Unhealthy Paradise

Were you to think that I’d give myself a break after my gruelling 3-day Grand Canyon crossing, then you’d be wrong. If you were to think that I’d be stupid to do anything else, then you’d be right. Certainly, planning a hike into and out of Havasu Canyon on successive days straight after slogging up out of the main canyon was ambitious to the point of idiocy. Unfortunately, the need to do so was a product of both the availability of back-country permits squeezing out our planned ‘rest day’ and a refusal to miss out on Havasu.


Havasu Canyon is a stunning location, challengingly remote and uniquely beautiful. In all I’d seen about Grand Canyon country since my first trip, this was one of the things I most regretted missing, and the destination that most set my mouth watering. Havasu Canyon is a side-canyon of the Grand Canyon, and its namesake creek is a tributary of the Colorado River. Its main attraction is a set of impossibly blue waterfalls, hidden deep in the folds of the canyon. It’s also the beating heart of the Havasupai Reservation, home to a tribe of native Americans who inhabit one of the least-accessible villages in the US.


As it happened, I reached the Bright Angel Trailhead and finished my 3-day crossing so early in the day that it turned out to be a rest day after all. By rest I mean sitting rim-side in the sun and soaking up the views and my accomplishment, and then feasting on buffalo steak in El Tovar’s antique restaurant. This did a lot to revive my energy and fuel my desire for more, and the prospect of what lay ahead masked the pain in my feet and shoulders.


But even getting to the start of the Havasu trail is a mission. 70 arid miles by road from the nearest town and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the South Rim, we had to leave straight after dinner and camp at the rim in order to be able to start early enough the next day. Hualapai Hilltop is a curious place, both the parking lot and gatehouse of the reservation. Arriving in the dark to find many others with the same idea, we set up camp with no idea of what lay below us. In a place completely bereft of facilities and lighting, this camp called for some careful night-time manoeuvres and innovative toilet techniques.


Pickups perched on the rim serve as Supai's main point of contact with the outside world
Pickups perched on the rim serve as Supai’s main point of contact with the outside world

Only when dawn arrived did we begin to warm up and get a feel for the place. The road is perched on a cliff-top and our makeshift camp overlooked the wide, flat-bottomed upper part of the canyon. We discovered this is where the Havasupai keep their pickup trucks and mule-trains, ready for supply runs. It is where they keep a tenuous connection with the outside world.


Long before the sun climbed over the cliff-tops we started down into the canyon, knowing it would be an 8-mile trek of several hours before we reached Supai village. The main descent is the first bit, where you plunge down switchbacks into the depression below. Once at the bottom of that section, the sandy-gravelly trail was gently sloping as it led down into the canyon. From the wide funnel it very quickly narrows to a proper gorge of sandstone, which became progressively deeper and more imposing as we went.


The dry, shady slot canyon in the heart of Havasu
The dry, shady slot canyon in the heart of Havasu

After 6 miles of nothing but rock, sand and dust it was quite a relief to reach the Havasu Creek with its tree-lined banks. The gurgle of water in the middle was blue as tears, a delightful promise of what lay ahead. It wasn’t much further before we finally reached Supai, the only permanent settlement beneath the rim of the Grand Canyon and the last village in the US to still get its mail delivered by horse.


To be perfectly honest, we were here to see the waterfalls, but we couldn’t help noticing and learning a lot about the falls’ namesake people as we passed through. Only one of the mule-train riders we passed on our way down had offered so much as a smile, and the demeanour of those we met in the village was anything but welcoming. The staff at the lodge we were staying at were surly in the extreme, bent on imposing petty bureaucratic rules. I can only speak as an overnight visitor, but the impression I got was of a people reluctantly and resentfully dependent on tourism.


Supai: the most remote village in the USA
Supai: the most remote village in the USA

There was scant evidence of the agriculture which supposedly once sustained them, nor indeed of much employment other than in the fast-food diner, the mini-mart, the school and the mule-trains. Most people we saw were idle or wandering aimlessly about in no kind of hurry. It might have been charmingly laid-back were it not for the ubiquitous hamburgers and fizzy drinks which lent an air of purposeless indulgence. This may sound judgemental, but all four of us came to the same impression from our observations. Sadly, despite the geographical isolation, the mules and helicopters seem to have brought a lot of the bad and little of the good of American culture: rap music, Nelly-style basketball shirts, junk food and obesity. In the whole time  we were there we didn’t see a single child with a healthy BMI, nor did we ever spot one not munching through an oversize bag of cheetos.


Reflecting on the present state of the tribe was a sad train of thought, and its prospects seem equally dismal. It will take people far better qualified, whether inside the tribe or out, than myself to improve their fortunes while retaining some kind of traditional identity. My tourist dollars may have been part of the problem, but without them I suspect the situation may have been even less promising.


Still, to move on to a happier note, the waterfalls were everything we hoped for and more. Ditching our heavy items at the lodge and proceeding on in swimming trunks, we followed the creek down to the succession of waterfalls that make this otherwise unremarkable canyon famous. A sudden bend in the path and then there they are, the first of the falls, gracing the barren canyon with a vivid blue-green lifeline. It’s easy to see how apt the name Havasupai is: people of the blue-green water. Thanks to the calcium carbonate and other minerals leached out of the rocks, the water is impossibly, delightful blue, like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’ve seen impressive waterfalls in my time, but the colour, the isolation, and the sheer contrast of these with their surroundings make them the finest in my opinion.


Life-blood of the desert: Havasu Creek descending over Navajo Falls
Life-blood of the desert: Havasu Creek descending over Navajo Falls

Navajo Falls tumbles over a huge rocky ledge in a wide cascade, but a little bit further down is Havasu Falls itself, a narrower, taller waterfall with an idyllic plunge-pool below. Very few people were here, and our early morning start meant we had all day to enjoy them. It was paradise. Warmed by the desert sun, surrounded by scenic views and playing in pools and channels we had a fantastic time. We were all agreed, this was the most beautiful place any of us had ever been to.


Havasu Falls: jewel of the reservation
Havasu Falls: jewel of the reservation

Just as well. This was the climax of the whole trip. After that heavenly afternoon we had an uninspiring fast-food meal, and weary slog back out of the canyon. We left behind the Havasupai and their problematic paradise and reluctantly drove back to Las Vegas. Our adventures in the desert and badlands of the Colorado Plateau were over. So many amazing sights, so many wonderful experiences, but among them all, the delights of Havasu Canyon rank highly, a blue-green haze of bliss in the memory.

Water defines Havasu
Water defines Havasu

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