Words and Photos by Rachel Doser
Most adventure junkies have seen pictures of the pristine aqua waterfalls surrounded by perfectly complimentary rust-colored cliffs that reside on the Supai Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona. Pictures make this wonderland look too good to be true and, trust me, pictures still do not do it justice. However, there are a few things that these pictures do not allude to. Thinking back to my journey into the arm of the Grand Canyon that resides on the Supai Indian Reservation, there are a few things I wish I knew before my trip:
- Camping at the trailhead:
There really is none. Seasoned backpackers are familiar with camping close to the trailhead in order to get an early start on the first day of the expedition. The hike into Supai is not excruciatingly long by any means; however, you still need to make it into town before the ranger office closes (which can be as early as 3 pm). Knowing this, it is not a bad idea to start the hike in early. There is a parking lot at the top of the trailhead, but it is typically packed with cars leaving little room for camping.
- The mule trains:
Please, please do not use the mule trains if you can physically endure carrying your own gear into the canyon. The mule trains going into and out of the canyon were over packed and forced to trot the entire trail, including the portion of the trail that gains 2,000 feet in just 1 mile. I visited the falls in October when the temperatures were mild, but every pack animal was still covered from head to toe in their own sweat. I saw the same string of mules make the trek in and out of the canyon three times during my time on the trail (under 3 hours each way), so I imagine they run them up and down the canyon a half-a-dozen times or so each day. Then at quitting time, the mules and horses are left for a short rest in pens containing what looked to be at least 6 inches of manure. So please, pack your gear in yourself. Not only will you feel better about not contributing to the torture of the mules, but you will also feel much more physically accomplished.
- The campgrounds:
There are no designated spots so you can set up camp anywhere that seems fit, but there are a few things to keep in mind: there are only three bathrooms within the 1 mile stretch of campground and potable water is accessible only at the beginning of the campground toward Havasu falls. The campground gets less crowded the further you go toward Mooney Falls, and there is a bathroom at that end, but no potable water. Also, the squirrels and birds will relentlessly try to get into your food or into your items that may smell yummy, so I would definitely recommend bringing rope to hang your packs and hard containers for your food. Animals near the waterfalls are equally as guilty, so be careful of daypacks as well.
- The waterfalls:
There are 4 waterfalls, but there are 200 people there on average on any given day. That being said, if you are not trying to share one waterfall with 50 other people, then I recommend escaping to Beaver Falls. It is a 3-mile trek past Mooney falls, but it will almost always be less crowded. Getting down to Mooney and onto Beaver falls can have its own (minor) hardships though. To get down to Mooney, you have to scale down some damp rocks, through a corridor in the rock that is really only wide enough for one person, and then climb down a mossy, wooden ladder while being sprayed by Mooney’s wrath with only a slipper chain to aid you. The descent is not at all as sketchy as that may have made it sound, but it is scary for many visitors making them go very, very slowly. This makes the descent into Mooney turn into a slow-moving, single file line that was much more reminiscent of Disneyland than any backpacking attraction I’ve ever encountered. If you want to skip the line, try to make the descent to Mooney early in the morning.
- The sun and the canyon walls:
Because most of the pictures people take are of the waterfalls themselves, it is not obvious that walls on either side of these waterfalls are pretty enormous and the gap between them is relatively narrow. This leaves only a limited amount of time in which some waterfalls are in the sun. This is more important if visiting in cooler months, but is definitely also worth thinking about in the summer months when the shade is actually what may be what is desired. I would suggest visiting the falls that are in narrow portions of the canyon (like Mooney) during mid-day if you want to hit the falls while in the sun. Beaver, Fifty-Foot, Havasupai, and Navajo falls are all in portions of the canyon that are slightly wider, so the sun accesses them for more time each day.
A couple things not to miss out on:
The first waterfall that you will see after the village is Navajo falls, where many stop for lunch or a swim. However, I suggest dropping off of the trail toward the river as soon as you hear rushing water. This will lead you to Fifty-Foot Falls. This is often missed by visitors as it is not visible from the trail, which means it can easily be your own personal swimming hole to cool off in on your way to the campground.
If oatmeal or Mountain House egg scrambles start to sound unappealing while in the canyon, then you can hit the Sinyella store in the village on the way out of the canyon to fill up on a large breakfast burrito before powering your way out of the canyon.
Check out the trail to Havasu Falls: