In November 2018 I did something crazy. I went on my first overnight backpacking trip to Havasu Canyon Trail. You may have heard of Havasupai, or you may have seen pictures of an insanely beautiful waterfall out in Arizona somewhere. It makes a lot of appearances on social media. In fact my decision to go was really just a gut reaction. I was asked to go by my cousin who happens to be my best friend and hiking buddy. It took about five minutes of googling pictures to decide I HAD TO SEE THIS PLACE!
That was just the beginning though. So much more went into the actual preparation for our hike to the falls. I had absolutely no gear. I live in Charleston, South Carolina one of the flattest places in the United States. How the hell was I going to train for this? All of those thoughts of doubt flooded my mind pretty quickly once I actually started doing the real research. Havasu Canyon trail is no joke. This is not some place you can hike in a day and go home. This is a strenuous ten mile hike to the campground with a very full pack. Arizona being Arizona gets HOT so in the summer temperatures can get up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit! Luckily we went in November so temperatures were ranging from the low seventies during the day to the high thirties at night. Having done this hike in pleasant weather I would never go in the summer. I really don’t suggest this hike unless you have time to train or are very fit and active. Be honest with yourself before you pay for your permits.
Let’s start with the basics:
The Havasupai Indian Reservation is located in the Northwest corner of Arizona. You must buy a permit from their official website starting February 1. You must create your account before February first though! The application period starts at 8 am MST. No day hiking is allowed. The tribe is now requiring three nights minimum, so the least you can pay per person is $300 ($100 per night)
The prices including taxes and fees as of 2019 are:
- Monday to Thursday: $100 per person per night
- Friday to Sunday: $125 per person per night
- Minimum One Person, 3 weekday nights: $300
- Maximum One Person, 3 weekend nights: $375
- If you are going with a group the max number of people is 10.
- The person who made the reservation must be there for check-in.
- Reservations are non-transferable and non-refundable.
- Payment is due when you make the reservation
The nearest airports are:
Phoenix, Arizona (PHX) which is about a four hour drive (230 miles) or
Las Vegas, Nevada (LAS) which is 3 hours and 21 min (194 miles).
You may want to stay in a nearby town the day you fly in so that you can get an early start on your hike. We found a really cheap Airbnb about 45 minutes from the Hilltop.
When figuring out how many days you will need off you’ll probably want a day before your hike for travel, the four days of hiking, and a day for travel home. That is a full six days with no time to explore where you flew in really. If you want a day in Phoenix or Las Vegas then you should just take off a full week.
Starting your hike:
a blog and guide to Havasu Canyon Trail
The Hualapai Hilltop is where you park your car and start your hike from there it is eight miles to the town of Supai. The town has a few little stores where you can get drinks, food, and even some fry bread. There is nothing but a check in point, and a few portable toilets at Hualapai Hilltop. If you need gas, water, or snacks for the hike to Supai you should load up in the nearest town of Peach Springs.
Once you have parked, packed, and peed go ahead and check in. DO NOT FORGET YOUR KEYS! Be sure to take a picture by the sign at the beginning! It makes a great before and after photo. The first leg of your hike is a mile of switchbacks. They aren’t bad going down but on the way back it will feel like the longest mile of your life so enjoy the scenery now. I recommend getting a very early to stay as cool as possible. If it’s the summer this may require hiking with headlamps. The switchbacks are also where you will want your trekking poles to ease the pressure on your knees. If you aren’t used to hiking with a heavy pack then I would highly recommend getting a pair! Mine were BAFX Anti Shock Trekking Poles ($21) After you make it past the switchbacks you will be in a dry riverbed. The trail will veer to your right. The canyon walls will start growing around you getting taller and taller. Be sure to take frequent breaks to hydrate and rest. There is some really cool plant life along the trail so be sure to take it all in. If you ever get lost or unsure of where you’re going just look for the horse poop seriously! The tribe runs pack horses and mules along the path daily transporting bags (yes you can pay for this) along with mail (the only mail delivery brought by horses in the US) and food. Please make room for them when they come by! The horses and people riding them will thank you.
Once get about four miles in there are some really nice places to rest and eat a snack in the rock formations that make up the canyon. Be sure to stretch and adjust anything that is pinching or hurting. I ended up with some serious blisters because I ignored the rubbing on my toes from my new boots. Be sure to bring moleskin for that purpose as well! Remember to take your time. It’s not a race.
