Driving, Hiking and Horseback Riding to the Havasu Falls
Phase I was the train ride from DC to Flagstaff. Phase II was the 200-mile bike ride from Flagstaff to Phoenix. Phase III, beginning today, would be the journey back North with my buddy Juan to the emerald falls at the Havasupai Indian Reservation.
Juan is a buddy of mine from DC. Our back story is that a few years ago he and I decided to do a spur-of-the-moment camping trip to Assateague Island. As soon as we arrived at the campsite it was revealed that we were complete amateurs; we struggled to assemble our tent, got bit by countless mosquitos and had to drive to the local Green Turtle bar for dinner. Despite all of our obvious shortcomings, the trip was unforgettable and it commenced our tradition of misguided camping adventures.
So, on this Monday morning Juan scooped me up in a rental car to begin our journey. We headed North on I-17, then shot West to Prescott where we picked up the route I followed to Ash Fork. I felt surprisingly adept at navigating Arizona’s roadways. Perhaps part of the reason I was so comfortable at navigating the state’s infrastructure was because there really weren’t that many major roads. My buddy, Spulber, who had just returned from an Arizona trip a few weeks back, made the point that Arizona was a young state, just barely a century old, and the transit system was reflective of that. As we drove Northwest from Phoenix, I came to agree with my friend. Between I-17, highway 89 (and 89A) and I-40, we had covered many of Arizona’s main roadways.
By the time we arrived at Seligman, a funky Route 66 town, the sun had set. This would be the last town we passed through before arriving at the trailhead, so we gassed up and made a few final purchases. Back on the road we drove about 20 miles North of town, during which period we turned off the radio because almost all of the signals were pure static. As we took a right turn onto Indian Road 18, an undulating two-lane road, I began to get the sense that we were alone.
The road had no street lights, just reflective markers every quarter mile or so. Without our headlights we would have been at the mercy of the waxing moon, hanging high in the sky on this Monday night. In the distance I saw a faint glimmer, though unlike the rectangular road markers this one was rounded and flickering.
“deer…Deer…DEER!” Juan jammed on the brakes to avoid smashing a pack of mule elk that were grazing on the shoulder of the road.
“Damn!” Juan said. We spent a few moments staring at the pack of block-headed creatures in the utter silence.
From that first encounter we had many more. Elk, cattle, rabbits; all of the area’s animals had come out of hiding. They were the only distraction we had from this perplexing drive. Having spent all day chatting, it seemed that Juan and I had officially run out of things to say to each other.
"Are you getting tired?"
“This ride is crazy.”
“I’ve never seen so many elk.”
We made any observation we could of our scant scenery to try and fill the sensory void.
Fifty-nine miles after turning onto the Indian Road we began to descend into a canyon. Our vehicle followed the road which sunk below the rocky shelf. The road wound down, down, down through the earth and approached a cliff. There were parked cars lined along the rock wall to our right, and a consuming black space to our left. Finally, reaching the 60th mile, we had arrived at the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead.
We searched for a place to park our car along with the 40 or so other vehicles in the lot. The lot was a single platform of cars, tents and portable johns, elevated high above the canyon’s shrouded floor. At the far end was a small one-room office with a wooden deck. Passing by it we spotted a pair of boots sticking out from the deck which were attached to the body of a sleeping man. Juan and I looked at each other, puzzled. There had to be a better way and place to sleep than fully-dressed on the hard floor of the porch.
We parked and began looking for a spot to sleep. There were a couple of young ladies hanging out in the trunk of their SUV and a pair of guys congregating around a table they had set up with a light and some cooking instruments. Somehow we began speaking with the fellows. They were Spencer and Scott, two recent graduates of the University of Oregon in Eugene. The guys were welcoming.
“We’d offer you guys a drink but we already finished ours. I went over to ask the guard if it was okay to have a drink and the guy was hammered, so I figured it was all good.” One of them spoke up.
“Oh, well that guy’s passed out on the deck right now.”
