waterfalls, rugged canyons beckon
Havasupai rewards those who make trek
Thirty miles west of Grand Canyon Village, a place so beset by hordes of tourists and motorized vehicles that its name could be Grand Central Canyon, is a world apart. It is the serenely spectacular home of the Havasupai Indians, whose reservation lies within a side canyon of northern Arizona's great gorge.
This isolated Shangri-La presents a stark contrast to the rush of Grand Canyon Village, which every year draws millions to overlooks above the mile-deep chasm that is the Grand Canyon.
Havasupai is sublime on a smaller scale. Only about 25,000 visitors annually descend into this world of more intimate beauty.
Most visitors to the village of Supai, the heart of the reservation, come on foot, descending through a red-rock inner gorge tucked into the massive limestone walls of an outer gorge like one exquisite gift box within another.
The 8-mile hike begins at Hualapai Hilltop, located at the end of a paved road about 90 miles northwest of Seligman in northwestern Arizona. The first 1 1/4 miles maneuver through a series of steep switchbacks, losing 1,100 feet in elevation. After that, the going is easy for canyon country, with the trail descending an additional 900 feet the rest of the way.
Many make the hike in three hours or less. But why hurry? This is a place to linger, to laze, to ponder the improbable and surreal beauty of canyon architecture.
For it is destruction that builds a canyon. It took thousands of millenniums of pounding by summer tempests, of prying by winter cold and of battering by the chocolate-color torrents of seasonal flash floods to create it.
The village of Supai rests at the bottom of the canyon, astride a crystalline blue-green stream called Havasu Creek. Many of the homes in the village sport satellite dishes that bring in all the television shows and movies residents could want. But there are no paved roads. No parking lots. No internal combustion engines except for that of an occasional tractor preparing fields for corn, melons and squash.
Sandy Johnston was so enchanted by her first trip to Supai a decade ago that she came back in early May on her honeymoon.
"I just fell in love with the place," said the Denver woman, waiting to order at the counter of the cafe, owned by the tribe. The menu includes pancakes and burritos, burgers, sandwiches and a savory Indian taco of fried bread and red chile.
The cafe is in downtown Supai, which also has a guest lodge, elementary school, tribal offices and the only post office in the United States that conducts its business by mule train. Visitors can send postcards with the coveted "Mule Train Mail - Havasupai Indian Reservation" postmark.
Bernadine Jones, Havasupai vice chairwoman, says tourism is the principal source of income for the 678-member tribe. Before taking office in January, she ran horse trips to the falls. She also supervised the elementary school's bilingual program.
Jones was eager to correct what she says is a common misconception of visitors. She says many outsiders, misunderstanding the shyness of the people, think they are not welcome.
"That's not true," she says. "Most of the people are kind of reserved. It's a cultural thing. I can yak all the time, but I got that from the time I spent outside."
As a young girl, Jones lived in Glendale with the Jack and Els Janus family, and in 1978, she graduated from Phoenix Indian School.
Just about every family in the tribe is involved somehow in tourism. The men find work with the pack trains or in maintaining the trails that are periodically washed out by summertime flash floods. Women generally work in the cafe, 24-room lodge or the tourism office.
Now, Jones and other members of the tribe are pondering ways to expand their people's only industry, tourism. One suggestion is massages for weary hikers.
"We're talking about maybe having rock-climbing trips," Jones said. "But we want to do things that don't disrupt the life we have."
That life is based on a delicate balance. In the face of extraneous cultural influences such as tourists and television, the Havasupai are clinging tightly to a principal source of their cohesion - their language.
"Our kids are 100 percent fluent in our language," Jones said during a visit to the elementary school, where the children chattered in the Havasupai language.
For high school, youngsters must leave the reservation, often to attend government boarding schools as far away as Oregon and California. But the identity provided by the language and by their homeland tugs on the Havasupais who leave. Most eventually return.
Consider Lincoln Manakaja, chairman of the tribe. Born in 1947, he graduated from high school in Seligman and worked as a welder in Phoenix. But in 1973, he decided he'd had enough of city life.
"I wanted to come home," he said.
Then, with a laugh, he added, "The heat got to me down there."
But the tribe's physical isolation, which requires a heavy dependence on pack animals, makes life an expensive logistical challenge.
By the time it has made its way on horseback to the Supai Grocery, a gallon of Clorox costs $5. A 20-ounce box of Cheerios costs $6.30. A half-pound of Folgers coffee sells for $7.50.
Many families seek alternatives. They keep a car in at parking lot at Hualapai Hilltop and make their grocery runs to Kingman, a two-hour drive away. Instead of taking everything home, they ship the nonperishables to their homes in Supai by U.S. mule-mail.
The most remarkable feature of a trip to the home of the Havasupai is the three big waterfalls. Strung along a mile and a half of Havasu Creek, they send its waters tumbling 400 feet toward the "big water," as the Colorado River is called in Havasupai.
In stunning, spectacular succession come Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls and then Mooney Falls, which is named for a miner who fell to his death nearby. At 220 feet, it is taller than Niagara Falls.
The falls' turquoise waters give the tribe its name: ha for water, vasu for blue-green and pai for people. The color comes from the limestone that is highly concentrated in the tumbling waters. In the mist and spray below the falls, delicate travertine ledges shape arcing pools. The minerals also drape the cliff walls in flaring aprons of stone.
Between Havasu and Mooney falls lies one of Arizona's most beautiful campgrounds. Backpackers set their tents beneath billowing cottonwoods under 400-foot red rock walls and next to the cool blue creek. The sound effects are magical, easing weary hikers to sleep with a soft lullaby.
A swim in the falls offers sweet reward for the heavy labor of lugging backpacks from Hualapai Hilltop. In the summertime, when canyon temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, the experience is more than delicious - it's nearly delirious.
The hike to the pool below Mooney Falls is not for the faint of heart. It is a steep descent through nearly vertical tunnels and down a wall pierced with pitons and strung with a chain.
"It makes you feel like Indiana Jones," Sandy Johnston said.
For those with more money than time, there is an alternative way to see the falls. Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters will fly you from the Grand Canyon Airport, south of Grand Canyon Village, across Kaibab National Forest to Supai.
Then, horses take you to the falls, drop you off for a few hours and then return to the landing pad for a 3 p.m. flight out of the canyon. The price: $440.
Billy Jack, the tribe's young tourism director, cautions hikers to be mindful of the summer heat, especially as they return to Hualapai Hilltop.
"It's a physically demanding hike, especially on the way up in the summertime," he said.
Soaring temperatures can make the experience miserable for those who are ill-prepared. The last 1 1/4 miles is a steep hike, about as challenging as the Summit Trail of Squaw Peak in Phoenix. Good shoes and plenty of water are a must.
Hikers should be mindful that water is not available on the route, which diverges from the creek just above the village.
Visitors should be aware that one piece of their standard equipment can be controversial in the land of the Havasupai. Many of the Indian people do not like having their picture taken, especially when the photographer doesn't bother to ask.
"You have to respect them and ask," Jones said. "They're definitely camera-shy."