Anne was in Phoenix attending the Grace Hopper conference and so we made plans with our friend Valerie (of Haute Route fame) to hike into Havasu Falls and the Havasu creek canyon. Havasu creek is somewhat unique because of the high mineral content in the water, giving it an astounding turquoise color and building up beautiful travertine pools that provide for countless smaller cascades down the length of the canyon. The beauty of the canyon certainly puts it on the “bucket list” of hiking and photographic locations to visit. So Anne and I were both super excited, both because we got to spent time with Valerie as well as because we got to do it in such a wonderful location.
Camping reservations into the canyon are notoriously difficult to get given the popularity of the hike. However, Valerie was doggedly persistent and able to secure camping reservations by calling repeatedly until a camping space finally opened up.
On paper, the hike is not a difficult one. From the trailhead to the campground my GPS clocked 10.75 miles with 2577 feet of elevation loss. However, the statistics don’t take into account the fact that most of the trail follows a river wash with a packed gravel surface. This provides a good path, but saps energy and makes the hike feel longer than it might on a firmer packed surface.
We started our hike on Saturday morning and arrived at the trailhead around 11:00 am after a relatively leisurely breakfast in Peach Springs. By that time the parking lot was already packed to overflowing, with cars parked well down the road. We rounded ourselves up for the hike quickly and set out on the hike right around 11:30 am . Luckily, the temperatures were still mild and made for a pleasant start.
The hike drops elevation quickly as it makes its way down a series of switchbacks that joins a gentle ridge taking you down into the bottom of the canyon to the creek bed. This trail then winds its way very gently downhill, following a river bed to the town of Supai.
Along the dry creek bed, there are often braided trails that shortcut horseshoes in the creek and help facilitate both horse and human traffic. Plenty of horse droppings help confirm continually that you’re on the right track. Surprisingly, given our late start, the hike was a pleasant one with long sections of the trail being in partial shade. After about 3 hours, we reached a junction with a sign confirming that we were “almost” at Supai. The trail forked left and continued through a dense patch of trees where we first crossed Supai creek. Shortly thereafter we descended a small hill and arrived at the village of Supai. We wound our way around town and stopped at the Camp Reservations building (about 7.4 miles from the trailhead) where we picked up our camping permits consisting of printed wrist bands for each member of the party as well as a tent tag for each tent in the group.
Note to hikers: There is a water spigot at this building where you can fill your water bottles.
The trail leads quickly out of town to parallel Havasu Creek, which then again quickly brings you to your first set of small but beautiful travertine cascades.
Not far beyond is Havasu Falls and the campground. We’d read about the campsite before we left and steered past the start of the campground, instead looking for sites after about the second bathroom. However, the campground was almost completely full with people which made campsite selection difficult. In the end, we wound up with an excellent, secluded spot next to the creek at the very far end of the camp group (close to Mooney Falls). Total time, about 5 hours.
On Sunday we hiked further down the canyon with the desire to photograph Beaver Falls. Just beyond our campsite was Mooney Falls, maybe a 5 minute walk from the end of the camp group. Here the trail winds down a series of increasingly steep ledges until it finally disappears into a hole in the rock that passes through a tunnel and to a series of chains and ladders that descend to the base of Mooney Falls.
The lower section of the descent is perpetually wet from the spray off the cascade making for both muddy and slippery conditions. It’s not a particularly difficult descent, but does require care and is best done without others either coming down on top of you or climbing up immediately under you.
Mooney Falls and pools offer some really nice photographic opportunities. On the far side of the canyon from the ladders there are a nice set of travertine cascades that contrast beautifully against the red canyon walls. Get here early or late to avoid harsh sunlight.
Continuing further down the canyon brings you to two creek crossings. Here you’ll need to remove shoes (or be willing to get them wet) before you can continue dry the rest of the way to Beaver Falls. Havasu Creek continues down the valley with ever present pools and falls, all robed in the beautiful blue-green hues that makes it stand out so vividly against the red rocks.
In a couple places, you ascent ladders or hewn logs to gain high trails that look down on the winding creek before finally ending at a tribal patrol station where your wrist band is checked. Before descending to the creek, you can make a short (~100 yard) detour to step inside Grand Canyon National Park and look back at Beaver Falls from a nice vantage point. It’s possible to continue another approximately 4 miles to the Colorado River.
The hike to Beaver Falls concludes with a descent down a series of three ladders where you cross Havasu Creek just under the falls. The river crossing below Beaver Falls is quite shallow and allows for easy placement of a tripod to get nice long exposure images of the falls and pool.
Notice to hikers, as we were ascending out of the falls I was hit in the head by a small rock falling from above. Thankfully, it left me with only a little pain but the consequences of such a hit could have been fatal. From that point on, I made a point of standing well clear of the canyon walls when I was able to.
We finished the day by hiking back to camp and up to Havasu Falls to catch sundown. Havasu Falls are best photographed in the early morning or late evening to avoid harsh sunlight and high contrast. As an added advantage, by the time we got there most of the day hikers and swimmers had left.
Because we had a 6pm flight out of Phoenix, we had to get a really early start on Monday morning. We woke at 4am, packed up camp, and were on the trail by 5am under bright moonlight and an incredible blanket of stars. Havasu Falls was well lit by the moon as we walked past, making for a magical scene. By the time the first sunlight was hitting the rim of the canyon we’d already passed Supai and were on our way up the wash. Because of the early start, we enjoyed cool temperatures and shade for all but about the last 30 minutes of the hike, and only about 15 minutes worth of that was in direct sunlight.
We ended the hike with sore feet and big smiles, excited about both the amazing sights in the canyon and the great companionship we shared over the weekend. Definitely a bucket lister!
Total distance: 21.78 mi
Max elevation: 5233 ft
Min elevation: 2582 ft