Four friends search for a hidden civilization and the ultimate adventure between the Grand Canyon’s walls.
In the Hualapai Hilltop parking lot, perched on top of the Grand Canyon’s southwest rim, the sun lowers into a sliver and bathes the canyon floor in soft, orange light. I shuffle over to a cliff, look down at the drop, and look up at the stars. This is vast and mysterious Havasupai Indian Tribe Land; 188,777 acres of it with 600-something inhabitants, depending on who you ask. It’s a magnificent place, and I’m happy to be here with three of my best friends.
We’re here for the same reason as roughly 20,000 other annual visitors: to swim in blue waters and bask in the hot Arizona sun. Besides that, we have no idea what we’re getting into. In the morning, the only thing we need to focus on is a 10-mile hike into the canyon, through the remote village of Supai, and down to some of the country’s most impressive waterfalls. Two sunsets later, it’ll be a 10-mile return to the parking lot followed by a 13-hour hell ride to Denver. But who’s counting? We’re here, morale is high, and that’s all that matters—even if we’re sleeping on pavement tonight.
The Havasupai Trail sprouts straight out of the parking lot and immediately plunges 1,000 vertical feet into the canyon through a series of well-groomed switchbacks. This section lasts for about one mile, providing a no-turning-back sentiment we all enjoy. Here, it’s best to let the canyon walls funnel you farther away from the complex world you came from and embrace the simplicity that lies ahead.
Hitting the canyon floor feels something like landing on Mars. Everything is red. Everything is made of dirt and rock. Everything is wonderfully foreign. And for the next five miles, we spacewalk across flat, monotonous terrain—the good kind of monotonous—the kind that keeps you moving forward without too many distractions. Dust beneath our lonely feet turns into low-hovering clouds with each step, lingering in the dry, hot air behind us like smog. With the exception of the occasional hiker group, we’re alone. It feels like we’re the first ones to ever be here. Though, in reality, we’re a good 800 years behind.
By mile six, the spacewalk transforms into more of a tropical stroll. Havasu Creek is on our right, beach-like sand is under our boots, and an abundance of Gambel oaks hang overhead, providing some much-needed shade. It’s March and about 70 degrees. But 70 here is hot and dry, especially for someone like me: pale and from Vermont. We stop by the water, but just for a second because, while most hikers were trail-bound by 4 or 5 this morning, we didn’t peel ourselves off the pavement until a late 7 a.m. Then, we crisscross through the sand, descend even farther into the canyon, and arrive in Supai at the eight-mile mark, where the canyon walls become vastly distanced from one another.
The first place we go in Supai, like all tourists must, is the Havasupai Tourist Office. A woman wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt—which we’ll soon discover is a common piece of apparel in Supai—checks us in, collects our permit payments, and gives us wristbands that read “HAVASUPAI TOURIST.” She then rattles off some general instructions to the guys, and I hope they’re listening because my focus has shifted to the dude who’s rapidly answering phones in the back by himself. Now I know why it took us 200 calls (literally) to get in touch with this place, and why it can take others—like two Californians we spoke with back in the parking lot—thousands.
Some of the infrastructures in Supai, like the elementary school, tourist office, and grocery store, are in solid shape. But a lot of homes are falling apart, bordered by half-standing fences enclosing trash-covered yards. Even the helicopter pad, which serves as the town center (and a landing area for countless tourists), has a garbage pile shoved into its back corner that’s gradually dispersed with each gust from the rotor.
Supai is in need of repair. But it’s the most remote town in the continental U.S., so it’s not that simple. In order to make repairs, you have to fly in materials. And in order to fly in materials, according to one villager, it costs $150 per helicopter sling. So, no matter how big or small the project is, it’s not going to cheap. In many cases, it’s not even feasible. As for the trash problem, the reason behind its prevalence isn’t totally clear. But another resident confirms that there’s no proper way to dispose of it, and he burns most of his as a result.
We carry on through the remainder of Supai with waterfalls in mind and a pair of mangy, wandering, friendly dogs at our side.
In no less than two miles, all downhill, we arrive at Navajo Falls, a collection of moss-covered 20-footers surrounded by rock walls and tourists. Before we can even appreciate (and jump off of) the falls themselves, all we can do is stare at the water—composed of a blue so pure that it seems to be stolen from the sky. It’s a hypnotizing color, spellbinding us to the point of nearly forgetting about the decaying village in our tracks. For the next two days, as we progress down the trail, that hypnotism doesn’t fade even the slightest bit.
Our next stop is Havasu Falls, a 100-foot-tall sensation that viciously pours over a wall of pointed rock outcroppings that droop down to form caves. The setting is an example of how powerful, beautiful, and terrifying nature can be all at once, so we celebrate the absurd combination by swimming around aimlessly for who knows how long.
Two-hundred-foot Mooney—our final stop—is the biggest of waterfall on the reservation, and it requires a sketchy climb to access its base that’s aided only by mist-covered chains and ladders. Getting down is no easy task, but seeing its magnificence from below is the perfect way to end our Havasupian waterfall tour. We barely talk, as our voices are continuously silenced by the water’s roar. But we’re all thinking the same thing: This is absolutely the best hike ever.
Outside of my apartment, nestled under a cloud of smog at the base of the Rockies, the sun lowers into an unidentifiable shape behind a set of buildings and illuminates a dirty gutter in harsh, orange light. I shuffle over to the same bench I sit on every evening, look down at the pavement, and look up at the starless sky. This is constricted and predictable Denver County Land; 99,200 acres of it with 600,000-something inhabitants and rising. Like Havasupai, it’s a magnificent place. But a very different kind of magnificent. And I’d rather be on the trail with three of my best friends.