Thursday, June 13, 2013

Havasupai, Round 3: Lessons from my third trip to the waterfalls

Even on my third trip to Havasupai waterfalls I learned so much. It's always a new experience.

The main difference between this trip and previous visits is that this time our reservation was on a weekend and for a party of six. Team Doza was Graham, Kent, Cody, Jenn, Chris and yours truly. Instead of waking up early to drive to the trailhead on the day of the reservation, we broke up the trip; we booked a hotel room in Williams for Thursday night and then woke up at 4 a.m. Friday to drive the rest of the way. I am not sure that this helped us depart on our hike any earlier or avoid more of the intense sun, but it was easier on the driver. Two of the campers drove up late Thursday and slept in their cars for a few hours.


Driving through Seligman.

Turn right onto Indian Road 18.


From Seligman we followed Interstate 40 to Seligman and then took Route 66 to Indian Road 18. The drive on IR 18 is about 60 miles at 50 mph. Be on the lookout for cattle in the road; a startled calf ran across the road on our way to the hilltop. The cattle stayed so close to the road that we started honking as we approached to scare them away from the pavement. Cattle guards add bumpiness to the ride. The road starts to get rough in some spots. One such area is near Mile Marker 22, but the road smooths out again around Mile 44. At Mile 57 the speed limit slows to 25 mph as the road curves and you approach the trailhead.



The cattle get really close to the road.

When we arrived at Hualapai Hilltop, we were shocked at the number of cars parked in the lot and along the street. We parked so far from the trailhead that the walk there felt like a hike in itself. Beforehand Graham cooked our usual breakfast of an egg, veggie and potato skillet. We finally took off  around 8 a.m.

Immediately the number of people on the trail became noticeable. Even if we wanted to hike faster in the beginning part of the trail, which has lots of switchbacks, we couldn't, as we were stuck behind other groups and often had to yield to horses. At one point, the rope holding one horse became stuck on another horse's saddle, and the horse started to panic. For a second I thought I might get kicked, and the horse stepped so close to the edge that it almost fell over, but luckily the horse wrangler was able to free the horse. A few feet away, I noticed some drops of blood on the trail. We trekked on and finally reached the bottom of the switchbacks to begin the mostly unshaded part of the hike and separate ourselves from other groups.









Horses kick up lots of dust and dirt.




"Just keep swimmin', just keep swimmin' ..."

The hike is long, but it's also beautiful, so you might as well stop to look around and snap as many photos as possible. The burden on your shoulders and back starts to wear on you near the village. The terrain becomes sandy; like walking on a beach, with a heavy pack, in 100 degree weather, minus the cool ocean breeze. We stopped to grab cold drinks at the village stores and check in.


Our fees worked out to $81.40 per person for two nights. One of the office workers then dropped on the news on us: We would be sharing the campgrounds with a group of 150 people and another group of about 50. While we figured weekends would be busier, I didn't expect that high of a number of campers at once. We soldiered on to finish the last 2 miles, stopping for photos of Upper Navajo, Little Navajo and Havasu Falls.





The first view of Havasu Falls is a sight for sore eyes. It comes just after a punishing hill, too. There's even a little rainbow.




It would be nice to set up a hammock right above the water.

We had no expectation of seclusion given the number of campers in the canyon, which is fine. Our campsite consisted of two hammocks and a two-person tent and it was accessible by crossing the creek. I enjoyed a blissful bit of time lounging in our hammock, resting my sore legs. I could have stayed there all weekend.

View from the hammock.

Our first stop after setting up camp was Havasu Falls. On my previous two trips I've never seen people jump from the sides of Havasu, but this time many people summoned the courage. It looked like a thrilling 30 to 40-foot drop. It's also amusing to see people who hiked alongside us at the waterfalls. They walk with stiff legs and yet have huge smiles on their faces.


I was content to just sit in the cool water.



The next day we ventured on to Mooney, which was just as impressive as before, though it took some time to get down the cliff with the crowds. There are now rangers -- one at the top and one near the bottom -- who help direct traffic through the cliff tunnels and down the ladders. One of them noted that the number of newbies was slowing things down. He also said they began to direct traffic after people started falling left and right. The sign that says "Descend at your own risk" is not an exaggeration.





At the bottom, handstands seemed to be the popular pose that day. I stuck with a safer yoga tree pose.
To the side of the waterfall there is a small drop just several feet high, and we discovered it have a little cavelike area underneath where people can sit. Some people talked about continuing on to Beaver Falls, though sadly we didn't make it. (I just might need to make one more trip next year to finally make it there. Maybe we can helicopter both in and out so we can save our energy for the hike to Beaver. Or maybe we would stay longer to give our bodies time to recover.)

Coming out from underneath the mini waterfall.

Follow the water to get to Beaver Falls.

