Tripping down the hot, dry Havasu Falls Trail
The scabs on my knees weren’t yet dry from a previous hiking fall in the Sonoran Desert when six days later I tripped again and fell headlong onto the sandy Havasu Falls Trail. The 10-mile footpath through hot, dry desert-like terrain leads to one of the most unique places on the planet: the blue-green waters of Havasu Creek that eventually empty into the Grand Canyon.
The words of my dirt-biking husband echoed in my ears: “We’re not having fun until somebody bleeds.”
My two young companions, Charlotte and Claire, and I were hiking along the remote Arizona trail at a good clip – later reaching the campground in just four hours compared to the four to six hours suggested by the Havasupai reservations website. My fall was almost a Superman dive after my left foot caught a rock, rolled my ankle and catapulted me forward to land on already skinned knees, elbow and thigh, which bruised to match the color of my fuchsia shorts. The words of my dirt biking husband echoed in my ears: “We’re not having fun until somebody bleeds.”
The surreal feeling that I was in a Charlie Russell painting
Moments before my tumble, where the walls of the canyon squeezed together, we met a mule train of about eight pack animals galloping up the trail. We heard the metal of horseshoes striking the rock path before we ever saw them. One of the mules – with its head lowered and swinging like a snake ready to strike – broke out of the herd and charged the three of us.
Forced to jump towards the rock wall, I raised my arms to fend off the stampeding beast whose ears were pinned back to its neck. For a moment, I had the surreal feeling that I was in a Charlie Russell cowboy painting as dust rose in billows around me. We dodged the renegade mule, but a group of hikers had now bunched up behind us as they, too, waited for the caravan to pass.
A Rugged Environment
Moments later, I took my tumble and so had a good audience of maybe a dozen people. My fall and subsequent ankle sprain in the rugged environment earned some notoriety as later in the day people asked me how my ankle was doing. At the Supai Campground, we pitched our tents next to the blue-green water of Havasu Creek, a riparian paradise.
Havasu Hike to Beaver Falls
The next day we packed lunches and hiked three miles from the shady campground to Beaver Falls. First, we had the infamous climb down hand-hewn foot holes carved into the travertine cliff face that skirts the 210-foot-high Mooney Falls. It reminded me of the prehistoric hand and foot holds cut into cliffside trails at Chaco Canyon.
As people backed up, we had to wait in a narrow, dark tunnel carved into the rock face. When it came to be my turn, I stepped into the light, gripped the heavy chains fastened into the rock with large bolts, and I lowered myself straight down the precipice.
Fear , anguish and sweaty palms at Havasu Canyon
Indeed, I remember the fear and anguish of climbing the sheer drop on the chain-assisted ladder in my previous visits to Havasu Canyon over the past 20 years. What I do not recall is the abundance of other ladders – handmade wooden contraptions that would never hope to pass OSHA inspections — that we encountered on our way to Beaver Falls.
Some ladders were placed so far below the edge of the rock that you had to step into thin air to reach the first rung. I believe the ladders were added after the wicked flood of 2008 that changed the course of the river, and the trail. The last time I’d been in Havasu Creek was the spring before the big flood of July 2008.
I kept favoring my sprained ankle, climbing up and down the numerous stepladders like a one-armed paperhanger. OK, not exactly like that but I scrambled with a syncopated rhythm as I favored the injury.
Beaver Falls in Havasu Canyon
After sitting in the cold blue-green waters of Beaver Falls, my ankle felt immensely better, but severe pain stabbed my right knee every time I hoisted myself up each rung as we retraced the challenging way back to our campsite. I was surprised as I had not felt such sharp knee pain for years, yet I knew that it resulted from favoring my left ankle. So I just stopped favoring it. The pain in my knee soon disappeared once again, proving that hikers must pay attention to what their body is telling them and compensate accordingly.
Rest Day at Havasu Falls
We decided to spend our third day in the Havasu Canyon as a rest day at Havasu Falls. Some people call this iconic blue green waterfall ‘Havasupai Falls,’ but the true name is Havasu Falls. ‘Havasupai’ is the name the people call themselves: ‘Havasu’ meaning blue green water + ‘Pai’ meaning people. The colors are really so outstanding that the people associate their name with them: ‘People of the blue green waters.’
Colorful conversation with local leads to introspection
“Colorado, it means the color red,” said the gray-haired Havasupai man the morning of our rest day. “The Spaniards when they came here named the river ‘Colorado.’”
“It is down there,” I said, pointing towards the west and down the Havasu Canyon from which we’d hiked the day before.
“Did you hike to the Colorado River?” he asked. It was at that confluence that the blue-green waters of Havasu Creek would flow into the muddy red waters of the Colorado.
“I did 24 years ago. I was much younger then,” I said tugging at my hair, the same silver color as his. “We hiked to Beaver Falls yesterday, and it was definitely harder than I remembered.”
“Did you see the palm tree? The last time I saw it, it was this high,” he said, holding his hand about waist high to indicate the size of the non-native species. “I brought my son down there, and he was just as tall. That was 20 years ago. Did you take a picture of the palm? I would like to see it.”
The non-native palm is a signpost at Havasu Creek
The solitary palm is a sort of signpost. When we asked for tips before launching our Beaver Falls hike, a fellow canyoneer told us, “Once you see the palm tree, you’re almost there.”
As I spoke with the Havasupai man at the campground rangers office, Charlotte and Claire waited for me near the latrines. I think they were in a hurry to relax at Havasu Falls, but I chose to stop for the man’s request and look through the hundreds of pictures I’d taken in the past two days. I finally found a selfie of me posing next to a palm frond hanging from the tree. It is the only palm tree that I know of that is growing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Technically speaking, it grows in the Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon.
I am a non-native species here in Havasu Canyon
I have an affinity to the palm tree that grows next to the blue-green waters. I feel a bit like the old palm tree, the invasive species. For I, too, am a non-native species here in Havasu Canyon.
I am not native to Arizona, yet I thrive in its climate. Like the Havasu palm, I am a solitary traveler who enjoys serving as a signpost — beckoning, and encouraging others to continue along on their next journey. Perhaps your next excursion will be to the blue-green waters of Havasu Canyon. Learn more at www.havasupaireservations.com
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“UNSTOPPABLE Stacey” Wittig is an Arizona travel writer based in Flagstaff. Follow her travels on Instagram @UNSTOPPABLEStacey