There will be a sign eventually along the path that will direct you to Supai village. This sign is pretty much right before you first see Havasu creek. When we went in November the area just around the creek was bursting with beautiful yellow flowers! You are getting close to town and that change of scenery really helps get you re-motivated. We did have a bit of trouble navagating in this area. Don’t worry you can’t get really lost but I think after the floods in 2018 the trail became a little less clear. We ended up following a few wrong paths. You will cross the creek via a bridge, and see an old stone house on the way.
Once you reach Supai you’ll see houses, horses and dogs galore. The town is small and a little worn but the people there are friendly as long as you’re polite. I saw some reviews saying that the locals were rude and honestly I can only imagine what poor behavior those people displayed to receive that treatment. You can stop and buy some cold drinks or some snacks. You can take your pack off and sit out on the picnic tables with the other hikers while you rest. This is also were the helicopter lands to take bags up to Hualapai Hilltop or drop off bags. A little further there is an office where you will need to check in and get your wristbands. This is a great place to fill up your water bottle as well. It is clearly marked so you won’t miss it. You will continue through town and along the road.
Eventually once you are out of town you will see Fifty Foot Falls to your left. You have the option to stop and cool off with the other hikers here. There is a bit of a “beach” area you can lounge at. We continued on so we could get a good campsite. A little further and still on your left you will go by Navajo Falls. After the flooding that took place last summer these falls look different than the photos we had seen. It was a little hard to figure out which was which. Either way that whole stretch is gorgeous! I stopped and took quite a few pictures along the way. Once you pass the Cemetery you’re getting close to Havasu Falls, and some of the fry bread stands.
Fry bread is exactly what it sounds like. They offer lots of different toppings like re-fried beans, cheese, salsa and some condiments you can add yourself. Some options are sweet some savory. There are hot dogs as well so if fry bread isn’t your thing don’t worry. They have soda, water, and Gatorade too. There are picnic tables so you can sit in the shade of the tent and enjoy your lunch. Remember to bring cash for this if you want to try it! I ordered a bean and cheese fry bread and my cousin got a hot dog served on fry bread. Both were delicious! It’s a good place to talk to some of the other hikers if you haven’t along the trail already. If you miss the stand coming down you can always walk back later. It isn’t far from camp just be mindful of the open and closed signs.
Now that you’re all full and rested continue on until you hear the roar of water. You are almost to the iconic Havasu Falls! As you wind your way around some rocks you will finally see it to your right. There are some rocks you can sit on and take a picture of the falls behind you right as you come around. There are other photo ops closer to the falls but this one is the best by far! We were so happy once we finally got to this point. Just huge smiles on both of our faces. It’s all just so much more beautiful than the photos.
After a million photos you will make your way down to an area in front of the falls there are some picnic tables here to take pictures or you can climb down to the water if you want. Here is my list of the most Instagrammable spots to take photos. I would suggest coming back if you want to swim. Just keep going to the campsite for now. As you reach the beginning of the campsite you will see an area they tie up horses, walk through that, and there will be the first bathroom to your right. They toilets are two story vault compost toilets. There are NO SHOWERS. There are instructions on how to use the compost toilets in the bathroom. Remember the first toilets are the most frequented in case you want to camp near here. That means longer lines, higher chance of no toilet paper and slightly dirtier bathrooms. Just keep that in mind. There are three bathrooms in the campsite evenly spaced.
There are signs near here that direct you to the spring to fill up all your water bladders and bottles. Do it now before you get to camp. Some of the campsites are a half mile from the spring. I carried a 3 L Platypus Hoser Reservoir water bladder ($27) in my bag and a 4 L Platypus Gravity Works water filtration system ($120). I filled both the dirty water portion and the pack bladder while I was here. The water tastes absolutely fine straight from the tap but some people don’t like the extra minerals, so if that’s you go ahead and bring a filter. I really liked having the 4 L system for camp. It was super convenient to hang the bag and have a ton of water on tap for cooking, cleaning, and drinking as needed.
