A Trip to Havasu Falls

Head to the canyons of Arizona for camping, hiking, and cliff jumping into turquoise water
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Jun 22, 2015 | By Whitney James

he turquoise waters of Havasu Creek are known around the world, or at least the Internet, for being an oasis for photographers, cliff jumpers, and backpackers of all kinds. For anyone inspired by the phenomenal photos surfacing on all our favorite blogs, there are a few things worth understanding — no beer! Lots of people! — before making the long haul to one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the United States.

First things first, let’s get our bearings. Havasu Falls is located in Cataract Canyon along Havasu Creek, within the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Arizona. The tribe of now roughly 200 people regained these 185,000-acres of ancestral land from the US judicial system in 1975, and now uses tourism as a means of survival.

The term Hualapai — as in “Hualapai Hilltop” where you’ll park to begin the hike — refers to the ethnic group in which the Havasupai band is classified. Supai is the town to which you’ll be hiking. there are no paved roads, and residents and tourists alike get in by foot, pack animal, or helicopter.

Side note: Lake Havasu, the party capital of the Southwest, isn’t anywhere nearby.

Your packing list will depend on how you intend to get the 10 miles down to the campground at Havasu Falls. Pack horses are $187 round trip and will carry coolers of refreshing beverages (alcohol is not allowed) along with all your gear, but if you want to avoid a potentially overwhelming guilt trip when you see the state of the animals, you might want to carry your own load. And anyway, refreshing beverages are also available in Supai before the final two-mile descent to camp. Don’t let the distance scare you; the hike in is all downhill (2,400 feet elevation change) and on the way back you will have eaten all your snacks. Trail mix is so much heavier than you think!

Must-have items include your normal lightweight camp supplies, desert-grade SPF, comfortable water shoes, and your wallet, since you’ll pay your entrance and camp fees in Supai (credit cards are welcomed). There’s no need to pack a water filter as long as you’re not afraid of the natural spring coming magically out of a rock in camp.

The phone line to book your reservation opens sometime early February. Expect to keep the number on re-dial until you get through — and expect it to take more than 100 tries. It’s worth noting that even if you plan to ultra-run the hike in and out in a single day, you’ll still need a reservation.

Keep in mind this is the desert, and July and August will be the hottest (albeit busiest) months, and monsoons can happen as late as September. Hualapai Hilltop, where you’ll leave your car to start the hike, is a 5-hour drive from Las Vegas and 4-hours from Phoenix. Plan to leave early in the morning to get primo camp spots and avoid the heat.

Once you arrive, you might be in for some culture shock. Supai can be like a third world country, complete with crooked barbed wire fences and teenagers blasting music while riding bareback on mules. It’s as romantic as you’d like to make it, but either way it paints an interesting picture that will no doubt be the topic of conversation as you walk down to Havasu Falls.

The final two miles are in deep sand, and when you peek over the edge of Havasu, prepare to see half of Instagram playing in the shallow water below. Once you wrap your head around the fact that your stay will be more melting pot than spiritual escape, you’re in for a great time.

There are camping spots all the way from Havasu Falls to Mooney Falls a mile below. I’d recommend one wedged in between trees to claim your space and make sure the Texans don’t camp on top of you and/or steal your picnic table. (Sorry, Texans, but it happened). Plan to stay for two nights, so that on the second day, you can hike down to Mooney and Beaver Falls, two and a half miles away from Havasu Falls. If you truly can’t handle the tourists (and are in stellar hiking shape), navigate your way all the way to the confluence of the Colorado River, another eight miles past Beaver Falls.

Let’s admit it: you’re going to Havasupai for the waterfalls. Whether your plan is to set up a tripod or huck yourself off a cliff, there are a few things to know. First off, if you go early in the season, expect chilly water. Secondly, don’t expect to be able to jump off every cliff (signs will tell you not to jump off any). While some years the pools below Havasu and Mooney are deep enough for a safe landing, often they’re not.

Beaver Falls below doesn’t offer much of a jump, but is the perfect spot to perfect your cannonball. Determined to fly? Check out Hidden Falls. That one I’ll leave up to you, because where would the fun be if there were nothing left to find? [H]

Whitney does marketing at Outside GO, loves donuts, and is a total endorphin junkie based in Boulder, CO. 
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Images © Whitney James