It felt like the equivalent to finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket – a reservation for a weekend to camp at the highly sought after Havasupai falls.
On February 1, 2017, I woke up at 6AM and started calling the Havasupai reservation phone number. Busy signal. Drats. Hung up, then re-dialed. Busy signal. Drats. It went on like this throughout the day while at work, into the next day, and the day after that. Every now and then I would get one or two rings, then the automated response saying the line was busy and to hang up and try again. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be that year but, I was determined to get a reservation next year. I marked it in my calendar and during the weeks leading up February 1, asked friends if they’d be interested, so we knew how many permits to get and preferred dates (as if we actually had a choice).
On February 1, 2018, we woke up at 5:30AM, only this time, an online reservation system was available that would go live at 6AM our time. We had our accounts all set up and ready to go for the minute the system opened up. WEBSITE ERROR. ARE YOU $@?*&!# KIDDING ME?! After a quick refresh and near mental breakdown, we were able to access the site.
Awesome, May is available, let’s add these dates to our shopping cart, annnnnd check out. “Sorry, these dates are no longer available”. Okay, let’s go back, sweet, June is available. It’s Will’s birthday month, he’ll be stoked, add to shopping cart, annnnnd check out. “Sorry, these dates are no longer available.” Third time is the charm, right? July 3rd through July 5th. It’s going to be hotter than Hades, but that will make the water that much more enjoyable. Add to cart, annnnd check out. VICTORY IS MINE. I almost started singing “because I’ve got a golden ticket…” I couldn’t believe our luck. Another 15 minutes, we would have been SOL – the reservation system took less than 30 minutes before it was fully booked for the year. Sorry to everyone else out there, but I was stoked, we were finally going to Havasupai Falls!
If you have never heard of Havasupai or Havasupai Falls, here’s something to help you understand why tickets to these campgrounds for the entire year sell out in 30 minutes. I imagine every year, getting permits is harder and harder thanks to social media, but it really is a wonderful place.
Havasupai Falls is located in the Grand Canyon, on an Indian reservation for the Havasupai Tribe. The Havasupai people have lived here for nearly 800 years. Havasupai itself translates to “Blue-Green Water” (Havasu) “People” (Pai). Because the falls are on the reservation, the tribe is able to regulate who comes and goes, and how many people can camp at a given time.
In order to preserve the falls, trails and in general, maintain the campgrounds, a limited number of sites are available per day. Reservations for an entire calendar year become available at 8 AM Arizona Time on February 1 of the given year (check your timezones friends!). To make reservations, go to the Havasupai Tribe Website, log in before 8 AM and be ready to book your reservations online the second the clock strikes eight. Can’t get a reservation and thinking of just making a “day trip” out of it? Nice try, but no can do for a variety of reasons.
First, it is about a 10 mile hike to get to the first waterfall – Havasu Falls. The first mile drops you into the canyon, so you lose elevation prettttty darn quickly (~2,000 feet). Even if you managed to get to the falls at a decent time, hiking 20 miles one day, including that last 1 mile out of the canyon, is brutal. Many get have gotten heat stroke or heat exhaustion trying to do this, as such, the tribe no longer allows out-and-back visits.
So, you might be thinking, “what if I just hike down and set up camp? Who is going to know I don’t have a permit?” Wrong again my friend. When you pass through the village, just before reaching the outer end of it, there is an office where you check-in and get wristbands and tent tags for your party. The tag color denotes when you are supposed to check out and the wristbands are worn at all times to show you’ve checked in. Patrols are done throughout the day on ATVs to ensure that all camper are valid campers. They’ve really thought this through.
So you got your reservation – Havasupai Prep 101
Packing List (gear & food) – Obviously this varies depending on the amount of time you are camping and the time of the year. If you are going in the summer like we did, I created our packing list and food recommendations (so you can eat better than MREs, just because you are camping doesn’t mean you have to eat gross food).
Night before – You have two options, camp at the trailhead parking lot or stay at the Hualapai Lodge which is about 45 minutes from the trailhead. Our group voted for the later so that we had a bed to sleep in before a long hike, and one last chance reallocate food and supplies (or ditch some items in the car) across backpacks. We woke up at 3am the next morning, packed up our bags and hit the road.