“No way! Well, I’m not surprised.”
The humor of the situation conveniently accompanied the despair of a white man witnessing for the first time the reality of alcoholism in the Native American community.
We set up camp next to the guys and agreed to hike out together in the morning. Three times that night while trying to sleep a feral dog began viciously barking at Spencer’s tent, definitely waking me and probably disturbing dozens of the other hikers who were camping out at the trailhead. The dog carried on so loudly that it induced howls from other feral dogs elsewhere in the canyon.
The next day we hit the trail around 6 am. The first mile-and-a-half consisted of steep switchbacks, it then levelled off to a slight downhill hike. I wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad idea to have joined Spencer and Scott, the energetic 23-year-olds from Oregon. They had laid out a very ambitious schedule for their road trip through Arizona and Utah. Though they were planning on camping out in Supai tonight, they intended to be at Zion National Park, an eight-hour-drive from the trailhead by tomorrow evening. Despite being trained in data analytics and empirical studies, I could not ascertain how that would work. For whatever its worth, by hiking with them we implicitly consented to their aggressive pace. Though everything I read online told me that the hike to the town of Supai would take four to six hours, we arrived in hardly three…and Juan and I were not okay upon arrival. Our feet, legs, knees, hips, back and shoulders were screwed. Juan looked at me, “I’m definitely not 23 anymore.” He was right, and neither was I.
Despite the immense pain my body was in, I was in awe of the scenery. Horse and cattle grazed about small ranch-style homes that were dwarfed by the jutting walls of the Hualapai Canyon. Colorful pomegranate trees lined the entrances of the municipal buildings that oriented tourists. I couldn’t imagine waking up every morning to this beautiful scenery.
From the town we hiked two more miles to the camping area. Paralleling our route was a blue-green stream, it’s mesmerizing color making it hard to avert one’s gaze. We followed the river to a collection of cascades and emerald lagoons. “I feel like I’m in the Jungle Book.” I told Juan.
Before arriving at the campsite we passed the Havasu Falls. I immediately understood why throngs of travelers the world over journey to this remote site every year.
Juan and I set up camp, then devoured lunch at our dusty picnic table. Juan consumed a tunafish sandwich slathered with sriracha sauce. When he finished the sandwich, he just sat idly with a contemplative look on his face. His arms hung by his side, a posture that almost suggested defeat.
“That was the best fuckin’ sandwich I’ve ever had in my life.”
After lunch we threw on our bathing suits and jumped in the pool. First was Havasu Falls. We jumped from low cliffs, found natural whirlpools and were coated by the waterfall’s chilly mist.
Then there were the Mooney Falls. As we descended from the campsite to Mooney Falls, we were cautioned to proceed at our own risk by a creaky old sign. When I saw the janky system of tunnels, chains and slippery ladders installed to guide tourists down, the sign made total sense. I was scared, scared for my life, while making the descent. But then, once jumping off the cliffs and swimming in the grottos of Mooney Falls, the risk was validated.
After an unforgettable day of swimming, Juan and I retired to our campsite before the sunset. “Colin, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to make the hike out tomorrow, carryin’ all our stuff, plus it’s uphill!”
“Yeah, I'm with you. I don’t want to risk getting an injury. So what do you want to do?”
“Let’s get a horse!” It was only appropriate that our second hiking excursion would entail horses just as our first one did. We walked a quarter mile to the ranger station to inquire about riding a horse out.
The ranger’s station was next to the Fryebread stand. Both were low to the ground and had some stable structural elements and other more makeshift ones, like post-supported tarps. The sign for the fryebread stand cracked me, allowing me some insight to the Havasupai tribe’s general pace.
That observation was corroborated when we spoke with the ranger, a heavy-set man wearing dark shades and relaxing beneath the shade of a stretched tarp.
Juan did the talking. “Hello. We wanted to see if it was possible to ride horses outta here tomorrow morning. I almost injured myself on the hike down today.” He crunched over to grab his outside knee.
