|Our horseback exodus out of Grand Canyon begins calmly, as all good
disasters do. At 8 a.m., my family and I mount our steeds and prepare to
leave the Indian village of Supai, tucked in a canyon nook. We are rookie
riders facing an 8-mile uphill trek, but we aren't worried--we have a
guide. I go first with my 7-year-old daughter, Daniela, on my horse,
followed by my wife, Marsha, our 10-year-old daughter, Maya, and our
escort, an Indian with long white hair. After a few minutes, Maya and the
guide pass the rest of us--her horse is roped to his--and vanish around a
bend. Our horses, meanwhile, pause to nibble grass. Panicked, we flog the
lazy beasts with sticks. If horses could talk, I believe mine would have
remarked, "In your dreams, tenderfoot."
We are now in the portion of our trip that we affectionately refer to as
"City Slickers: The Horse Ride From Hell." The sky clouds up, thunder
booms off the canyon walls, and a deluge ensues. "We're going to die,"
Daniela sobs. I recall the story of a 1993 downpour in these parts that
caused a dam to burst, unleashing a 12-foot wall of water. Point to
ponder: Would U.S. News pay funeral expenses?
After 15 minutes or so, the rain lets up. My wife and I are desperate to
gallop ahead in search of Maya; the horses prefer moseying along,
occasionally in the wrong direction. I think we'd still be in the canyon
if not for a kind Indian who happened to ride by. He instructs us in the
art of kicking horses to make them go and shepherds us to the trail's
steep, final half mile, leaving to chat with a pal. But we fear not, for
what else can go wrong? A passing hiker informs us: "Dead horse ahead." At
the sight of the corpse, stashed by the trail, my wife's nag begins
rocking nervously. A minute later Marsha is on the ground, bloodied and
"We're leaving the horses," I shout, feeling like the dad in a Disney
adventure movie. We footed it to the end of the trail for an ecstatic
reunion with a remarkably unfazed Maya. "Sometimes the guide asked if my
parents were ahead or behind," she reports. At dead horse junction, he
sent her up alone because his horse would not pass the body. "I thought
you guys were lost forever," Maya says, "but I had a fun ride."
How did my family come to such a near tragedy of errors? It all started
with a comment from my practical mother-in-law. Her daughters proposed
that she visit Grand Canyon. Her reply: "I get there, I look at it, and
My initial advice: Shop for souvenirs! Indeed, the top tour-bus activities
at the canyon are sightseeing, dining, taking photos, and gathering
keepsakes. Legend has it some visitors don't even do that much--they come,
they gawk, they vamoose. The result is canyon gridlock. On a typical
summer day at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, 5,500 cars vie
for 2,000 parking spaces. By 9 a.m., rubberneckers clog the overlooks.
Tykes whine; smokers flick their butts. No wonder some folks prefer the
IMAX Grand Canyon film outside the park.
To answer my mother-in-law's query, I planned a trend-defying trip.
Instead of treating the Grand Canyon as a drive-by scenic stop, my family
and I would spend a week sizing up Arizona's humongous hole. Our
inspiration was John Wesley Powell, the 19th-century explorer, who wrote,
"To see it you
have to toil ... through its labyrinths." The park's bustling South Rim,
its less crowded North Rim--we hoped to toil through it all. We also
wanted to visit the canyon bottom. But my daughters were too short for the
park's mule ride into the abyss; riders must be at least 4 feet, 7 inches.
I doubted they could hike 9.5 miles from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch,
spend the night, then climb back up.
A Sierra Club staffer proposed a solution to our dilemma: Havasu Canyon. A
four-hour drive from the South Rim, Havasu is inside the reservation of
the Havasupai Indians, who have farmed its floor since 1300. (They
migrated to the rim in winter until the white man put it off-limits in
1882.) The canyon sounded fine for families. The 8-mile trail to Supai,
the Indian village, starts steep but levels off. If the trek is too tough,
you can enter and/or leave by horse, with no size restrictions for riders,
We decided to hike to Supai, stay at its lodge ($ 75-$ 96 peak, less off
season; 520-448-2111), and ride out. From Las Vegas, it's 168 miles to
Grand Canyon Caverns Inn near Peach Springs, Ariz., ($ 40-$ 64
spring-fall, less in winter; 520-422-3223), the hotel nearest the
trailhead. We arose at
3 a.m. to drive the remaining 65 miles to the start of the trail at
Hualapai Hilltop. Our goal was to start hiking around 5 a.m., first light,
so we could finish up before the 100-degree heat of the day.
Yawning chasm. Starting at 5,200 feet above sea level, Hualapai Trail
isn't as awe inspiring as other Grand Canyon paths. Still, the path has
its share of towering red, white, and gray rocks and sheer dropoffs. "A
chasm which seemed to fairly yawn for victims," wrote Capt. John Gregory
1884 explorer of Havasu Canyon. Today, the trail down is as wide as a
suburban sidewalk. You couldn't fall off unless you were to dance on a
The first mile is stunningly steep, descending 1,100 feet in a series of
rocky switchbacks. By 6 a.m., we'd hit bottom, with about 6 3/4 miles to
go through a skinny canyon, adorned with beauteous boulders and lovely
trees. I had hoped to cover 2 miles an hour. Instead, we barely broke 1
mph--partly because of innumerable rest stops, partly because 7-year-olds
can walk veeerrrrry slowly, and partly because we got lost. At 11 a.m., we
saw the first (and only) directional sign--"To Supai, to
Campgrounds"--pointing to a narrow path off the main trail. My sole
wilderness skill is reading signs, but I decided the sign must be wrong
because the narrow path seemed to head into Havasu Creek. We wound up, hot
and tired, in a thicket of bushes and trees. Some Indian kids showed us a
place to wade across the water, and wade we did, emerging on the dusty
road to the village. And needless to say, the directional sign was
correct, steering hikers to a bridge over the creek.
