We visited Havasupai February 27 through March 1 of 2018, with 4-year-old Graham, 2-year-old Margie, and my sextagenarian parents. It's a perfect trip for people with little backpacking experience and was a ton of fun with kids. Here are a few things we learned!
1. What's it called?
The area goes by a few names. The tribe and reservation are called Havasupai, which means people of the blue-green water. The “pai” is the part of the word that means “people”, so referring to the area as Havasupai isn’t technically accurate, but colloquially it is. The village 7.5 miles from Hualapai hilltop is called Supai, and the campground is named for Havasu Falls.
2. The Hike
All we’d heard about the hike into the Havasu Falls campground was that it was tough; at 9.5 miles and 2500 ft. of elevation change, it’s definitely not an easy hike, and with Graham on foot we took it slow. But what really struck us is that the whole hike is gorgeous. The trail switchbacks down the side of the canyon, then runs along a gravel wash between red rock cliffs. Long before we hit the falls, we were wooed by the scenery. The hike out is definitely tough; in the first 8.5 miles, there’s a gradual elevation gain of about 1500 ft., then the last mile becomes very steep and makes up the remaining 1000 ft. of elevation. Our weather was perfect: though we hit the last stretch of trail in mid-afternoon, it wasn’t at all too hot (perks of going in late February!) In the summer, I can imagine that the heat would be absolutely brutal; though most people get up before dawn to make the hike out, I think if we were visiting in the summer, we’d leave the campground in the afternoon and do the big climb at night, by headlamp light. All in all, if you’re making the visit, don’t fear the hike! Far from something to “get through” to arrive at the falls, the hike is an incredible part of the Havasupai experience.
The lighter you pack, the better your hike will be. On the way in, my parents got a mule to take their stuff and we threw some of our food in along with theirs. David packed in the rest of our gear and I carried Margie in the Ergo along with a backpack of water and snacks for the 4 of us. All told, we were both carrying about 40 lbs.—my load was non-negotiable (much as I wish we could get a carbon fiber version of Margie, they haven’t come out with those yet), and David’s wasn’t bad considering he was packing for 4 people. Still, 40 lbs. is significant, especially when you consider the elevation changes of the hike. Obviously if we going with just David and I, our load would have been completely different: though we pack light even when backpacking with the kids, we do have to be prepared for more contingencies (we need diapers and wipes, for example, more snacks, a wider variety of first aid supplies, extra clothes for the kids, etc.). But what we definitely could have cut back on for this trip was food: the village of Supai has a general store with lots of processed food, prepared sandwiches and the like, and we definitely could have made due with mostly food we bought there. It was certainly cheaper to pack our food in, but if you want to go as light as possible, consider complementing your food supplies with stuff you pick up in the village. At the very least, don’t feel like you need to bring anything extra—if you run into an emergency, you’ll be able to get what you need once you’re down in the canyon. Also: there is a stand at the campground that sells navajo tacos and while they’re ridiculously priced ($5 for a plain fry bread and $11 for one with all the fixings), they taste awfully good after a long hike.
4. The Falls
The area around the campground has 5 main waterfalls: 50 Foot Falls and Little Navajo and Old Navajo Falls run alongside the trail about a mile past the village of Supai. These are the falls that get the most sun and some of the fewest visitors; if you’re going early or late in the season when it’s not terribly warm, these would be a great bet for swimming! Right before the campground is Havasu Falls, which you’ve seen in 1000 pictures and for very good reason: it is tremendously beautiful. Just past the campground is Mooney Falls, the most powerful of the falls and thus the most intense for swimming. The descent to the foot of the falls is via a ladder trail that runs partly through the cliff face. It’s an extremely fun descent, but the ladders can be very slick from the falls’ spray; we kept a hand on Graham and I descended with Margie in the pack and we were all fine, but take it slow. Past Mooney Falls, the trail runs another 2 miles to Beaver Falls. Getting there requires a few river crossings; we did the ones we could do without getting wet, but since we didn’t bring clothes or shoes for wading (we were all in base layers, haha) we didn’t make it quite to Beaver. The trail to get there is beautiful, though, and we found a stunning little spot with a small set of falls where we hung out for a while and ate some snacks, and where Graham managed to get himself soaked.
5. The Water
The blue of Havasupai’s water is iconic, and it’s every bit as good in person as it is in photos. We’ve been spoiled by the National Park Service and missed having an educational visitor’s center and interpretive info. about all the natural features of this place, including its water, so once we got out, we had a lot of questions for google! A few basics we learned: the color of the water comes from its high levels of calcium carbonate (the stuff of chalk and eggshells), some of which deposits on the limestone creek bed and leaves a white coating. The calcium carbonate suspended in the water and the minerals deposited on the creek bed reflect the sun and cause that brilliant bright blue. Havasu creek changes every year as deposits affect the course of the water. A flood in 2008 diverted the entire stream, drying up some of the old falls and creating others.
6. How Long to Stay
When getting permits, you have the option to stay 1, 2, or 3 nights. Day hikers aren’t allowed down from Hualapai hilltop (the head of the trail). We stayed 2 nights, but if you’re planning a trip and don’t yet have permits, definitely reserve a 3-night spot. There’s lots to explore once in the canyon and you’ll be glad you have the extra time!
7. Squirrel Probs
The squirrels of Havasu Falls campground are infamous for their pilfering; bring a sturdy food bag and some cord to tie it up in a tree or, better, bring along a bear canister. The campground has a small supply of buckets with lids and that’s what we used to keep our food and trash safe, but don’t count on these being available. There were also quite a few dogs from the village wandering around the campground and we saw several bags of trash that had been torn up and scattered around campsites. Stay on the safe side and keep everything very secure (and keep in mind that squirrels have been known to chew through bags and tents.)
8. Winter Weather
We had a small window of time in which we could visit Havasupai, which is why we ended up there at the end of February. We were concerned about weather—snow was forecast for our first night in the canyon—but we lucked out by only getting a bit of a sprinkle. Even in the winter, the temperatures were very pleasant during the day and with bags rated to 10 degrees, we stayed plenty warm at night.
9. Perfect for Fledgling Backpackers
If you’ve never been backpacking before, Havasupai is the perfect beginner’s trip. The hike is not terribly strenuous, there are options for getting your gear in and out of the canyon (helicopter or mule) if you don’t want to pack it yourself, the village sells food and emergency supplies, and there are plenty of other people around to help you out in a pinch. The whole area is well-developed and well-visited—perfect conditions for a first backpacking trip.
1o. Leave No Trace
The Havasupai tribe has been wonderfully generous in opening their reservation up for tourism; be respectful! The area is very popular and it’s extremely important that visitors practice leave no trace, pack everything out and respect both the tribe and other visitors. While the tribe does a fantastic job of handling the visitor load, they don’t have a huge amount of resources to control or patrol the area, so don’t be a jerk or an idiot, and make sure you’re contributing to the beauty and peacefulness of this place.