Becoming the Journey: Backpacking to Havasupai

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Published 10/13/16
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“You are the books you read, the films you watch, the music you listen to, the people you meet, the dreams you have, and the conversations you engage in. You are what you take from these. You are the sound of the ocean, breath of the fresh air, the brightest light and the darkest corner.

You are a collective of every experience you have had in your life. You are every single second of every day. So drown yourself in a sea of knowledge and existence. Let the words run through your veins and the colors fill your mind until there is nothing left to do but explode. There are no wrong answers. Inspiration is everything. Sit back, relax, and take it all in.”  -Jac Vanek

There are those who say the journey is the destination. Then there are those who say those people are just making excuses. 

I’d have to agree.

Often times the best part of our journeys actually take place where we least expect it. Often, our best memories from a trip are spawned from bouts of misadventure. 

A recent backpacking trip to Havasupai had my party feeling lost. Very, very lost. We had somehow managed to get ourselves on the wrong road, with the wrong vehicle. We had gotten ourselves too deep into a place we didn’t belong, fearing that if we continued, we’d just get more lost, and more stuck. Knowing that if we were to turn around, it’d be four additional hours of backtracking and finding a new route. There simply was not enough time for that. We were already behind schedule.

How did we end up on the inside?

At the time, opening up a ranchers stable to let ourselves out seemed like a terrible idea. But at that time, we were all out of good ideas, and it was the only way for us to get out of our predicament without having to go back through the mud. The mud that our car barely made it through in the first place. On a road that would have been better fit for a 4x4 truck than a 2wd sedan.

We were scared; perhaps irrationally so. But the last thing we wanted was for some rancher to hear us opening up his gates in the middle of the night and come out blasting. Did I mention it was 2 a.m.? Did I mention the storm that slammed us with rain in the the hours leading up to that? There were no stars this night. There was no moon; only darkness. 

So maybe next time we’ll bring a suitable vehicle with 4-wheel drive. Or maybe we’ll just make sure we have the right directions before we leave the house. Google maps is great, but it’s not perfect, not by a stretch.

I was ready to give up – a couple times – I think we all were. I was so hopeless of making it that night that I just took my sleeping bag out and laid on the ground, fully ready to go to bed for the night. 

Prior to that point we had already spent close to three hours crawling on the dirt road; continually stopping to move rocks and navigate around mud puddles. Praying to whatever god that we would make it out in one piece.

Pro Tip #1: If you decide to give Havasupai a try for yourself, make sure you take Indian Road 18 outside of Peach Springs, AZ. 

By some miracle my brother was able to acquire a sliver of cell reception; enough to get word from our cousins that we were actually heading in the right direction, just on the wrong road. I never thought I’d be so excited to see pavement.

So that was the journey – at least the first part.

Then there was the destination: Havasupai – another journey in itself.

The trailhead is 10 miles away from the campground and we hadn’t slept. 

Our original plan was to arrive at the trailhead at around 9pm, sleep for several hours in the parking lot, and begin hiking at around 2 a.m. But we were seven hours late, arriving at the parking lot around 4 a.m. Here we had held up the rest of our party and all we wanted to do was sleep.

But sleep, we did not

There’s no better way to fry yourself to death in the Grand Canyon than by hauling a 60lb bag 10 miles beneath the August sun. Meaning we didn’t really have the opportunity to sleep. If we didn’t leave right then, we would have had to wait until evening to start hiking.

There are signs at the trailhead that tell you not to hike in the canyon during the day. There are also signs in the canyon telling you not to hike in the canyon at night. So apparently you’re not supposed to hike in the Grand Canyon at all.

We took off from the lot around 5 a.m., just as the sun started peaking out from below the horizon.

The first mile – from Hualapai Hilltop to the canyon floor – is a cool 1200’ decent. 

Despite our exhaustion, the hike in was actually very pleasant. It was the first time in the Grand Canyon for all four of us so we were too overwhelmed with the whole thing to really care about how tired we were. Delirium never felt so good.

Supai Village

Eight miles later we arrived at Supai village. There’s a store, a lodge and an entire community of Havasupai tribes people. We were even able to get ice cream and frozen Gatorade at the store. It was the greatest thing ever! Once we got here we had to check in at the tourist office, pay our fees and get our permits. That part can take some time depending on the size of the groups ahead.

The village feels more like being in a rural town in Mexico than it does being in a National Park, though technically Havasupai sits outside of the jurisdiction for the National Park Service. 

Fun fact: Havasupai is Yuman for People of the Blue-green Water.

The village is completely inaccessible by car so a helicopter serves to bring people and goods in and out of the canyon.

The whole place feels completely surreal; an amalgamation of indigence and spring break. Some might call it a diamond in the rough. Others “the gem of the Grand Canyon” or “the garden of Eden in the desert”. And it truly is.

Did someone say spring break?

As we began approaching Navajo Falls we noticed people with inner-tubes and flips flops -- swarms of young people looking to party. What the!?!?... Not something I really expected to see out there. Especially considering the grueling hike in. 