As the postcards say, the rustic-style Havasupai Lodge is "nestled in the
palm of nature's hand," with huge red rocks rising behind it. But after
our seven-hour hike, we craved an air-conditioned room, not a view, and
the lobby was locked. Marsha saw a man pushing a wheelbarrow. "Do you know
when the lobby opens?" she asked. "No," he replied. Turns out he was the
lodge manager, giving us our first taste of the local service ethic.
In some ways, Supai is a Shangri-La, sitting by lush Havasu Creek and
ringed by trees, from mesquite to peach. The village is also one of the
most remote hamlets in the United States: food and mail delivered by mule,
sporadic phone service, no television except by satellite.
Now for the distressing news. The village itself resembles a Third World
shantytown. Dust and horse dung abound. "Don't ride [horses] while drunk,"
a sign warned, but I saw several tipsy horsemen. The unemployment rate for
the 175-person labor force is 51 percent. Many Indians are barely civil to
tourists even though their economy is based on tourism. "Why do they hate
us so?" one visitor sighed after a brush with a curt cafe clerk. "Revenge
on the white man?" A tribal spokesman later told me, "Some of the people
[who wait on tourists] are more or less aloof--they're real private
The next day, we trudged 2 sandy miles to Havasu Falls, sparkling ribbons
of water that roar and spritz as they tumble into a turquoise pool. The
lovely color, from limestone deposits, gave the tribe its name; Havasupai
means "people of the blue-green water." Some folks dive through the falls.
Others relax in alcoves where the water froths like a Jacuzzi.
That night, as the ruddy cliffs of day became eerie silhouettes and bats
sailed by in search of dinner, we sat outside the lodge and chatted with
the other guests. In this secluded spot, I felt a rare inner peace, until
one woman mentioned that she'd found a scorpion in her bed the other day.
The next morning was our horseback horror story. Unlike the
well-supervised mule rides at the South and North rims, the operation run
by the Havasupai tribe has no quality control. Next time, I'd hike up or
fly out on Airwest Helicopter ($ 55 per person; 602-516-2790).
The rest of our trip was gloriously tame. En route to the South Rim, we
took in the IMAX Grand Canyon docudrama at Tusayan. Dazzling? Indeed.
Better than the real thing? I think not.
Because of its superior location, the South Rim lures 4.4 million tourists
a year while the North Rim gets 490,000. The South is closer to Phoenix
and Flagstaff, and visitors can see more sweeping panoramas, since it has
more roads along the rim and more pullouts than the North.
Stone temples. Yet skirting the summer crowds is pretty easy. At 6 a.m.,
only a handful of folks are at the South Rim overlooks and the
rim-to-bottom trails. We tried South Kaibab; cut into a canyon ridge, it
passes impressive vistas. A 1.5-mile hike took us to Cedar Ridge, a
plateau suitable for picnics. The vastness of Grand Canyon and its stone
temples spread out before us in the clear morning light. The only sounds
were our footsteps on the rocks, the cries of birds, and the rush of the
wind, rustling gnarled junipers and whistling past our ears. And my wife's
periodic plea: "Honey, don't let the kids fall in."
The North Rim is 10 miles from the South Rim as the raven flies but 220
miles as the car drives. But the trip is worth taking. The park's north
side is piney and tranquil, with a rustic lodge and cozy cabins. We felt
we'd arrived at a summer camp facing a wonder of the world.
I was especially taken with Point Imperial overlook, the highest viewpoint
in the park at 8,803 feet. Far below, the Colorado River, the main carver
of the canyon, is framed by a natural window of rock. Nearby, the
mile-long Cliff Springs Trail offers a miniversion of a hike to the bottom
of Grand Canyon, zigging down a narrow, not-too-deep side canyon with
quick changes in terrain from alpine to desert. At both rims, we
participated in a number of superb ranger-run programs, which are listed
in the park newsletter.
As a reporter, I felt dutybound to review recent canyon news upon
returning home. Among the stories: plane crashes in the canyon during a
storm; three hikers die of heat-related causes. I recalled a ranger's
warning: "There's no such thing as a foolproof activity at Grand Canyon."
So here's what I told my mother-in-law: Adventures await if you heed the
call of the canyon, but, please, be careful out there. Oh, and the South
Rim is the place to shop for souvenirs. The tchotchke selection is the
grandest in the canyon.
GRAPHIC: Picture, Dusk patrol. For the best view of the sunset at the
North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, tourists head to Bright Angel
Point. (Kevin Horan for USN&WR);
Picture, High-tech shantytown. Supai, the canyon Indian village, is
secluded--and wired. Its Web site:
http://firstname.lastname@example.org (Kevin Horan for USN&WR);
Pictures: Canyon grandeur.
On South Kaibab Trail and other paths, hiking up takes twice as long as
going down. Havasu Canyon is famed for Havasu Falls, Navajo Falls, and
200-foot Mooney Falls, named for an unlucky miner. Daniel Mooney slid down
a rope over the cascade in 1880. The rope was too short by many feet;
Mooney dropped to his death. (Kevin Horan for USN&WR)