A First Timer’s Guide to Backpacking Havasupai
Written By: Katie Fugnetti
Photography By: Mariusz Jeglinski
The Grand Canyon is so massive there is no vantage point you can stand and see the entire thing. It’s splendor is world renowned and draws visitors to look-out points to snap photos and selfies in an attempt to capture the feeling of being there. It’s tricky though, the feeling of our tiny humanity is difficult to capture on film. I’m realizing this while looking through some 600 photos from the trip and none of them looked like what if felt like to be there. I read somewhere that if the canyon were inverted it would be the tallest mountain range in the world. If this is true the hike to the canyon floor may be more than I bargained for.
It’s Sunday, and the ant people down below are trying to scale the canyon before sunrise. Some tell us they left at 2 a.m. to make the journey in the cool of the early morning. My friends and I are late as it nears 7 a.m. before we hit the trailhead. We start the descent into the red rocks at sunrise with enough gear on our backs for four days. Our destination — the Havasupai Indian Reservation, ten miles down from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. As we traverse the steep canyon walls, welcome rain drops fall from a thick cloud cover overhead. Once past the first switchback, the canyon unfolds, twisting and turning with boulders once attached to the canyon walls that are now the dirt beneath our feet.
My bag feels heavy and pack mules charge by carrying the coolers and backpacks of fellow hikers. There’s no warning other than the loud sound of a stampede coming from behind. With so many overloaded mules, it seems like we are the only ones carrying in our supplies.
I didn’t weigh my backpack, but it must be close to 40 lbs. My knees creak like they need to be oiled. As I walk, I’m thinking about the contents of my bag. Our trip leader is strong at six-foot-four and sporting a thick red Viking beard. He seems to walk with ease as his broad shoulders look like they were made to carry a heavy backpack. That and I’m sure he only brought the necessities. He tells me that experienced backpackers go so far as to cut off the handle of their toothbrush to save weight. Great … I not only have a full-sized toothbrush, but a thick wooden-handled hair brush in my bag. I should have read that gear list! I don’t see any trash cans, so I’m stuck with my luxury goods all the way down and back up. There’s nothing I can do about it now I tell myself as I look up to realize we have reached the canyon floor. With red rocks stacked to the sky in every direction, we continue to the Havasupai Village.
The Havasupai, or “people of the blue-green waters, ” have inhabited the Grand Canyon for hundreds of years, surviving Spanish and Mexican invasion and establishing a reservation in 1880 (http://www.havasupai-nsn.gov/). They have succeeded at surviving in this rugged desert terrain that European explorers did not think was possible. The Grand Canyon National Park encircles the reservation, and, however, small it may be, the native Havasupai regulate tourism on their land. They limit the number of visitors, charging for campsites and offering mule and helicopter transport in and out. Today, travelers come to experience the sacred waterfalls of the Havasupai and learn why these ancient peoples chose the Grand Canyon as their home. As young Havasupai horsemen ride past leading mule trains, I sense a love-hate relationship between them and the visitors who have come to represent their income.
My greetings to the horsemen are rarely returned. There is no disdain in their faces, only focus on the job of driving their mules up and down the canyon trail. In the creation story of the Havasupai, they emerged from this canyon and within the walls are pathways and corridors containing the legends of their forefathers. They live off the grid, and the canyon provides a natural barrier between themselves and the modernity of the outside world. I don’t know the entire history of the Havasupai, but I do know their religion is their surroundings, and the surroundings are what we have all come to see.
We did not arrive at our camp soon enough. Ten miles down plus an additional two miles put us in a better position for the following day’s hike. My backpack fell to the ground like a sack of rocks, and for the first time in six hours I can stand upright. We made a temporary home for three days, setting up tents and stringing hammocks between the trees. Just then, my daydream of lighting up the stove for some dehydrated lasagna fades when the group assembles for a hike to the nearest waterfalls. Another hike? How could this be? Some of the other hikers we’d seen on the way down were opening cans of beer and taking a load off, but not my group. Not wanting to miss out on anything, and to the objections of my feet, I force my hiking boots back on and set out to explore the waterfalls of the Havasupai.
Nearest our camp is Havasu Falls, perhaps the most famous of all Havasupai Waterfalls. The mineral-rich water drops down some 90 feet to a turquoise-colored pool below. The water gets its color from high levels of calcium carbonate and travertine formations. Our trip leader has been here before and knows that below the falls and across the creek there is a cave, and he is taking us there to explore. As we near the creek, we roll up our pants and remove our hiking boots to make the river crossing. I can feel the heavy mist from the waterfall on my face as I dip my toes in the creek. It is late April, and the water is refreshingly cool. It feels therapeutic for my legs, so I take my time crossing. As the last in the group to make it across, we put on our boots and continue to the cave. We arrive at a small hole in the side of the canyon wall about 20 feet up. While carefully selecting my handholds on the way up, my mind flashes to the canyon rim, and I’m reminded how far we’ve come since we started the day.
Inside the cave, it’s completely dark, and we rely on headlamps to see where we’re headed. Specks of quartz glimmer all around and shine through the darkness. After some exploration, we emerge from the cave to the setting sun, and under the light of the moon, cross back over the creek and hike back to our camp for the night. Ahhhhhhhhh……lasagna. Finally. You taste every bit as good as I’d imagined you would.
