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Havasu Canyon: Springtime in Shangri La

Havasu Canyon: Springtime in Shangri La

I first heard about Havasu Canyon from Edward Abbey.

His idyllic description of it in Desert Solitaire really caught my eye when I first read it back in the 70’s. It sounded like paradise on Earth, a desert Garden of Eden. It sounded too good to be true.

Thirty-five years later, my time had finally come to see Havasu for myself. Of course, I’d seen plenty of photographs – the aquamarine waterfalls made for irresistible calendar pages. Havasu had become an icon for photographers from around the world – and many, many others eager for a taste of Shangri La.

Havasu Falls

Havasu Falls

Havasu Canyon is in the Grand Canyon, but it’s not in Grand Canyon National Park. This is Havasupai Land, the ancestral home of the “People of the Blue-Green Waters”. Havasu Creek flows through the canyon and the famous waterfalls cascade in a series, each more idyllic than the last.

You can’t get there in a car. It’s an 8-mile hike to the village of Supai, the tribal center, and another two miles to the campground at the base of Havasu Falls. If walking is not your thing, you can ride on the back of a world-weary mule or horse or – if money is no object – you could fly in a helicopter down to Supai. My advice is to avoid the helicopter and skip the mules. You should walk.

Supai

Supai

According to Abbey, the government had once offered to build a road to Supai and connect the village with the outside world and its recreation vehicles. The tribe declined, a notable bit of enlightened thinking in a cash-crazy world.

Tribal Permits to camp down in the canyon are in great demand. When they go on sale, the entire years’ supply is snatched up within hours. This is an excursion that definitely requires some advance planning.

We arrive at the trailhead parking area atop Hualapai Hilltop at dusk after navigating the long bumpy 65-mile dirt road from Route 66 near Peach Springs. We pitch our tents in the shadow of an RV the size of Prince Edward Island, eat our dinner and settle in for the night. Shifting hues of magenta and pink flutter across the great empty expanse surrounding the Hilltop and the rising moon bathes the canyons in sweet shining light.

Ingress

We shoulder our packs in the bright morning sunshine and start down the steep palisade, following the well-worn trail down, down, down a series of rocky switchbacks, moving aside as a series of mule trains pass us going up. The mules are loaded with backpacks wrapped in tattered blue tarps against the dust that coats everything.

At the base of the hill, the descent becomes more gentle, the canyon narrows and the walls close in overhead. We reach Havasu Creek, its waters flowing through a swatch of riparian green that is a shocking emerald hue after the burnished reds of the canyon. The trail follows the creek through the succulent greenery, crosses the crystalline water on a bridge and deposits us in the village of Supai tucked in the embrace of the surrounding escarpments. The Wigleeva –  two prominent stone towers that soar above the village – figure prominently in the Havasupai mythology, guardians of the people of the blue green waters.

Inquisitive dogs are everywhere. Horses roll in the dust in fields beneath venerable cottonwood trees encircled by fences constructed of branches and wire. We’ve walked into a different world, removed from the whirling machinery of modern life above the canyon rim.

We walk through the village, strangers in a strange land, and proceed downstream, following the aquamarine waters of Havasu Creek  through the birdsong-filled canyon. We turn a corner and there are Upper and Lower Navaho Falls, that technicolor Garden of Eden vision – living in my imagination since Abbey put it there – come to life.

Upper Navaho Falls

Upper Navaho Falls

The broad sweep of the Upper Falls stretches across the canyon walls, a multitude of raging torrents and delicate bridal-veil cascades. At its fringes, lush greenery forms a vivid contrast to the red rock cliffs that tower above, forming a vast amphitheatre hollowed (hallowed?) out by the eternal flow. The roar of crashing water echoes like thunder.

Beneath the Upper Falls, Havasu Creek continues on its exceedingly merry way, cascading now over an intricate network of graceful travertine ledges, the water reflecting the warm hues of the canyon in a hundred gleaming steps. The tranquility is short-lived however, as the brink of Lower Navaho Falls soon turns the flow into a maelstrom of foam.

Havasu Falls

Havasu Falls

We continue down the dusty trail, quickly reaching the lip of Havasu Falls. Another steep descent brings us beside the cascade, overlooking the almost South Seas-looking basin below the falls, a glittering turquoise bowl ringed by an emerald garden in an amphitheatre of pink rock. A color scheme out of Maxfield Parrish. Or Disney.

We secure a campsite beside the rambunctious stream and relax from our day’s labors on its bank as the light fades and bats dance.

