Havasu Falls

When I decided to include a visit to Havasu Falls on the itinerary of a road trip two years ago, I budgeted half a day for the excursion. Looking at the map, I saw that Highway 95 conveniently paralleled Lake Havasu, so I figured I could park and spend a couple of hours swimming at the falls. Upon further research, however, I realized that Havasu Falls was nowhere near Lake Havasu, and in fact many miles lay between the falls and the nearest road. Fortunately, the itinerary was flexible, so I added a couple of days to make the hike. It turned out to be the highlight of the trip.

Reaching the scenic waterfall was no easy task. Leaving Route 66 somewhere west of Seligman, Arizona, my friend Rick and I followed lonely Highway 18 for over sixty miles to a dead end at Hualapai Hilltop, the trailhead at the top of Havasu Canyon. From there, eight arduous hiking miles separated us from the small Indian town of Supai, home of the Havasupai tribe and gateway to Havasu Falls. Since our visit fell in the middle of the summertime heat, we decided to set up camp in the glow of a dramatic sunset and start our descent into the canyon at first light.

The next morning, anticipation ran high as we took our first steps into Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon. The first of the eight miles down into the canyon consisted of a dizzying series of switchbacks. Before we reached the canyon floor, we had to make way for several mule trains carrying U.S. mail from Supai, the only town in the country where mail is still carried by mule train. We also passed several caravans of tourists descending and ascending on mules and horses, and saw a helicopter ferrying more visitors to and from Supai.

Once in the canyon proper, the terrain gradually narrowed into red rock ravines, our echoing footsteps the only sounds. As the morning progressed, the temperature rose, making us thankful for our early start and the shade provided by the steep canyon walls. By the time the sun rose high enough to beat down on us, a bubbling creek had joined our path, giving us a convenient source to cool down. Emerging from subterranean springs, these same aquamarine waters poured over Havasu Falls further down the canyon.

After such a grueling hike, we rejoiced at the sight of Supai's outbuildings. But when we reached the visitor's center in the town proper, our tired bodies sagged at the news that we had two more miles to hike before we reached the campground. Supai offers a modest lodge for those who want to sleep in a bed, but many visitors pitch a tent at the campgrounds below the falls. Reservations are a must, though the campground's capacity is around 300. The place often fills up far in advance in the summer months, and camping is not allowed anywhere else. After such a long hike, you don't want to be turned away and forced to hike back out of the canyon.

Though the terrain around Havasu Falls resembled a tropical paradise, and the summer heat approached 100 degrees, the water still felt like the mountain spring that it was. But a long soak in the cool waters brought new meaning to the word "refreshing" after the long exertion getting there. For the next two days, we splashed about under the roar of Havasu Falls and the canyon's other gorgeous cataracts, Navajo Falls and Mooney Falls. The latter offered thrills as well as refreshment, as the pool at the base of the falls is only accessible by negotiating a cliff face by way of tunnels, ropes and ladders.

The hike back out of the canyon, especially the 2,000-vertical-foot ascent in 100-degree heat at the end, proved to be the most physically demanding experience of my entire life. When we reached our vehicle on Hualapai Hilltop, I felt an exhausted sense of accomplishment. But I couldn't help wondering whether the $70 helicopter ride out of the canyon would have been money well spent. I may return in 2004, so perhaps I'll have a chance to find out.

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