But that’s because these people didn’t hike in. 

Turns out that the majority of the people at the campground either take the helicopter in, or have their gear brought in on pack mules.

That’s cheating. 

Next time, I’m going to cheat, too.

Next time, we’ll give ourselves more time to enjoy this beautiful place. We’ll plan ahead. Maybe we’ll bring less gear. 

Pro Tip #2: Give yourself three nights at the very least.

This was the point where my knee started giving me problems. Had the hike remained flat, as it was the last seven miles, I would have been OK. But it was all downhill from there, and going downhill means pain for bad knees.

We spent a mere two nights at the Havasupai Campground; the first night we were awoken from our hammocks by a 2 a.m. rainstorm. The second night, we had to wake up at 2 a.m. to hike out. 

The campground is first-come, first-served and is a lot more established than I had originally pictured. Every site has its own picnic table, there are composting outhouses (which were surprisingly clean), and an endless supply of drinking water. 

Pro Tip #3: Get there early so you can get a spot on Havasu Creek. 

This whole experience was nothing short of the greatest adventure that I have ever been on - but not because we were far from home. And not because we were gone for long. 

It was such a great adventure because throughout the entire trip we barely got any sleep. By bedtime on Friday night the four of us had been awake for over 36 hours. We were delirious, slap-happy, punch-drunk, borderline hallucinating and yet elated beyond belief. This was a place that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I was a kid. A place our father had shared stories about from when him and his brothers visited as kids. A place he always wanted to take us back to.

A day through time

Spending Saturday exploring the area was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had. Totally worth all the travel time it took to get there, back, and the subsequent pain. So much so, that we’re already talking about going back next year.

The very first thing we did was go to Havasu Falls since it was right at the campground. This is the quintessential Havasupai waterfall -- the one you’ll see if you Google “Havasupai”. It’s powerful; both physically and proverbially. 

We hiked around the Upper & Lower Navajo falls. Jumped off the lower. Found little bubbly swimming holes that were deeper than they were wide. Felt like if we squinted our vision just right, we might actually be in Jurassic Park. 

We received word from a passerby that there was a hidden cave behind Upper Navajo falls dubbed “the green room”. All we had to do was feel under the right rock in the right place and we’d be able to pull ourselves through. It was incredible. I don’t think any of us have ever been in a room behind a waterfall like that before.

While we explored, our cousins – who have been there before – decided to take a further hike down to the confluence of the Colorado River; an additional 16-mile round trip. As night set, they still hadn’t arrived back at camp and at around 9 p.m. we began to seriously get worried. A few of us decided that if they didn’t show up in 30 minutes that we’d assemble and go out looking for them. 

And at 9:30 p.m. on the dot, they showed back up... phew. Apparently my cousin’s husband saw a mountain lion close to camp and freaked out. 

As someone who has come face-to-face with a mountain lion myself, I can attest to the thousand-yard stare that it gives you. Something about those big black eyes will do that to you. And that’s what he had. He didn’t so much as look at any of us upon his arrival, b-lining it to his tent.

Knowing everyone was safe we said our goodbyes and headed to bed since we had an early morning ahead.

After a short sleep, we got up at 2 a.m., gathered our belongings and hit the trail. 

Walking through the canyon in the dark is an eerie experience. They tell you explicitly not to hike at night, but what choice do you really have? 

Now my knee was already bugging me a little bit from the hike in and I foolishly thought that I’d be OK. Nope! It got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t bend it anymore. Something felt like it wasn’t all connected back there. Ibuprofen? I ate a bunch of that. Aspirin? I ate that, too. But none of that helped. It became extremely demoralizing and slowed me down to a crawl. I was trying to hike without bending my knee, which is doable on the flat, but forget about trying to step over rocks and climb uphill.

Eventually, my brothers and girlfriend decided to lighten my load and took about half of my stuff from my bag. It was the necessary help I needed to finish. It’s supposed to be a four-hour hike, but with the bum knee it took us twice as long. I put us in the situation we woke up early to avoid: climbing Hualapai Hilltop in the direct sunlight. We tried to seek refuge in just about every sliver of shadow we could find. Shadows that were quickly fleeting. 

Pro Tip #4: Two liters of water is ok for the hike in, but bring three liters for the hike out. The hike up Hualapai Hilltop is long, hot and without any shade. You’ll want a liter for that alone.

We made it!

We finally arrived at our car at 11 a.m. – eight hours from when we left. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to get off my feet.

….So sometimes the journey has to be the destination. After all, we don’t build character by being pampered all week at 5-star resorts. We build it by doing new things, going to new places, meeting new people and pushing ourselves past new limitations. 

Hiking out was a humbling experience for me. Knowing that, without the assistance of my group, I may not have made it out put things in perspective. A perspective that I’ll carry with me for a while. 

I am no longer invincible. It’s ok to accept help when help is needed. Rolling through life doesn’t work every time. There is wisdom in traveling light. Planning ahead is a good thing.