- Date: March 27-29, 2017
- Start: Hilltop parking lot
- Distance: 42 miles
- Duration: 3 days
- Type: Out-and-back
- References: Bearfoot Theory
For the first time ever I’m writing about a trip that didn’t take place in the good ol’ Pacific Northwest! So what led us to try an adventure well outside of our home base? Well, for starters, after last year’s mild fiasco on the Hoh River Trail, we decided it might be nice to explore an area that was likely to be dry and free of snow. This past winter has been rough on many of the trails in the PNW, so we were ready for a change. Secondly, Google “Havasupai waterfalls” (or, better yet, keep reading this post) and you’ll see why we were so drawn to this particular place.
Due to the extensive amount of driving needed to get to and from the trailhead, we only spent two days exploring Havasupai (with the third day being our hike back to the car). There’s even a good chance we spent roughly the same amount of time driving as we did hiking/running/camping! Nonetheless, we managed to see so much within our limited time frame, and, despite the insufferable amount of time spent in the car (granted we did drive through some amazing scenery), we never once questioned whether or not it was all worth it. The answer, of course, would’ve easily been, “Yes.”
Day 1: Hilltop parking lot to Havasupai campground (10 miles; 4 hours 30 minutes, breaks not included); additional exploration (6 miles)
Our day began before the sun came up, with the alarm blaring around 5 am. We’d arrived at the Hilltop parking lot the previous night after two days of road tripping through Oregon, California, Nevada, and, finally, Arizona. Outside in the dark, we could already make out bustling activity as other hikers prepared their gear for the long hike into the campground. Although we were slow getting ready, we still hit the trail before 6:30 am, just as the sky was beginning to lighten, unveiling the breathtaking canyon landscape before us. We were stopped dead in our tracks numerous times by the beauty surrounding us, and this was only the trek to the main attraction(s)!
Looking out over the vast desert landscape as we made our way down the initial switchbacks made me feel so small, like a mere speck of color on a mural. I can recall feeling similarly when we hiked through the Hoh Rainforest surrounded by ancient trees that blocked out the sky, or when we explored the Eagle Cap Wilderness with the numerous peaks of the Wallowa Mountains towering above us. There’s a negative connotation attached to the word ‘insignificance,’ but in the context of human beings standing in the presence of timeless natural beauty, that humbling feeling is a necessary step to truly appreciating and respecting these wild spaces.
After completing the switchbacks, a majority of the hike took place on the canyon floor. It was still early in the morning, so the air was cool and the sun had yet to reach us. I’ve read about people calling this long stretch to the Supai village monotonous and dull, but Mack and I were genuinely fascinated the entire way! Everything was foreign to us in this southwestern desert ecosystem.
Despite the growing crowd in the parking lot when we set off, we enjoyed a fairly solitary and peaceful walk, save for the pack horses and mules that trotted by every once in awhile . We only started to see more people (people who were exiting the canyon) once we were within a mile or so of the village. As we got nearer, the canyon walls seemed to open up. Sunlight filled the floor and we finished the hike into the village alongside the tropical colored waters of Havasu Creek, shaded by lush, green trees (which had not been a common sight in the previous miles).
We checked in at the visitor center to receive our wristbands (to be worn for the entirety of the trip), a permit to attach to our tent, and a packet containing general info, rules, and a map. The campground is located another two miles from the visitor center, so our hike was not done yet. In accordance with the rules (and, even if there were no rules, out of respect for the privacy of the community), I didn’t take any photos of the town. It was an eye-opening experience though to walk through such a remote place (so remote that mail is carried in and out of the canyon using mules and horses).
I asked myself a lot of questions as we walked through: Where does all the revenue from the tourism industry go? Seeing as many of the houses and properties appeared to be in decrepit shape, does any of it go to improving infrastructure and living conditions? Maybe this isn’t a priority (or a problem) for the people here and I’m making assumptions based on my own privileged, middle class upbringing? How do the people of this town feel about the influx of tourists on a daily basis? So many questions…
Less than a mile before the campground, the first group of stunning waterfalls (Upper & Lower Navajo Falls) came into view. We really wanted to set up camp as soon as possible, so we reluctantly kept moving, promising to return later in the day. The final descent into the campground took us by the iconic Havasu Falls, which drops about 100 feet into blue-green plunge pools below. This one we did stop to photograph before moving along. Excited to start exploring, we set up camp at a site across from the water spigot, oblivious to the fact that some of the nicer (and more shaded) sites were just a little bit further down the trail.