The lodge is only about 20 miles from the trailhead, HOWEVER, it took us 45-60 minutes to get to the trailhead because (i) the road is super dark and (ii) there are A LOT of animals crossing the road and even laying in the road! The road traps a lot of heat during the day, so when it cools down at night, animals like to lay on the warm asphalt. Deer and bucks darted out from both sides multiple times; we saw rabbits, cows, and coyotes, OH MY. It didn’t matter that we only had a few hours of sleep, we were all wide awake during that drive keeping an eye out for anything that might jump out in front of us at a moments notice. By the time we got to the trailhead, people were waking up and packing up their tents, so we didn’t lose any time by staying at the lodge.
The Hike & Falls
The hike is about 10 miles; while relatively flat, it is pretty exposed a large portion of the hike. Make sure you have plenty of water for the hike, it adds weight, but there isn’t any access to water until you get to the Village (~7 miles in). The last thing you want is to get dehydrated.
The hike itself starts off pretty uneventful, lots of switchbacks as you drop down into the canyon. However, soon, you see the sunrise, and get views like this:
After that, it is pretty uneventful for a bit. Occasionally, you’ll see a group of mules and a local a horse driving them. These are the pack mules heading up to pick up some new campers. Yes, taking a pack mule is an option, but I feel bad for all the weight they are carrying day in and day out when we were perfectly capable of carrying our own things. Also, I had read that the mules didn’t seem like they were in great condition/health when researching the trip. I think conditions have improved, because they didn’t look malnourished to us.
Oh while I’m at it, there’s a third option to getting in and out of the canyon. What’s behind door number three you ask? A helicopter ride! However, a word of caution before you get too excited. The helicopter is first come, first serve; you cannot reserve a helicopter. The rides don’t start until later in the morning, so you are taking a chances in the summer waiting for the helicopter and might end up hiking during the hottest part of the day. Also, if you try to opt for the helicopter on the way out of the canyon, still first come, first serve and elderly locals get preference. Again, you do take a chance on having to hike out of the canyon during the hottest part of the day. Besides, if you take the helicopter you miss out on how the scenery changes.
Once we got to the Village, we loosened our boots and took a small break for some trail mix and beef jerky. There’s also an outhouse and convenience store for any last minute provisions. If you have the energy, keep on going! It’s about another hour or so before you reach Havasu Falls; the campsite is shortly thereafter.
Once you set up camp, head back to Havasu Falls with your floaties and camera. This is the easiest waterfall to get to, and after a 10 mile hike, it’s time to give your feet and legs a break.
We only had one more full day, so we woke up early – made some pancakes and grits, then packed up for the day to head out to Beaver Falls. Beaver Falls is the furthest out of the three waterfalls and involves hiking through Mooney Falls to get there. There were definitely times where we thought we were lost – a few times we stopped to ask others we saw which was the right path (the maps provided leave something to be desired). Pretty much if you walk along the river, you will get there, but you do have to cross the river at times when the path on one side goes dead.
Don’t forget to bring gloves to hold onto the chains as you descend into Mooney Falls. They can get pretty hot in the summer especially in the afternoon. If you do forget your gloves, usually there are some that others have left behind that you can use. Also, word of caution, when you get to the part with the ladders, DO NOT LEAN BACK. The ladders are chained to the side of the mountain, but not tightly. If you lean back, the ladder will go back as well, and you can seriously injure yourself if you fall…sooooo just lean into it for the short time you are on them.
Feel free to take a break here, but we kept going since you can always hang out here on your way back to camp. We continued through some green fields and even saw some goats along the way.
Every now and then the path would lead us down by the water and we would have to cross to the other side of the river to continue.
My best advice for finding your way to Beaver falls is to research it and save directions to your phone before you leave civilization. Even with the directions, we still kind of had to “wing it”, but we never tired of the blue green waters.
It took us about 2.5 hours to find our way to Beaver falls. Along the way we encountered a few pools where we rested, crossed a few foot bridges, before “repelling” down into the falls swimming hole. Yeah, you read that correctly. There are two ways to get to the falls and we opted for what others told us was the faster route. It also involved shimmy’ing along the side of the walls and then using a rope to slowly repel and lower yourself into one of the Beaver Falls swimming holes.
We took our time swimming around, snacking, and just relaxing for a couple hours, then decided it was time to head back so we could spend some time at Mooney Falls. On the way out, we took the slightly longer route so we didn’t have to use the rope to climb out of the pools. This route, is a bit more exposed because it is at the top of the canyon, so it was VERY hot and the sun felt super strong during that first hour of the hike back to Mooney. I suspect the “official” trail is this route as we saw the sign for Beaver Falls only after “leaving”. It isn’t until you see it from above, that you understand why people say Beaver Falls is the best of the three. I recommend you get there early if you want any photos without people taking their own selfies :).