Canyon memories 

A highlight of the trip was dinner with my campmates on Saturday night. We combined our foods to make a feast: pancakes; cheesy hashbrowns; fiesta black beans with red peppers and onions; a combo of spaghetti noodles, peas, carrots and Parmesan cheese (some of us also added tuna); and trail mix. Nearby campers had rave lights set up to illuminate the adjacent canyon wall and decked themselves out in glowsticks. We turned off our lanterns to gaze at the stars and chat, and even came up with our own inside jokes.




Another highlight was buying the last frybread sold by a man at the campgrounds earlier that day. The best $5 I could have spent last weekend! I poured a generous amount of honey, powdered sugar and cinnamon on it and gobbled it up. Yum!

A scary yet funny (in retrospect) moment occurred around 2 a.m. Sunday when my friend woke up screaming that he was stung by a scorpion. It turned out to be a nonpoisonous, small yellow scorpion and nothing to worry about, despite the pain of the sting. My two pals had opened the bottom zipper to let cool air in, allowing the little critter in. (Note to self: Don't do that!)

The big group

I mentioned earlier in this post a group of 150 people with reservations for the same weekend. We met a man on the last day who apparently plans camping trips every year. He said it began with 12 people and grew to the 150 that went in 2013. The campers each paid either $120 or $150 for all of their meals, T-shirts and bandanas ... and I'm not sure what else. They had hired more than 40 mules to bring down their stuff. This also meant we had competition for getting a helicopter ride out.

An 8-hour wait vs. 5-hour walk

The plan for Sunday was to wake up as early as possible to hike the 2 miles back to Supai and check in for a helicopter flight. We were told check-in was from 10 a.m. to noon, but we woke up around 6:30 a.m. and hiked out around 7. We stopped for one last view of Havasu Falls on the way. The weather was significantly cooler and we were so grateful to be hiking out in the shade rather than the scorching sun. The morning light is gorgeous, and the hike was so much easier than the way in. I remember saying, "This is a leisurely stroll." Except with a backpack.

One last stop at Havasu Falls.

Much to our surprise, there were about 100 people in line already waiting to check in. Well, not exactly. Some people were saving spots for others in their group. This caused heated exchanges among those who thought this was unfair.

Flights didn't start until after 10 a.m. My group had Nos. 123, 124, 126 (me), 127, 145 and 146. This didn't include the 38 or so locals who flew out before the tourist flights even started. We spent the next 8 or 9 hours sometimes lying on a tarp in the shade, other times sitting at a table at the cafe patio. We snacked, tried to stay hydrated and talked. At one point we decided to start timing the flights in and out. The shortest we timed was about 9 minutes including loading time at top and bottom of the canyon. This somewhat helped us preserve our sanity and keep the hope alive of being flown out. The wait would have been more bearable had the cafe and store been open, but planned electrical work shut down the cafe around 11 a.m. Luckily I went in beforehand and ordered a filling breakfast burrito (with homemade tortilla and salsa!). The store closed shortly afterward when its generator shut down. This meant no more ice-cold drinks for the rest of the wait unless you walked to the other store at the edge of the village. Under the intense heat that walk seemed three times longer. The cafe's closure also meant that all the campers waiting for a flight had to share one bathroom (that I know of), the one at the tourist office.


Yes, we could have decided to hike out once we saw the line of people waiting at 8 a.m. But by then the sun was already almost over the canyon walls and the temperature was rising quickly. In order to hike out we would have needed to wake up around 3 or 4 a.m. Many in group had blisters on their feet and sore muscles. It was thus definitely worth it to wait that long to not have to hike out.

"Havasupai, you win again!"

To sum up, here's what I learned.
  • Don't camp on a weekend if you prefer seclusion. It wouldn't hurt to call the office to ask if you're sharing the grounds with big groups.
  • If you do want to helicopter out on a Sunday, wake up early, at 3 or 4 a.m. if it's crowded, and wait at the check-in site. That's also a good time to start hiking back if that's your preference.
  • Bring cash. Although the camping office and helicopter service take credit cards, it was beneficial having cash to pay for snacks sold by locals. 
  • Don't bother bringing a sweatshirt in May, June or August. Those are the three months I've gone, and it's been warm every time. Sweatshirts and sleeping bags just add more weight.
  • Have more fun with it. Bring rafts, glowsticks, lights, whatever.

Things I wish I had brought

It never fails that I overlook things.
  • Inflatable raft. Why didn't I think to bring one and blow it up there?
  • Spray bottle with fan. I saw someone use one of these while waiting for the helicopter in the heat and I became insanely jealous.
  • Crystal Light or Mio. I use these all the time and yet didn't think to bring them. After drinking lukewarm water for 2 days I craved some flavor.

Previous posts on Havasupai

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