As I munched on a Mexican-style burrito with an acquaintance from Germany, I couldn’t help but notice the eclectic crowd riding out the heat in the modest cantina found in Supai Village. This inner canyon eatery is the anchor for a patchwork of random structures comprising the “hub” of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, eight rugged miles from the South Rim. A teenage tribal member wearing a Rastafarian skullcap rocked slowly in the adjacent booth, reggae music pulsing from his earphones. A bewildered Japanese couple who had just arrived on horseback labored to order a Navajo taco from the patiently smiling local tending the counter.
Multi-cultural encounters such as these weren’t always the norm in this western Grand Canyon paradise. The Havasupai had already called this lush oasis home for centuries before European immigrants arrived. Only recently have they turned to tourism as a primary revenue stream, thus opening their ancestral lands to heavy visitation. Even with the influx of visitors, Havasu Canyon deserves its status as a world-class destination. Carved by the fabled blue-green waters of Havasu Creek, the canyon widens briefly for Supai Village, then narrows again for the remaining seven miles to the Colorado River. Sprinkled along its path are a handful of awe-inspiring waterfalls. I had begun my own three-day backpack at the crack of dawn, a wise move considering the day’s rising heat.
I bid my lunch partner farewell in his native tongue and swapped the cultural crossroads of the cantina for the network of paths emanating from the village square. Strapping on my pack for the remainder of the hike, I was rejoined by a three-legged dog that I had befriended during the morning’s descent. The handful of trail mix I fed him back at the trailhead had seemingly sealed our fates together. This reunion was not lost on a cluster of local women fanning themselves in the shade of a nondescript post office—the last in the continental United States to be served exclusively by horse. I tipped my hat to a chorus of giggles and pressed on.
A circling hawk led my eyes to a pair of dramatic spires known as Wigleeva. The Havasupai believe that the fate of their people is tied to these earthen sentinels that stand vigil over the ramshackle village. Leaving the trail briefly to gain a better vantage, I chanced upon a sweat lodge in a brushy clearing near the creek’s edge. I admired the crude structure from afar, resisting the urge to peer inside. As a guest of the Havasupai people I was well aware that this site was not appropriate fodder for my curiosity.
A half-mile further down the trail I arrived at Navajo Falls, the first major waterfall in the canyon. After scrambling to the base of the cascading water, I noticed how dramatically it had changed since my first visit in the mid-80s. Several “thousand-year floods” had scoured the drainage of ancient trees and circular travertine dams. There was nothing in the delicate song of a nearby canyon wren to help one imagine the torrent that had wreaked such havoc in this idyllic basin.
Picturesque Havasu Falls with its twin veils of turquoise water heralded my arrival at the campground. A dozen overheated hikers frolicked in the glorious pools beneath the falls, and I wasted no time joining them for a late-afternoon dip. Between the narrow Redwall cliffs, day turned to night with little warning. With the lull of the thundering falls, the campground made for good sleeping.
Rising early on day two, I began my journey to the Colorado River. My canine companion was trotting by my side until we reached our first obstacle, the honeycomb façade of travertine rock crouching beneath towering Mooney Falls. I left my friend with a granola bar and began an acrobatic descent through a maze of man-made tunnels. At the base of these falls, named for a miner who fell to his death nearby, a deafening roar and constant breeze bore witness to the power of the two-hundred-foot-tall column of crashing water.
The remainder of my morning was spent crisscrossing the swift stream. Each new twist and turn provided yet another chapter of intrigue and beauty. Whether strumming a fallen tree, or drumming a weathered embankment, I became attuned to the various songs of the ubiquitous water. The symphony culminated in the watery chaos of Beaver Falls.
My lunchtime entertainment was provided by a group of cliff-jumping, skinny-dipping river runners—recent arrivals from the Colorado River several miles downstream. Their hoots and howls echoed briefly and then dissipated into the sliver of sky above the mossy cliffs. After spending an hour or two spinning yarns with a boatman friend, I missed the chance to reach the river as the day grew old.
Determined to beat the afternoon’s chill back to the campground, I hurriedly retraced my steps. The pooch was gone, and with him my first line of defense against a family of pack-raiding squirrels. After hanging my food bag, I massaged my shriveled feet until something resembling life returned to them. The campground had filled with new arrivals in my absence, and it took the rustling canopy of trees and ever-present rush of water to forgive the sins of my noisy neighbors.
The next morning found me back at the cantina, treating myself to a mountain of scrambled eggs prior to a hasty ascent. The twisting trail to Hualapai Hilltop, a windswept parking lot on the canyon rim, was always a lively one. At the junction of Havasu and Hualapai Canyons the vivid green cottonwood trees and dense vegetation give way to stark barren cliffs and water-smoothed sandstone benches. The surreal confluence of low flying helicopters, hikers of every stripe, and the occasional stampede of seemingly unattended packhorses competed with the stunning scenery for my wandering attention.
Nearing the trailhead I wondered if the canyon ever took note of frequent hikers like myself. Surely the thousands of hard fought steps I had taken over the years should translate into some karmically preferred status down the road. This koan was answered several switchbacks later in the form of a three-legged metaphor. My flea-bitten friend brushed past with nary a glance, snatching up the beef jerky being tossed his way by his new favorite hiker.
Mike Buchheit is the director of Grand Canyon Field Institute, Grand Canyon Association’s field seminar program. To participate in a GCFI-sponsored backpack to Havasu Canyon, or any other GCFI class, consult the GCFI Catalog of Courses or call GCFI at 928.638.2485.