Hiking to the Grand Canyon’s Havasupai Indian Reservation
My latest travel article for the Fort Bliss Bugle is now up. HERE is the online version and the paper copy will be available throughout El Paso tomorrow morning. The bolded, italicized, indented paragraphs are from my original draft and NOT included in the online or hard copy version in The Bugle. Hope you enjoy it!
I came across a stunning picture of an aqua-blue waterfall a year ago and was surprised to see it located in rural Indian Reservation surrounded by the Grand Canyon. Well, I’m at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and the Grand Canyon is in Arizona… surely this was a road trip worth investigating! I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon and as a photographer and I was excited about adding such colorful, splendid images to my portfolio so I talked to my travel buddy Lorena and she was all in.
It took many months of research and about six weeks of actual planning to bring this dream to fruition. The place is called the Havasupai Indian Reservation and it is an extraordinarily remote location. So remote in fact that it is the only place in the United States to receive daily mail via mule. There are no roads in or out of the canyon, only one dirt trail from the top of the canyon to the village. Aside from what has been established by the local Havasupai Tribe, there is no phone or internet service in Supai Village, the 3,000 foot deep canyon where the Havasupai Tribe live.
Havasupai, pronounced “Have-uh-sue-pie”, means “people of the green-blue water” and the Havasupai Indian Reservation was established by Executive Order in 1880 and 1892. The reservation consists of 188,077 acres and the Havasupai Tribe has occupied this area for over 1,000 years.
The attraction to this place is its remoteness and stunning green-blue waterfalls. It calls to the hardcore adventurer in those of us who love a challenge. Photographers, campers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the world come to photograph and play in the falls, the most famous of which is Havasu Falls. Mooney Falls, which is twice the height of Havasu, and Navajo Falls are also striking.
The drive from El Paso to the Hilltop is 692 miles. That’s about 10 hours or so. But don’t be intimidated; with no hotels at the Hilltop the best course of action is to drive all day and stop for the night in Seligman, Arizona, which is the last bit of civilization you’ll see before your last leg onto the reservation. Seligman is at the juncture of I-40 and the famous Rt. 66 and is about eight and ½ hours from El Paso. Rt. 66 themed hotels and restaurants at reasonable prices are in Seligman to accommodate you at the end of your drive. It’s really the best way to get a good night’s sleep before the long hike down into the canyon.
Driving from El Paso to Seligman is actually quite enjoyable. I deviated several times adding at least an hour onto my trip because there were so many scenic stops along the way. I-10 West will take you all the way into Phoenix to I-17 North with two shorter stints onto Rt. 69 North through Prescott, Arizona and in Prescott to AZ-89 North. From there I-40 West will take you right into Seligman and Rt. 66, where you can spend the night. It’s an easy drive.
The drive from Seligman to the Hilltop is next. If you use Google Maps for directions, you should know that the trip from Seligman to the Hualapai Hilltop at the trailhead is not three hours as Google claims. It took me about an hour and ½, which is half the time Google predicts it’ll take you to get there. Not only that, Google Maps may give you three options to get to the Hilltop, two of them appearing shorter than the way I am about to tell you. Don’t believe Google in this case! Those two other roads you may be given as options are actually for off-road vehicles and will take more than 3-4 hours to get you there. Take Rt. 66 West from Seligman for almost 30 miles before turning right onto Indian Road 18, which will take you 60 miles to the Hilltop. It’s that easy.
The trailhead to Supai Village begins at the Hualapai Hilltop, where people park their vehicles and start their descent deep into the canyon. Don’t worry; security patrols the Hilltop to ensure the safety of everyone’s vehicles. There are several options for getting there.
1) Hike eight miles to Supai Village and stay at the Supai Lodge.
2) Hike 10 miles, going through Supai Village adding an additional two miles to get to the campgrounds. You can arrange to have your gear taken down by mule on the Hilltop if your load is too heavy.
3) You can ride a horse to the Lodge or campground.
4) You can helicopter in from the Hilltop to the landing pad in Supai Village for $85 per person one way, but the chopper only flies on certain days of the week and Navajo Tribal members are given priority so it is a first-come, first-served waiting game.
If you choose to hike, the trail begins with a mile long steep ascent into the canyon’s floor. This is how most people make it to the bottom. The eight mile trail to Supai Village is over dirt and loose rock. Some describe it as an easy hike, and it can be, IF you are prepared. My travel buddy and I were able to stay at the Supai Lodge and didn’t need a tent or a lot of extra food, but we still lugged about 35-40 lbs. on our backs. It became diabolical by the 6 mile mark. My feet were developing blisters and my backpack was digging into my shoulders giving me shoulder and back pain. I would recommend the pre-emptive use of Moleskins on areas of your feet you’d want to protect from blistering. The last two to three miles were brutal but beautiful. In fact as tough as the hike was near the end, I would have hated to miss the gorgeous views throughout the canyon which ended with a striking greenish-blue river that guided us to Supai Village.
Many people, including myself, opt to fly out of the village for $85 rather than lug 35+lbs. in a backpack up the grueling eight – ten mile hike out. It took only 4 minutes to reach the Hilltop in the chopper… whereas the hike into Supai took us over 5 hours! We made good time hiking in, despite a very slow pace after the first 6 miles, but the rule of thumb is to allow for a five to seven hour hike to the Village from the Hilltop adding two additional hours from the Village to the Hilltop if you are brave enough to hike it back.