We made it to Mooney Falls and we were nothing short of FAMISHED. Despite all of our snacking at Beaver Falls, we were probably burning off those calories immediately on the hike. We brought our little jet boiler to make a “real” meal at Mooney. We even found a picnic table that we could move into the water and enjoy the view while eating. While waiting for the food to finish cooking, we took advantage of the rope swing into the swimming hole just below the main waterfall.
After a couple hours at Mooney, we were all starting to run low on water and, just in general, wanted to rest back at the campsite. We were hiking out the next day and thought it might be good to give our legs a little bit of rest after all the hiking we did that day before taking on 10 miles the next day. Some of us napped, others read or played ‘Pass the Pigs’ (highly recommend bringing this with you or a set of cards) before making dinner and finding some other campsites in need of some rafts and floats (this is why you don’t have to worry if you either forgot a raft or didn’t bring enough floats, everyone heading out does this their last night, we even acquired two our first day).
Side note: for anyone keeping track, we did 10 miles the first day, 6 the second (3 each way), and will do 10 on the last day for a total of 26 miles in 3 days.
The weather report said a heat wave would be coming through our last day of our trip, they weren’t lying. Obviously it’s going to be hot in July, but it was supposed to be ~110 degrees the next day. When we went to sleep, a hot wind blew through the campgrounds – the feeling of that hot air felt like the wave of heat that comes out when you open an oven. None of us slept, we kept waking up to go dip our bandanas in the river and tie it around our necks to stay cool in our tents. Given it was so hot at even 10pm, we thought it best to start the hike out super early to make sure we got through the most exposed part of the hike before the sunrise.
We packed up camp and hit the trail at 3:30AM. I would venture to say that the hike back was harder despite having lighter packs; we were just so exhausted from lack of sleep and the heat that was already settling in. Luckily we made good time made it to the last mile just as the sun was coming up. Thank goodness for hiking poles – I’m not sure I would have made it back up that 2,000 foot incline out the canyon without them. Make sure you have water and some form of electrolytes (e.g. NUUN, Gu, Stingers, etc.) they will really come in handy the second half of the hike out of the canyon.
I totally forgot about all of the switchbacks that were at the beginning of the trail. By the time we reached the top, we were exhausted and hungry for real food. The ranger station sold gatorade, which never tasted better than after that hike. After that we hopped in the car, tired and desperately in need of a shower, but all smiles. Off to Vegas we went for hot clean showers and comfortable beds to rest our heads (and maybe a game of craps or two).
Other Details & Words of Caution
Be aware of Monsoon Season. The Grand Canyon is located in a desert, however, Monsoon season runs from June – August. Havasu Falls in all of its blue-green glory is pretty epic, but I’ve seen some pretty epic videos and photos of what it looks like after some rain and flash flooding. The survival tales that I read are rival the pictures. We knew that we were taking a risk by going at the beginning of July. We watched the weather closely for the days leading up to our trip – keeping an eye out for the slightest precipitation that might cause flash flooding. Ladies and gentlemen, if you are in the canyon when there is a flash flood, you are, for lack of better words, fucked.
I don’t say this to scare you, but seriously, please take proper precaution when planning, do not test Mother Nature, she will win. We were SO lucky when we went. We left the day a major heat wave came in and less than one week later, a major flash flood came through, 200 people had to be evacuated via helicopter and the campgrounds were closed for the rest of the season.
If you can get permits for the spring time, consider yourselves the luckiest of the lucky. Like, you should maybe consider going out and buying a lottery ticket kind-of-lucky. Don’t actually do that. Save your money because permits are expensive AF. No joke, it was $125/person after all the fees and what not for 2 nights of camping.
Last few quick tips:
- Bring a book to read at the falls or while in a hammock at your campground.
- Don’t forget a group game like Pass the Pigs or cards.
- Bring some gloves that can protect your hands from the hot chains at Mooney Falls.
- If you go in the summer, don’t bother with a sleeping bag, it will be so hot, you won’t use it and it will just be added weight. A sleeping pad or a hammock will do.
- Bring a collapsable water jug; the campsite has potable water, but unless you setup right there, you will have to walk back and forth a lot if you only have water bottles.
- Don’t forget to stay hydrated, protect yourself from the sun!
- If you forget your raft or floaty, don’t stress. People will typically walk around the campsites the day before they leave giving them to other campers for free – one less thing to pack out.
- Lastly, have a wonderful time, it’s truly amazing. Take time to put down your phone/camera, pause on the picture taking, and just take it all in.