After getting everything squared away at our campsite, we strapped on our running packs and hit the trail. Our first destination was Mooney Falls, less than a mile away. Although you can get a fantastic view of the falls from the ledge above, the real excitement comes from braving the somewhat precarious climb down to the base of the falls. Without hesitation, Mack and I ducked into the tunnel that leads to the sketchiest part of the descent. Supported only by chain railings and slippery wooden ladders, we carefully scrambled down the slick, rocky cliffside and breathed a sigh of relief once our feet touched the ground.
A group of ladies that had waited patiently for us to finish our descent began to make their way back up, leaving us to enjoy this spot all by ourselves. After taking in the view, Mack spotted something strange across the way. Lo and behold, there was a picnic table set up IN THE WATER! We tromped through the creek just for the sake of sitting at this humorously placed table and basking in the view of the falls from a different angle.
Our initial plan after exploring Mooney Falls was to run back up towards the village to see the waterfalls we had passed on the way in. However, as we were running through the campground, I spied a vacant campsite with an incredible view of the creek rushing through the campground. It was also far more shaded than our current site. After mulling over the idea with Mack, I finally concluded that I really wanted to switch, despite the fact that we’d have to pack everything up and move nearly a half mile to this new site. In my defense, we had no plans to make another trip out here anytime soon, so why not make the most of it the first time around?
After setting up camp for the second time that day, we took off for another run. Leaving the campground meant exposing ourselves to the hot, afternoon sun while running uphill to Upper and Lower Navajo Falls. I can’t imagine it was more than 72 degrees or so, but with the sun beating down on us (and the fact that we hadn’t run in temps above 55 degrees since last Summer/Fall), it felt scorching hot. Also, my right ankle (the one I sprained in late February) was pretty sore after I’d rolled it on the hike in (literally two minutes into our hike no less). I was feeling pretty grumpy not being able to keep up with Mack, but once we reached the waterfalls, all that negativity just melted away.
There were already several people swimming at the pool above Lower Navajo Falls, so we continued to follow the trail further back to Upper Navajo Falls, which was completely void of people. Although not nearly as dramatic as Havasu or Mooney, it’s nonetheless a beautiful sight, and it was the perfect place to escape the crowds. Mack enjoyed a brief dip here, exploring a smaller cascade a little to the left of the larger ones. Not being much of a water person, I stayed on dry land and took photos instead.
To cap off our short trail run, we headed down to the pools at Havasu Falls. It was late in the afternoon at this point, so there weren’t as many people occupying them. Interestingly enough, we ended up meeting a couple of Territory Run Co. team members (from Colorado!) who introduced themselves when they spotted us sporting some of the Territory head gear. What a small world. I wish I could say we ended up doing some sort of awesome adventure run together, but we didn’t. Mack did suggest that we extend an invitation since we were planning to run to the Colorado River confluence the next day, but I was growing ever nervous about the pain in my ankle and felt anxious about potentially not being able to keep up with other people. He understood, and we decided that we’d see how my ankle was doing in the morning before setting off.
Back at camp, we endured a little bit of wind (which blew tons of sand into the tent…ugghh) and light rainfall while we ate dinner. Thankfully, that hour or so was the worst weather we experienced the entire trip, and it only resulted in having to shake out our sleeping bags. Not too bad! Unfortunately, once I finally removed my shoes and socks for the day, I got a good look at my ankle. It was swollen (even more so than when I’d initially sprained it) and parts of it were turning purple. I popped an Advil and crossed my fingers that the swelling would subside by the time we woke up. Although we weren’t entirely sure if we were going to end up doing the run all the way to the Colorado, we decided to set our alarm early just in case.