Canyon Music

Dawn comes with the singing of wrens. I’ve woken to many sounds but I can’t think of a finer one than the enchanting glissando of the canyon wren, amplified and diffused by canyon walls.

I wade across the travertine ledges beneath Havasu Falls as the morning light spreads through the canyon like butter. The water is chimerical, the sun is warm and there’s no one around. I’m a happy camper indeed.

I spend the day exploring the sun-dappled canyon, climbing over rocks to the base of Upper Navajo and immersing myself in the sweet water, drying off in the warm sun, watching the occasional cloud shadow pass over the radiant red ramparts. A wonderful, slowly-unfolding day of visual wonder accompanied by the sweet music of  tumbling water. Night descends like a soft blanket and we gather beside the candle lantern,  enjoying the relaxed conversation of people exhausted by grandeur and happy to be alive. Much is said and much is unsaid.

Watch your step: The Route to the base of Mooney Falls

Watch your step: The Route to the base of Mooney Falls

The morning is clear and cool, the sky a deep, lustrous blue. We head down the trail deeper into the canyon and soon reach the top of nearly 200-foot Mooney Falls, at the lip of a gaping chasm. The route down to the base of the falls is not for the faint-hearted.

We descend on a series of ledges cut into the cliff, switch-backing down the precipice until reaching what appears to be a dead end, but is in fact a tunnel blasted down through the swirling sandstone. One by one, we shimmy down through the nearly-vertical tunnel, aided by well-placed hand- and foot-holds.

Tunnel in the cliff

Tunnel in the cliff

Emerging on the sheer cliff, we descend the rock face using chains bolted into the sandstone, eventually reaching a series of wooden ladders, lashed to the wall at various haphazard angles. The spray from the falls blasts us and the ladder slats are coated in wet mud, mandating a careful and deliberate descent. You won’t find this kind of excitement in a National Park. The liability would be unthinkable.

From the bottom, Mooney Falls is even more impressive, plunging through a cleft in the canyon walls high overhead into an aquamarine pool at our feet before spilling over travertine terraces on its way to the distant Colorado. The near-vertical cliffs of the amphitheatre have the appearance of drip-drop castles adorned with flying buttresses of carved sandstone and fancifully-carved gargoyles. The motif here is more Hieronymus Bosch then Parrish.

We head downstream, carefully crossing a wildly twisting bridge that affords teetering passage across the now rip-roaring Havasu Creek. The rough trail follows the watercourse around a breathtakingly beautiful bend in the canyon, where the red walls close in, reflected in the labyrinthine pools created by the travertine ledges.

Precarious passage

Precarious passage

I stop along the way and immerse myself in a turquoise pool, floating quietly on my back beneath a narrow strip of blue sky. Beaver Falls is three miles downstream of Mooney, through scenes of otherworldly beauty. One could lose oneself down here, a proposition that is not without its appeal.

As Abbey said, “Once down in there it’s hard to get out.”

But get out we must.

 

Egress

Havasu Canyon is unquestionably one of the world’s most beautiful places and the Havasupai do a pretty good job of managing the resource. Obviously, the steady stream of satori-seeking pilgrims filing through their spectacular homeland presents challenges for the tribe but by instituting the strict permit system (and saying no to the road), they have found a compromise that seems to work. The campground, long a source of complaints about over-flowing outhouses and environmental degradation, has been greatly improved in recent years. The composting toilets are state-of-the-art and clean.

And thankfully, they’ve resisted over-developing the trail system and amenities. Considering the rickety bridges and ladders lashed to the cliffs, a person could get himself into trouble here. I imagine that some do. The Havasupai make accessing the canyon possible – but don’t turn it into the kind of highly-regulated, carefully modulated experience that has become endemic in so many places. Or worse yet, a theme park.

Mooney Falls

Mooney Falls

They’re in a difficult position. Obviously they want to preserve their culture as best they can but at the same time, the stream of backpack-wearing visitors from that other world above the rim are the foundation of their economy, such as it is. And with the beguiling images of the canyon transported via the web around the world, Havasu is on more than a few bucket lists these days. Lots of people are looking for paradise.

For the moment, they’ve achieved a reasonable balance. How different things would have been if that road had been built.

In the morning we break camp, hoist our packs and head towards home. The burnished light on the pool beneath Havasu Falls is nothing short of spectacular.

Somewhere above the village, as I walk alone with my thoughts through the shadows of the canyon, I pass a native man with a black plastic garbage bag, picking up trash. He chants as he goes, a beautiful song that resonates off the canyon walls. A song of mourning, he says.

Long after I am past him, laboring up over the rocky trail, the sound echoes in the still desert air.

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