It’s a banner year for the Grand Canyon—a national park since 1919 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 40 years. This iconic park attracts six million visitors annually, most of them “cone-lickers” according to Brian, our guide when Magellan and I hiked there. Brian estimates 98% of visitors buy an ice-cream cone, peer over the edge and climb back into their air-conditioned SUVs. Not us. We hiked to the bottom, to Havasu Falls, ten miles in the canyon’s deep.
Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking. Don’t you two travel independently, avoiding guided tours? Yes, but we had no latitude, no other choice here. Hiking into and out of Havasu Falls in a single day is illegal, for obvious reasons. Havasu Falls is located in the 190,000-acre parcel of the Grand Canyon that was redistributed back to the Havasupai Tribe to administer in 1975. To reserve a camping spot, you have to win the booking lottery: the entire season for the following year sells out on the first day. Our only option was a tour company with confirmed advance reservations.
In grey dawn, we nine guests and our two guides started off in Flagstaff, Arizona, for a four-hour van ride to the start of the trail at Hualapai Hilltop. It’s an easy enough eight-mile walk down the canyon to the village of Supai, (pronounced soup-I), the capital of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, a one-mule town with a population of about 200 people. Actually, there are plenty of mules because it’s the only place in the US where mail is still carried out by these beasts of burden. Lickety split we learned the first rule of Grand Canyon hiking: when mules or horses are approaching, get over on the inside wall and stay there until they pass. And in our group, to cheer when we saw mules with “W” on their bags freighting down our tents, bedding, clothing, cooking equipment, food…
Although it was early April and the trail was mostly downhill, we were hot and thirsty. Supai’s residents looked hotter than us, bored and neither desirous of nor in shape for hiking. The village café was closed but there was a lineup at the general store. For ice cream! Throwing my wrapper into a garbage can I wondered if mules also ferried the town’s trash.
While sitting on a bench licking my Drumstick® cone, a woman from the village sat down alongside me. “Do you have kids?” she asked. She told me about her four, talking mostly about her son who was in jail for car theft. “He just wanted to get away,” she said. She answered my question. The village has a separate helioport and landing pad dedicated to the helicopters that fly out the trash. I still can see her lovely face (photos are not allowed in the village) and was sorry to have so little time to hear her stories, but it was another two miles to the Havasu Falls campsite and we were on tour.
A tribal dog wanted to get away from Supai, too. Obviously not for the first time, as our guide Mary knew Osso by name. Osso followed us, encouraged by the younger guests in our group who later fed him and allowed him into their tent. On the last day when we were walking out of Havasu Canyon, Osso left us only when other campers adopted him on their way down.
The word Havasupai means People of the Blue Green Waters. A blue green so intensely original in colour, the tribe could patent and market the name. Havaverre? Merriam Webster could define it as: “The colour of the blue-green water found at Havasu Falls, its cascading sound awakening the feeling of being refreshed.”
But the topping on this ice-cream-cone experience was our hike the next day to a set of falls, some of them new to the area after a big rainstorm in 2008, and Mooney Falls—rightfully called the “Mother of Falls.”
How had I overlooked the sentence in our pre-tour package that indicated you needed to be comfortable with tunnels, ladders and chains?
The first cold shock came at breakfast when Brian and Mary described getting down to Mooney Falls. The second shock came after we’d crouched through tunnels and saw the ladder stretching down eighty feet—with people going up and down at the same time! Brian made it sound easy by telling us that In the early days there were only pitons and you had to rappel down. Then came aluminum ladders before the chains and wooden ladders of today were installed. “There’s never been an accident on the descent after they installed these ladders,” said Brian. Later we saw a hundred feet of ladders spaced four feet apart left behind by agile copper miners before transport costs to El Paso made it too expensive to continue.
Mary assured us that she’d stop all the traffic at the bottom and Brian would play traffic cop at the top so the nine of us could descend the ladder without fear of being bumped off or off-balanced by some hulk on the other side. Tour leaders have their advantages. Knees shaking like dice, I made it down. Going up was more difficult. The woman ahead of me lost her nerve, the pace slowed, my hands damply gripped the cold chains and my mind had lots of time to play “what if she faints.”
At the bottom of the ladder, a park ranger from the Sapui tribe checks your wrist band to ensure you have a permit, records the number of people who descend and answers questions about where to wander. Like children at summer camp, we splashed around in the falls, hiked through the lush green oasis to other pools, picnicked on the bench in the water.
What will the next 100 years bring to the Grand Canyon? Will the Havasupai be more involved and begin to guide hikers or offer nightly programs as rangers do in other national parks, or even go so far as to manage the area and supply camping equipment and supplies at Havasu Falls? We for two would like to see visitors more interested in engaging with the tribal people instead of tribal dogs. Several months after we were at Havasu Falls, the Navajo Nation voted down a project on the undeveloped east rim of the Grand Canyon that would have included an IMAX theater, retail shops, hotels and a gondola that in ten minutes would whisk you (and thousands of others) 1.6 miles to the canyon floor. Good for them. I hope they ate lots of ice cream to celebrate.
We recommend dinner at the Grand Canyon National Park Heritage Hotel El Tovar.
UPDATE June 4, 2019: The third tourist in eight days dies in the Grand Canyon.