Day 2: Havasupai campground to Havasu Creek/Colorado River confluence out-and-back (16 miles; 5 hours 51 minutes, breaks not included)
It was still dark outside when the alarm went off, so we decided to hold off getting ready until it was lighter. My ankle was feeling stiff, but when I pulled it out of my sleeping bag I noticed that the swelling had gone down quite a bit. That was enough reassurance that I’d at least be capable of doing the bare minimum (getting to Beaver Falls) of our planned route. After lazing around in the tent awhile longer we prepared our running packs, got a quick bite to eat, and set off for Mooney Falls.
The second time climbing down was less nerve-racking now that we knew what to expect. Once we reached the bottom, we stayed on the western shore and continued downstream along Havasu Creek. The trail took us through grassy fields, rocky scrambles, and up and down several ladders. Sometimes the trail would cut off at the water’s edge and we’d have to wade across to pick it up on the opposite side. This happened numerous times. The route felt more like an obstacle course than a trail run at times, but these aspects definitely made it more memorable and exciting.
About 3.5 miles in, we arrived at the viewpoint for Beaver Falls. We were the only people around at the time, so we decided it would be worth it to take a short break now and enjoy the falls before they became crowded later in the day.
The falls are tiered, so we made our way upstream to what appeared to be the tallest one. We waded into the pool to get a better view. One thing I’ve neglected to mention thus far is how perfect the water temperature was each time we stepped in. After the initial experience the previous day, I never once feared that I would get cold (unlike when I cross creeks and rivers in the PNW). Plus, it was sunny and warm enough that we always dried out pretty quickly.
Mack swam into the deeper end of the pool to reach the ledge on the opposite side. He’d noticed a rope dangling down and wanted to see if it could be used to climb up the side of the falls. I observed from a distance this time around, but we came back to explore more later in the day.
Once we were back on the trail, we passed the three or so groups of hikers that were in front of us. We didn’t run into anyone else until we were within a mile of the confluence. I thought 7:45 am had been a late start, but we still got to experience some solitude. The terrain felt about the same as it had been, although I think the trail stays low next to the creek for a majority of this portion. Before Beaver Falls, the trail kind of alternates between rising above the creek and dropping down beside the creek.
Despite being technical, we still managed to do some actual running. The scrambling and wading was by far the best part of the day’s adventure, but it was nice to really stretch our legs and take off when the trail surface became less rocky, as well as less overgrown with prickly plants that scraped up our shins and calves.
Now that the sun was high in the sky, it was really beginning to warm up, but running alongside the creek, knowing we could dip into that cool water anytime we felt, made the heat far more bearable. Plus, I loved watching the light illuminate the canyon walls and reflect the turquoise waters flowing next to us. The morning was transitioning into a beautiful afternoon.
After spending quite some time alone on the trail, we ran into a group of three who were part of a pack rafting trip on the Colorado River. They told us they’d just come from the confluence. We were only a few minutes away! A little ways ahead, we waded across the creek one last time and scrambled up the side of the canyon wall. There were now at least ten people hanging around this area, all members of the pack rafting group that had stopped at the confluence for an exploratory break.
High above the creek (which now had fish swimming in it!), we ran through this narrow canyon until it opened out onto the brown murky waters of the Colorado. Perched on an overhanging ledge, we looked out to see the meeting of these two distinctly colored waterways.
We relaxed here for a short while, taking in the scenery and discussing how cool it would be to try pack rafting at some point. I reviewed some of the photos we’d taken on the run in and realized there were hardly any of Mack (and maybe a few too many of me)! I aimed to fix that on the way back.
The run back to Beaver Falls seemed to go by a lot faster. We didn’t stop as much for photos (save for the few I took of Mack below) and the terrain started to feel familiar. However, we didn’t cross the creek at the same points that we had on the way in. We still remained on the trail heading upstream, but there were definitely sections that seemed totally new to us. It could’ve just been because we were heading in the opposite direction, but it could’ve also been that we were running on opposite sides of the creek that we hadn’t run on going to the confluence. Either way, it led to a slightly terrifying situation right before we reached Beaver Falls.
