu Falls
Havasu Falls from above.  The small falls in the upper left corner was a great place to jump from.

Navajo Falls is nearly two miles uphill from the campground and is very close to “downtown” Supai.  We hiked back up to it on our last full day and found the perfect swimming hole below the falls. We were surprised to find that we had it all to ourselves!  We also hit the Supai cafe for lunch (mediocre) and also checked out the general store.  It had very limited groceries/supplies and is the only store in town.  Being so remote certainly comes with downsides.

A perfect swimming hole below Navajo Falls. We had it all to ourselves for the most part.

We camped right above Mooney Falls and hiked the harrowing 3-4 miles to Beaver Falls as well.

Mooney Falls from below.  Our campsite was right above those falls.

The hike to Beaver Falls is not for the faint of heart.  Beaver Falls is the furthest downstream and requires one to descend to the bottom of Mooney Falls first.  That route consists of rock steps, tunnels, chains, and ladders.  A lot of the route is covered in water (read: slippery) due to the misty waterfall nearby.

Garrett waiting for a clear path at the end of the tunnel section
Me eyeing up the course
Jake on the chain section

The worst part of this was the congestion on the route.  It’s one-way for most of the route, so people are forced to  wait as groups going up alternate with groups going down and squeeze by each other.  We saw several people doing the route completely wrong (going down the wet ladder forwards instead of backwards despite everyone else doing it backwards, etc.) which can also cause an extreme bottleneck.  We saw lots of entertaining (and sometimes scary) descents from our campsite, including four people attempting the descent at night with red-beamed headlamps.  Fortunately they quit partway down.

Abe waiting for congestion to clear
Garrett descending the treacherously wet steps and chains
Garrett and me on the wet ladder section after the section of steps and chains pictured above

Once we were back on stable footing, we enjoyed 4 creek crossings, bridges, more ladders, and lots of greenery on our way to Beaver Falls.

The route included several creek crossings
It also crossed very lush vegetation
The trail also included at least one rickety bridge

The trail continues past Beaver Falls to the confluence of the bright, blue-green Havasu Creek and the muddy, brown Colorado River.  It looks stunning but we abandoned the idea once we heard it was 12 miles from the campground (one way).  Beaver Falls was enough of a destination for us!

Multiple tiers of swimming holes at Beaver Falls
Abe discovered an odd structure secured to the canyon wall below Mooney Falls. There was a cave at the top.

 

Hiking out

The majority of the hike in was downhill so we knew going back out was going to be rough.  We hit the trail around 5am in an attempt to avoid the sun.  That worked out well; we spent maybe 30 minutes in direct sunlight.

Hiking out of the campground. The hills seemed steeper than they did coming in…

Jake set our pace at maximum speed and we booked it out faster than expected.  We arrived an hour earlier than expected and averaged over 3mph.  We all agreed that the unrelenting and unexpected hill just prior to the switchbacks was worse than the switchbacks themselves.

Hiking out

We returned to civilization with blisters, scrapes, and lost toenails.  That’s part of the deal, though.  We spent 3 nights in a stunning but brutal canyon and enjoyed every moment of it.  We all agree that we’d go back in a second, but considering how many things turned out to be nearly perfect (our spot, the weather), a return trip would have a lot to live up to.

The four of us after returning to Williams, AZ and cleaning up

Was it worth multiple flights, several multi-hour drives, lots of hiking, and hundreds of dollars?  Absolutely.  This was a bucket list kind of trip and it was an overwhelming success.  Just ask Garrett’s pinky toes.

 

Special thanks to Garrett, Jake and Abe for letting me use some of their pictures in this post.  Garrett lugged around a DSLR with him so the best pictures are likely his.

Date visited: April 2018

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