The ranger nodded.
Juan hesitantly spoke up. “Oh, so you can? What would the price be? At the front they said it’s 120.”
The ranger’s nod continued.
Juan continued. “So do we have to go up to the town tomorrow morning? How does it work?”
“You come here at seven in the morning and I’ll have somebody to pick you up…” He spoke slowly, as if he were in as much of a rush as the Fryebread staff were to arrive on time.
Juan got to chatting with the fellow, telling him about his ex-girlfriend who was also Native American. “So you guys are the Havasupai? That’s the tribe?” Juan asked.
The ranger nodded…
“People of the blue-green water…That’s what it means…”
It was a very suiting name.
Our conversation continued, with Juan masterfully getting a few chuckles out of the ranger and his companion at the station. Relieved that we wouldn’t have to hike the ten miles back out, we returned to our campsite for a laid-back evening.
That night we joined Scott and Spencer to play “The Game of Things” with a couple of young ladies that our college buddies were flirting with, then the four guys took a nighttime walk to Havasu Falls where our eyes were treated to a starry nightsky and our ears were treated to a symphony of ribbits.
Juan and I awoke on Wednesday to find that our buddies were gone. These hardcore hikers were assuming the daunting task of hiking ten miles out of Supai to then drive 400 or 500 miles around the Grand Canyon to get to Zion National Park by nighttime. Juan and I took the path of least resistance; that on horseback.
By 7 am we were back at the ranger station being introduced to our guide, Clifton. He put me on Magic, Juan on Spirit and Kong, a fellow from SoCal who joined our group, on Peanut. The three of us mounted our horses and began our ascent out of the canyon. For the most part Peanut led, Spirit took the middle and Magic followed. Cliff remained behind me because he was guiding a line of six pack horses.
We galloped past the gazes of many exhausted and envious hikers. Juan discovered that the reigns could be used as a whip, so he spent much of the ride whipping the horses rear and causing it to buck mildly in protest. I hung back and spoke with Cliff.
From time to time we would be passed by another wrangler with his pack of horses. One group of horses caught my eyes. The wrangler followed a line of four or five horses, but there was one dark horse at the back with the wrangler which had its mouth fully muzzled. When it passed by our group, the laggard horse neighed violently and tried to pull away.
“What’s wrong with that horse?” I asked Cliff.
“It’s a stud. If it got loose it would mount any one of these horses. It doesn’t care.” He broke out into laughter, then explained to me the four kinds of horses. Babies are colts, females are mares, males are studs and castrated males are gelding. Gelding males and mares are docile, while studs are wily and aggressive, their ever-present sexual urges making them difficult to maintain, though it is a necessary chore as they are one-half of the equation for breeding more horses.
We “hi-yah!” and “hep!” and “yip”-ed our way through the canyon. Every now and then we would come out to an opening which the horses would choose to charge through. Excited by the speed I would let out an Aztec war cry, or maybe it was a drunken bolero call; "Aiiiii-ha-ha-ha-ha!". I don’t really know what it was, but it did take me back to my days of dishwashing with Pedro in the back of Garry’s Grill. We used to listen to Mexican tunes and let out these high pitches cries when the music got intense. I guess I was sort of doing the same thing here in the Hualapai Canyon.
Cliff was a great guy. He shared a lot about his life with me. He told me about the reservation's efforts to prevent uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, the rents he and his family get from slot machines they invested in on other reservations, the loss of an entire generation of elders due to alcoholism and even his personal struggles with the bottle which he said were far behind him. It was a fascinating first-hand account of the trials and tribulations of a modern Native American life.
Around noon we arrived at the trailhead. Scott and Spencer, hardcore as they are, seemed to have already made it to their car and were on their way to Zion…Thank God we didn’t try to hike out with them. After saying goodbye to Magic, Spirit and Cliff, Juan and I were once again on the road back to Phoenix.
Phew, on to the next phase of the adventure: Diego’s bachelor party.