Although we thought we’d stayed on trail, we somehow ended up too low when we arrived at the downstream end of Beaver Falls. The trail was at least 20 vertical feet above us (which we figured out because we could hear people), and since we were on a somewhat precarious ledge, backtracking to find the part of the trail that should’ve led up didn’t sound appealing. It did seem like our only option at the time, but then Mack spotted lengths of thick webbing tied together leading up the rock face. He put his weight on it (still balanced on the ledge of course!) to check its security. It seemed legit, but both of us were hesitant since we couldn’t see the anchor above. It’s not like we had a harness and biners to clip into this thing either! Mack decided to go first while I spotted him. He made it up several feet to another ledge, rested for a moment, then pulled himself up the final stretch. Once at the top, he reassured me the anchor was secure (locking biner on a bolted hanger).
I grabbed ahold of the webbing and started to push myself up with my feet. They weren’t gaining much traction on this smoother rock and I kept sliding down, which scared the crap out of me since I was only depending on my hands not letting go of the webbing. After a couple more tries and some high knees to get my feet onto better foot holds, I finally made it up to the first ledge. My legs were wobbly, but I still had a bit more to go. The second section felt easier since there were more spots to place your feet, and Mack helped pull me up over the last overhang so I’d feel a little safer. We stood there for a few minutes to shake out the nerves before continuing on.
To regain our composure, we headed down to Beaver Falls again. There were several groups here now, but we decided to hang around anyways and do some exploring.
Mack insisted we climb above the falls (which he’d looked into when we first stopped by earlier in the day). This involved wading into the deeper section of the plunge pool. For Mack, the water came up to his chest. For me, at just under five feet tall and standing on my tip toes, it came up to my chin. It only lasted for a few strides though. Using the rope that Mack had tried out earlier, we pulled ourselves up to the top of the falls. We got a beautiful view of the tiered pools leading down into the creek. From here, we didn’t have to climb back down to get to the trail, too. We just walked through the water until reaching the shore. The trail continued from here.
Neither of us had been very hungry over the course of the run, so we’d just been staying hydrated with water and Tailwind. However, by the time we reached Mooney Falls, both of us were starting to bonk. Climbing back up to the top of Mooney took extra focus and care since we were both a little out of it by this point. I munched on a few Clif Bar Shot Bloks once we reached the top. We jogged back to camp and collapsed at our picnic table sometime between 2 and 3 pm.
The rest of the day was spent taking it easy, getting ready for the hike out, and, of course, eating. I was so happy we ended up completing the Mooney Falls to Colorado River out-and-back despite being uncertain about it the day before and even that morning! I was even more happy that we decided to run (well, run/hike) it, especially since the groups that we passed on the way in didn’t roll back into camp until early evening (maybe three hours after we’d gotten back). We went to sleep that night with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we were sad to be leaving this incredible place, but on the other hand, we missed Cassie immensely.
Day 3: Havasupai campground to Hilltop parking lot (10 miles; 4 hours 2 minutes, breaks not included)
Leaving the beautiful places we backpack to/through is always bittersweet. Havasupai was no different. However, the one thing that motivated us to get up and out as fast as we could was the fact that we had a 20+ hour drive home. After a little resistance, we pulled ourselves out of our sleeping bags, got everything packed up, and hit the trail just before 7 am. It was quiet as we walked out of the campground. Most everyone was still sleeping or just beginning to wake up. At least we’d get to enjoy another peaceful hike.
Although the hike out gains more elevation since we’re exiting the canyon, we were actually making better time than when we hiked in. I guess the idea of hitting the road as soon as we could and covering as many of the 2400+ miles as possible before stopping for the night was pretty appealing. In fact, instead of slowing down when we arrived at the more serious uphill section (i.e. the mile or so of switchbacks leading up to the parking lot), we started hiking faster, even turning it into a friendly competition (just amongst ourselves) to get to the top before the group of pack horses behind us (which we ultimately succeeded at). Just as it had been on Monday morning, the trailhead was bustling with activity. On a small ledge away from the crowds, Mack and I snuck away for one last glimpse into the canyon down below. Exhausted, but happy, we dragged our feet back to the car, threw everything in, changed into clean socks and shoes, and began the long drive home.
*Note: We ended up doing the 20+ hour drive home in a single push rather than stopping to camp somewhere. We wouldn’t recommend it…