There are hundreds of campsites along the Havasu Creek. There are picnic tables marking most of them. Some are right along the creek, others are along the canyon walls, some you have to cross little bridges to get to. We chose an area near the third bathroom, across two bridges and near Mooney Falls. It was slightly isolated, we had a picnic table, a 5 gallon bucket with a lid to keep our food safe from ground squirrels, and trees to hang the water bladders, our clothes along a clothes line, and a hammock. For two people we had a deluxe camp for sure. There was also a bench we used to sit and drink our morning instant coffee right in front of our camp along the creek.
There are no campfires allowed so remember to bring a butane stove if you want hot food or drinks! We used a screw on camp stove from Amazon along with some Coleman cookware. If you are flying into Phoenix or Las Vegas you can’t take fuel canisters with you so you will need to stop on your way to pick one up. We hit up the REI in Phoenix the day we arrived.
Once we pitched our tent (ours was an REI Co-op Half Dome 2 Plus $230.00), and got the campsite situated we headed back to Havasu Falls for some more photos at the base of the falls. Since it is in a canyon and this was winter around 4 o’clock it was already getting pretty dark and chilly. We headed back to camp and cooked some Top Ramen and drank some electrolyte mix drinks. We were in bed by six p.m. every night mainly due to being absolutely exhausted, and partly from lack of light. For the night you will definitely need a headlamp, and some camp shoes. Preferably some that can double as water shoes for river crossings while heading to Beaver Falls. The shoes will give your feet a chance to breathe after hiking in boots all day, and will be convenient when you get up to pee in the middle of the night. I brought LEYU Men’s Sandals Slippers ($14) They were cheap and looked like Tevas except lighter! You should also bring a pair of clothes for bed unless you want your tent and sleeping bag FILLED with dust. I also recommend bringing baby wipes to clean yourself before you change for the night. These are super handy whenever you go camping so get a small pack. Just don’t forget plastic zip lock bags to keep your trash in. You must pack everything in and out! To sleep in I brought Icebreaker wool leggings and a long sleeve shirt with extra wool socks for sleeping in November. I was plenty warm in my Nemo Rave 30 degree Long sleeping bag ($280) with Nemo Fillo Luxury Pillow ($50). Both were really cozy and having the insulated Nemo Tensor 25 Insulated Sleeping Pad ($130) kept me from getting chilled on my back. I was super thrilled with the Nemo brand stuff. It was recommended to me by a local outdoor store since I sleep on my side and their sleeping bags come in a really cool spoon shape that allows you to move your legs unlike mummy bags. We slept for TWELVE hours a night which may seem ridiculous but you are going to be so exhausted and sore you need all the rest you can get.
At six am we got up, made our instant coffee, our instant oatmeal, and got dressed for the day. My Osprey Aura AG 50 L Pack didn’t have a day pack brain like my cousin’s Aria AG 65 does which I didn’t know ahead of time, so I had to get creative. I took the detachable brain and clipped the clips together then I took some clothes line I found around camp and made a sling pack. This worked well for carrying my water bladder, snacks, and sandals. It did like to swing around when I was climbing which was a pain but it still did the job! I will say I loved everything else about my pack I just wasn’t expecting that I needed a separate day pack too. Be sure to fill up your water containers before you head down Mooney Falls.
It is a three mile trip from Mooney (at the base of the campground) to Beaver falls. If you are at the beginning of the campground that is a 3.5 mile journey. If you want to head to the confluence of the Colorado river that is an eight mile journey from Mooney. There are no places to fill up your water in this area so please make sure you bring enough! You’ll be doing 7-16 miles round trip.
The first part of the hike from the campground to Beaver Fall requires a test of faith. You will be climbing down a cave tunnel along ladders with chains. Not to mention the whole thing is slippery because of the mist off of Mooney falls. You will probably be scared and some people can’t handle it. Just take your time. Make sure you have sure footing and hand holds as you descend. Please don’t try this in flip flops! There are occasional traffic jams where you have to make room for people coming up but just be patient. The day we hiked in a girl actually fell and had to be helicoptered out to the hospital. There is an old helicopter gurney at the base of the falls almost as a warning.
Once you’re down you will be in awe of how spectacular this waterfall really is! I honestly loved it way more than Havasu Falls. Maybe it was the fact I had to work for it. Either way be sure to take some pictures of you and your groups in front of the falls. You can get another hiker to take a few shots. Now we got lost a lot on our way to Beaver falls. You have to cross the creek at least three times but I think we crossed more than that. All part of the adventure! I switched from my hiking boots to my sandals each time. Don’t forget to bring a small microfiber towel so you can dry your feet. It’s a bit of a pain but I really didn’t want to hike the whole time in sandals. Going barefoot through the creek is another option the creek bed is grippy but it is rough on your feet too. You can’t stray too far so don’t worry about that. If you feel like you’re going the wrong way just turn around. The canyon is pretty narrow so you won’t be turned around for long.