Once in Supai Village, you must check in at the Tourist Center, whether you are staying at the Lodge or the campgrounds. Registration for the campgrounds is confirmed at the Tourist Center. Reserve ahead of time or your fees will be doubled. Registration for staying on the reservation if you book a room at the lodge takes place at the time of booking the lodge.
If camping, you must walk through Supai Village another two miles to the campgrounds, which are just passed Havasu Falls. One of the main benefits of camping is the proximity to the several waterfalls in Havasupai. Staying at the lodge means a downhill hike, very steep at points, for two miles. That’s a two mile uphill hike back to the lodge after visiting the falls, which isn’t always fun after a full day of hiking. But if I can do it, you definitely can do it!
Regarding camping, it’s important to reserve ahead of time through the Havasupai Camping Office. It’s important to reserve ahead of time! Fees DOUBLE if you simply show up at the Tourist Center when checking in if you don’t reserve in advance. There’s a $35 per person entrance fee, $17 per person per night camping fee and a $5 environmental fee. That’s a total of $57 for the first night and $17 every subsequent night. If you simply show up without reservations you’ll be paying $114 for one night in the campgrounds for the first night, plus a 10% tax, and a $34 camping fee for every subsequent night!
Regarding the Supai Lodge… this is a quirky place in many regards. On the positive side, it’ll give you the shower and bed that you need. On the negative side, the Navajo who manage this lodge know you need them more than they need you and they don’t hide it. Knowing we had to be at the lodge no later than 5pm, because it is only open from 8am to 5pm, my travel buddy and I nearly crawled up to the porch of the lodge around 3:30pm eager to check in and soak our feet. The sign in the window said “Open” but no one showed up until 4:20pm. We were petrified that we would have to spend a cold night on the porch and as I asked passers by who were Navajo if the front desk lady would be back, I was told, “Maybe. Or maybe not. They’re kind of on their own schedule here.” I’d read many reviews on Trip Advisor warning that “The front desk clerk made us wait 20 minutes (or longer… much longer) before we could check in” but I had no idea that she left the premises for hours at a time. Customer service is non-existent but remember, you need what they have: a bed and a shower. And air conditioning during the summer.
In general it would take me 20-30 minutes of calling and recalling to reach the front desk from home when I was booking and checking up on my reservation. Other guests told me this was their experience, too. When I was at the Lodge over a period of 3 days, I saw why. The front desk clerk apparently likes to ignore ringing phones so she can play on her cell phone or fiddle with papers on the desk. Be prepared!
Fees for the Lodge run $145 per night for up to four people per room. Bring a friend and split the cost, which makes it more affordable. The permit fee into the Village of $35 is added onto the total cost of the hotel stay rather than it being payable at the Tourist Center when staying at the Lodge. There is also a $40 per night per person entrance fee tacked on. My friend and I ended up paying about $280 each for our share for three nights in the Lodge.
The rooms are 1-star and I’m nominating this place for the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible”, so don’t have great expectations. No TV, no phone.. but, again, you’ll have a bed, a shower and air conditioning or heat.
There is a café that opens in the Village that is open from 7am to 5pm that served breakfast, lunch and dinner. Across the dirt road from the café is a small grocery store open until 7pm with milk, snacks, detergents, water…. Much of which you probably can’t use because there’s no frig in the lodge to keep anything fresh, but it’s still good for basic supplies.
Now that the administrative and accounting information is out of the way, THIS is the real reason people make the epic trek into the canyon:
I am proud of myself that I was able to endeavor on such a journey and come to know my physical abilities even more. The greenish-blue waterfalls are amazing and I’m happy to be part of the exclusive club who has embarked on this endeavor. It is definitely a must-see location for anyone needing an extraordinary adventure!
THINGS TO KNOW:
-Only service animals are allowed in Supai Village. You cannot bring any non-service pets to Supai Village or the campgrounds.
-The Supai Lodge fills up a year in advance April-November. I was able to book a room a month in advance because I went in early March when the weather was supposed to be bad. However by the second week of March, the Lodge was full for the month and is booked through Fall. Pre-planning is key!
-Off-season maybe the best time to visit. You’ll have a better chance at a room in the Lodge, or more room at the campgrounds, and far fewer people than in Spring and Summer. Also the heat in summer is oppressive often reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. That’s makes for a potentially dangerous 8-10 mile hike.
-Bring lots of water for the hike down! It was cool perfect whether for us so I only went through two liters of water but in summer months that should be doubled.
-Invest in good footwear! Good solid hiking shoes are important with non-slip soles and plenty of buffer on the balls of the feet and heels.
-Think minimalistic. Bring what you NEED, not everything you want. It’s a long hike.
Supai Lodge: 1-928-448-2111 / 2201 - http://www.havasuwaterfalls.com/lodge.html
Havasupai Camping Reservations: 1-928-448-2141 / 2121 / 2174 / 2180 - http://www.havasuwaterfalls.com/camping.html
Horse and Mule Services: http://www.havasuwaterfalls.com/horses.html
Helicopter Services: Airwest Helicopters 1-623-516-2790 / http://www.havasuwaterfalls.com/helicopter.html