I’m surprised by the sharp pain in my knees the next morning. It is reassuring to see others walking funny too. We hobbled around in the early hours of morning careful not to waste too much time. I sense we are on a schedule — not before a hearty breakfast though. Our group leader was tracking his calories burned as well as mileage. Subtract a thousand calories to account for our difference in size and I was burning somewhere near 4000-5000 calories a day. We needed to fuel up as we would not have hot food again until dinner. Being a nutritionist I derive great pleasure from eating and talking about food, so I was impressed with the food choices of my comrades. Homemade dehydrated eggs with corn, tea and coffee, dehydrated granola with berries, and oatmeal with almond butter and dried fruit, and spam. I’m sure that spam tasted like roast beef! But, I wasn’t that desperate. When fueling for long days of extreme physical exertion there are no limits on how much you can eat. Instead, we must be careful to consume enough calories to cover our expenses. If I had known what lied ahead, I would have eaten much more.
Mooney Falls, our first destination, is a very short distance from our campground. It was also the most exciting to get to as we had to crawl through a rock tunnel and down a vertical stretch, bracing ourselves with ropes, chains, and man-made wooden ladders. Nearing the bottom, my clutch on the thick chain tightens as the route becomes wet and slippery with mist from the towering waterfall. Arriving at the bottom, I am pumped to have made it down even further into the canyon, and, of course, to have avoided a disastrous fall. From there, we follow a trial on the side of the creek for about three miles to Beaver Falls, a confluence of relatively small, wide waterfalls, cascading into swimming pools. Here we would make some time to swim in the turquoise-blue waters of the creek while the more daring in our group do some cliff jumping.
It is afternoon before we prepare to leave Beaver Falls, and I’m not sure what is next. Our group leader is rallying us to continue the same trail in the opposite direction from our camp. There had been some talk of trying to make it to the Colorado River, but since it was so late in the day, we surely didn’t have time to get there and back before nightfall and the maps had proven unreliable. We’d see as far as we could get. The trail past Beaver Falls is infrequently traveled which is evident from the overgrown shrubs and the near impossibility of keeping track of the trail. After a mile, we lose one hiker who decides to head back to camp. If he hadn’t been speaking in Polish, I might have understood what was going on and made the same decision, but again, miss the adventure … I don’t think so! We walk on under the hot sun, climbing rock outcroppings and crossing the river back and forth to stay on the trail.
With footsteps approaching from behind, we look to see two women running the trail in the same direction. We move over to let them pass, and they tell us they are trying to make it to the Colorado River before dark. One of the women is wearing an iron man shirt. We all agree if the Iron Women can move at that pace, so can we! Our desire to make it to the Colorado River intensifies as we continue. We start meeting river people (white-water rafting guides) who have hiked up the canyon from the Colorado River. Half drunk and sunburned they tell us we are getting close but provide differing accounts of the actual distance ahead of us. One mile, a mile and a half, two miles. Whatever it is, we’re too close to turn back now, and we’re starting to take this challenge personally. We made sure to bring our headlamps that we would need to get back to camp. (I would need a piggy-back ride to get back, but I keep that to myself.)
After two more hours of hiking and with the last mile and a half seeming to go on forever, we catch up to the Iron Women. They are sitting on a rock in the creek. “Which way?!, ” we yell and ask if they made it to the river. They throw up their hands in an indication they have lost the trail and evidently the will to go on. The trail cuts off leading into the narrows, a very sheer, winding section of the canyon. I took the opportunity to refuel with some dried apricots while those more able-bodied scramble up the sides of the canyon in search of the trail.
It was only a few minutes after the Iron Women point to their watches and start running back in the direction of the camp. We find the trail on the opposite side of the river, high up in the cliffs. A few yards around the bend, we glimpse the green rapids of the Colorado River. Hallelujah! To finally arrive at the elusive Colorado River was a sweet relief. The victory gave us all a burst of energy and then just as we had hoped, the river people gave us six beers — one for each of us. Suffering from dehydration, I was sure the PBR was going to help in more ways than one. We gave ourselves the length of time to finish our beers to revel in our victory before facing the 11-mile hike back to camp. (For hikers attempting this, be sure to bring enough water, and pack water filtration to re-fill at the river.)
We did 22 miles of hiking that day and ended with the vertical ascent of Mooney Falls in the dark. Throughout our four days in Havasupai, there were many moments where I determined that I should probably turn back and rest my legs for the hike out. Somehow I’d ended up with a group of super-backpackers and however fit I perceived myself to be, it just wasn’t enough. But with each step forward, my limits were called into question. If I truly can’t go any further then how am I continuing to walk forward? My mind was capable of going much farther than my body and with that I knew that short of complete muscle failure, there were no limits. In this fashion, just putting one foot in front of the other, we would cover nearly 55 miles of trails in four days. The conversations we had at the end of the big Colorado River hike were delirious looking back. Each one of us were living in a place beyond our limits, laughing and at the same time on the verge of tears (in my case).
By the end, I was sure my knees were permanently damaged, and no amount of omega-3’s and arnica would help. Maybe I’m crazy, but I would do it again to experience the Havasupai Reservation to the extent we did. We photographed everything and tried to capture the magical feeling of the lagoon-like waterfalls, but it was the tactile experience of the canyon that gave me an appreciation for this landscape and the people that live there. Climbing the rocks, working together to pass through quick-moving waters, swimming and finding underwater grottos, star gazing, and through all that remembering we have no idea what we’re capable of. These experiences have left a lasting impression on me. That and, the insane switchbacks the last mile out of the canyon! Mules are a cop out. Carry your bags, learn to pack light, go beyond limits, and always, always leave a six pack of beers in the car for the after-party!