You will go through a really cool area called “The Jungle” it’s a valley FILLED with wild grapevines. It really looked like something out of Jurassic Park.
There are lots of littler waterfall areas before Beaver Falls so feel free to take a break in any of them along the way. Once had a really cool swing.
Be on the lookout for the only palm tree in the entire canyon. When you see it you’ll instantly have thoughts of a desert oasis or a tropical paradise. It makes some really cool pictures too.
Beaver Falls itself is well marked and is really big. There is an area right above the decent down to Beaver that was the PERFECT place to eat our lunch and take a picture. Down by the falls it was harder to get a good shot. Some guys were climbing up into the pools formed by the waterfall. I am not sure how safe that is but I certainly wasn’t going to try it!
If you are heading to the confluence you still have five more miles to go. I did speak with some other hikers who were returning and they said it was worth the hike. We were pretty tired and sore from the day before so we decided Beaver was enough which is what most hikers do. If you want to head back to any of the other falls like we did you might want to stop your hike here and head back as well. The trip back was slightly less confusing and we made better time.
The rest of the day we went to Havasu Falls. Our first trip was short so this gave us an opportunity to take some pictures with better light and just relax. This is the only area I found near camp that had some cell phone reception so we also sent some texts and read emails for a bit. You pretty much have to actively seek reception here so if you are looking for a break from technology this is a great place for it.
During our last night we really tried to absorb those last quiet moments in sitting in our little grove. Everything in Havasu Canyon looks magical. You look around and it looks otherworldly like fairies are going to pop out of the trees. I kept telling my cousin it looked like a video game rendition of a perfect place. The water is so blue, the rocks are a beautiful red, the trees were changing color. Maybe I’m romanticizing it a bit but for real this is what it felt like. I have been camping more times than I could count but this was the perfect camping trip for me. I don’t know if I will ever be able to top it, but I will definitely try.
By 5 pm we were back making dinner for ourselves and getting things together for our hike back the next morning. We had ramen noodles again and packed what we could. By 6 am we were up packing everything by headlamp. Breakfast was a bit hurried but we took our time sipping our coffee while we watched a pair of ducks in the creek. Once the tent was down everything moved quickly. We got our last refills of water from the spring and we were off.
We did debate using the helicopters but something about that other than just cost kept us from it. Using a helicopter or a mule train seemed like cheating. It also slows you down since you have to wait FOREVER to get a spot. I wanted that sense of accomplishment at the hilltop. I wanted to say that I HAD MADE IT! We had good spirits the whole way back, we took breaks but there was more urgency this time. We wanted to make it back to Phoenix before dark. So we played music, we joked and hummed. We did anything we could to keep each other motivated.
Once we reached the switchbacks we were tired plain and simple. Our knees and backs were feeling it. We had already stripped off most of our outer layers and had eaten the rest of our snacks. We knew this was the real challenge. It took us forever to get up those switchbacks. We were playing a workout playlist just to give us a little more motivation. By the very last couple of yards we were on the brink of wanting to throw up.
When we made it to the sign at the top I was in tears. I barely held it together for our after photo. I was overwhelmed with pride and it seems silly, but even now it makes my eyes water. This was my very first backpacking trip. I had trained for months so that I could do this journey and I never gave up. It was one of the most fulfilling, and beautiful experiences of my life. I’m so grateful I was able to do this with my best friend and cousin Kristina. Experiences like these bring people infinitely closer.
We ended up eating a late lunch in Seligman, Arizona in the Roadkill Cafe. We ate like kings with our greasy diner food and zero guilt. I even got a piece of lemon meringue pie. Something about being on Route 66 made me think of The Grapes of Wrath. Like we had been on a long tired journey West. This pie was a bit of solace in a desolate world. Everything about it was just so quintessentially American. Turns out Seligman was the inspiration for Radiator Springs in the movie “Cars”. I knew there was something extremely familiar about the town. We didn’t get to stick around too long as we had a nice comfy bed waiting for us in Phoenix.