By: Kate Nolan
What began as a fascinating story as a child – this mythical tale of a Native American Tribe living deep inside the Grand Canyon – intrigued me my entire life. There was a draw to learn more, to meet the people of the blue-green water, the Havasupai. As a child, I wanted to drink from their springs, swim in their waters, run wild along the trails following the creek and waterfalls, climbing the cliffs and exploring the caves. My father was part Cherokee; he would always share stories of strong Indian chiefs, powerful Indian braves, and beautiful princesses. Of course, I wanted to be a strong female Indian brave.
In February of 2016, I decided to make this dream trip a reality. It was time for me to meet the longest residents of the Grand Canyon, the Havasupai, and to explore their enchanted home. My wife, Danielle and I sat down and put together a plan. Danielle began calling for the permits, and thankfully we were able to get them. We put together a gear list, I ordered a map, watched videos and did lots of reading to prepare for our adventure, and the 10-mile hike in and out of the Grand Canyon. In two weeks, we were on our way.
We arrived at the trailhead campground late on Tuesday, the sun was setting and we were literally parked at the end of the road. There was nothing around for about 70 miles, we set up camp right on the rim and watched the sun set beyond the canyon walls. We were elated and honored to be there to share this experience. We finished our dinner, watched the night sky fill with stars and even wished on a few shooting stars. Once we laid down in our tent, the winds began to pick up and you could hear the sand and rocks crashing against the rain fly. Mother nature was showing us how beautiful and powerful she can be.
We woke up at 5 o’clock the next morning, boiled some water for tea and prepared some blueberry granola. We watched the sunrise, the vibrant colors on the canyon walls coming to life, and mentally prepared for our exciting new journey. We broke camp and did a final overview of what we would need. We knew we had some steep switchbacks, no water for 8 to 10 miles and some heat to deal with once we hit the canyon floor. We did some yoga and stretching, and after a few trips to the car eliminating what we could from our packs, we were on our way.
We hit the Havalupai Trail at 6am, we were filled with excitement, and ready to see the falls, the mythical creek, and more of the canyon. When we reached the end of the switchbacks, we were greeted by a wild mustang. We stood still along the inside of the trail as she slowly passed. Once we turned the final corner, we met the rest of the herd. They were grazing and scattered along both sides of the trail. We had never in all our wildest dreams expected this. We continued along the trail, the canyon was ever changing, the colors and the geology alone were astounding. As we continued towards the Supai village, and made our final turn on the trail, we began to see more green, more trees and finally we reached the creek. We will never forget the first time we laid eyes on the Havasu Creek, it was clear and the most beautiful shade of blue-green.
We reached the Supai Village around lunch time, we had stopped for lots of photos on the way down and had traveled 8 miles to reach the village. The people we met in the small camp store and walk-up cafe were very friendly. They had some wiener dogs and we named one Spike because of his spiked leather collar. We celebrated over lunch. Danielle and I had pinto bean burritos, wrapped in homemade tortillas, and they were delicious. The village was small, about 500 residents, lots of horses, mules and donkeys. There are no cars in the canyon and the Havasupai depend on tourism. They had a K-8 school, an inn, and another cafe. After lunch, we walked slowly through town and winded our way down towards the campgrounds.
Our first waterfall beyond the village was Navajo Falls. The turquoise cascading water was stunning, we nearly fell over when we saw it. It was soon followed by Fifty Foot Falls. We crossed bridges over the turquoise creek until we found ourselves at the top of Havasu Falls. At this point, we were so excited and exhausted. We had made it, the entrance to the camping area was just beyond the fall. We hiked into the campgrounds, following the creek until we found the perfect spot. We set up camp on our very own island that we accessed via the natives’ foot bridges. The beautiful blue-green waters of the Havasu Creek flowed all around us and we were in heaven.
I started putting up the tent, Danielle began filtering water with our gravity bag, and before you we knew it we were both soaking in the creek. The spring fed water was cool and refreshing. We made a close line with paracord and also hung a solar lantern to a paracord over our picnic table. Danielle found this awesome compatible self-inflating solar light online, and she had clipped to her backpack to charge in the sun along our hike. They do not allow fires below the rim of the Grand Canyon since it’s such a fragile environment. It takes plant life years and years for vegetation to grow there. We always practice Leave No Trace ethics; Danielle and I are both LNT trainers. We set up our backcountry stove and started preparing some mountain chili. That night, we slept like babies under the stars.
The next morning, we got an early start, watched the sunrise, prepared our tea, and huevos rancheros. We had an awesome day ahead of us, we planned to hike down an additional 3 miles to see all the falls. We took along a pack, towels, steripen to filter our water bottles, stove, and lunch. Our first waterfall was Mooney, we started at the top, after a switchback or two, we were making our way through some caves, rappelling down chains and ladders and eventually standing below a waterfall taller than Niagara Falls. We took photos and continued down the canyon. We did a little climbing along the creek and found ourselves on a private beach. We swam and jumped from the falls. There was a warm tributary fall that joined the Havasu, we used it to warm up. As we continued, our hearts were so full, we followed the trail, crossing the creek, foot bridges, scrambling over the rocks and ladders until we arrived at Beaver Falls. It was most impressive with beautiful cliffs, picnic areas, swimming pools and layers and layers of waterfall. We waded, climbed and eventually sat down to filter water and find the perfect place for lunch. We licked the plates clean and reflected on our experiences before heading back.
After we arrived back at camp, we cleaned up, changed clothes, and began preparing our final dinner on the Havasu. We watched the sun set and we knew the next morning, we would have to begin our journey out of the canyon. The moon was crescent that Thursday night and reminded me of my mother, she always told me that moon was pouring happiness on the earth when it was crescent. My heart was so grateful and full to be in this sacred, native land.
We rose before the sun on Friday, prepared our water bottles, packed up our gear, and after breakfast we began our hike out with headlamps. We were met at the gate by a ranger from South Bend, Indiana. He had married a Havasupai woman, and moved to the reservation. He was worried about us girls from Indy making him homesick. We watched the sunrise as we approached Havasu Falls. We stopped, removed a layer and continued towards the village. Along the way, we passed a strong Havasupai woman. She was running with her dog and listening to tribal music – that was a moment of empowerment, a moment of strength and I felt the spirit of the Havasupai. We made it out of the canyon in under 5 hours, fulfilled, happy and grateful to have lived amongst the Havasupai – and already planning our next trip back!
I wrote this poem, I had a dream about this our first night on the Havasupai reservation.
I move along the trails, following the rocks, over and under like the water of the Havasu
My heart beats softly and freely like the natives, I am her people
My pulse beats with the music of the winds, the birds and her water
My heart is as full as the waterfalls that I follow, it’s pure like the crystal clear water of the Havasu
My skin is like the earth, changing like a chameleon, I live amongst the red rocks and sand, I am her people
Her blue-green waters cleanse me, heal me and make me whole again
Her people as warm as the desert sun, as proud and strong as mustangs, they are privileged in
ways most will never understand
The Havasu will follow me along my path forever, she will always have a place in my heart