Fifteen years ago, long before Instagram, Havasuapi was a far-away destination in the corner of Arizona. Plenty of people went, but the experience was far more secluded and peaceful than what you can expect now. Now, the average explorer and hiker might find themselves feeling more like an set piece on someone’s photo shoot than a traveler through a serene oasis. So, if you aren’t looking for Insta fame, or just aren’t a fan of the travel social media culture, is exploring Havasupai still worth your time?
I’ve gone to Havasupai several times over the past 20 years, and I’ve personally seen the change from an remote camping destination, to a guided tour hotspot, and to the current social media craze. I can honestly say that I miss the days before this little spot in Arizona exploded, and I can seriously do without people monopolizing the falls for 30 minutes to an hour because they want the perfect photo of themselves. That being said, I’ve never once regretted visiting, and I still find the crowds manageable if you go during the shoulder seasons.
Making Up Your Mind
So, how can you decide if this place is still worth visiting after all the hype and over exposure? Here is what Havasupai can offer you:
(1) The brilliant blue waterfalls are even cooler in person than in the pictures.
(2) The hiking in the canyon is amazingly beautiful from the trailhead to the confluence.
(3) Camping in Havasupai supports a community of Native Americans who have been trying to make a living via a nature-based form of tourism that has ecotourism potential.
(4) While the crowds might make some backpacker experts feel disappointed, it is a good place for people to start backpacking because there are plenty of people and little chance of getting lost. (You need to be prepared, however!)
But here are the drawbacks:
(1) This is a busy and increasingly popular place, which makes it hard to get permits and people who prefer solitude will not find this spot enjoyable.
(2) You will see first-hand the social media craze and the impacts of overtourism. If you’ve been previously, you will need to prepare yourself for this.
(3) You may be exposed to unprepared hikers on the trek into the canyon or trying to climb down to Mooney Falls. This can increase your risk or potentially impact your trip.
Planning for Your Trip
So, you’ve decided that exploring Havasupai is worth your while. Great! There are several key steps to planning for your adventure.
(1) Make sure that you are physically prepared for 20+ miles of hiking. If you don’t have a lot of experience, get out on the trail and get your body into shape! Continue this practice throughout your planning process.
(2) Get your permit. (See below). [We no longer support the use of pack animals in Havasupai due to the overwhelming evidence of abuse. If you can’t carry your gear, you should consider going somewhere else until the tribe sufficiently addresses this problem.]
(3) Get your gear together.
Here is the key packing list that I would suggest using as a basis.
(0) Permit paperwork. ID, wallet, etc.
(1) Hiking boots which fit well and are broken in. Opt for high tops as these protect your ankles and feet with the extra weight of your pack on. Hike at least 40+ miles in your boots before you take them backpacking. Make sure that your toes don’t hit the front. They should fit well enough to stop your feet from sliding inside the shoe.
(2) Backpacking pack that is fitted to your body type.
(3) Sufficient water (!!!!) and salty snacks that will be accessible for your hike in. Remember, Arizona is a desert and dehydration is a major danger.
(4) First aid kit for the number of days you will be on the trail. REI has great options for this. Be sure to add extra blister care, bug spray, and sunscreen. If you have any essential meds, of course, don’t forget those!
(5) Shelter- tent, hammock, etc. Whatever you are most comfortable with. I suggest a lightweight tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag.
(6) Bring a head lamp for the night time.
(7) Pack food for your time camping and everything you will need to cook. A small, light stove, fuel, cooking utensils, bowls, cups, and general utensils will all be necessary. Fires are not allowed. If you have it, bring a rat sack. If you can’t get one, you can ask for a bucket from the rangers at the camp entrance in order to protect your food. Hanging it will not be enough. The squirrels will get it. There is also a restaurant in Supai.
(8) Bring extra clothing and anything you’d like to have on hand for swimming (swimsuit, hiking sandals like Keens and Tevas). Depending on the season, you might also need a jacket for the cooler nights/early mornings.
Getting Your Havasupai Permit
**THE HAVASUPAI PERMITS BECOME AVAILABLE AT 8AM AZ TIME FEB 1ST EACH YEAR**
You must have a permit to explore Havasupai. All permits must be reserved and purchased online. The tribe asks that you DO NOT call them unless you have a customer service matter.
The first step to buying permits is registering an account on the Havasupai Reservation website. Do this before Feb 1st.
As of 2019, everyone is required to stay for 3 nights and four days. There are NO day hikes allowed in the canyon, and people will be checking.
Weekday nights are $100 per person, and weekend nights are $125 per person.
One name is required for the permits, and whoever’s name is on the permit will need to be present at Supai for check-in.
There are NO REFUNDS on permits.
Getting to the Trailhead
No matter where you are coming from, you will need to take the 66 to Indian Road 18. This is a little southeast of Peach Springs and north of Seligman after the Grand Canyon Caverns hotel (well-worth the stop if you like caves- not great formations, but just interesting). You will take Indian Road 18 all the way to its end. You won’t really be able to miss the trailhead. There will be tons of cars and the dry end of the canyon will be immediately apparent.
There are bathrooms at the trailhead.
The Hike to Havasupai
The hike down to Supai and the falls has four main sections in my mind. Overall, from the trailhead down to the campground is around 10 miles. It’s 8 miles to Supai and then 2 more miles to the campground. At all points, be aware of and listening for the horse trains that move up and down the trail. Best to keep out of their way as they can move quickly and there are people checking permits that ride through as well. [Please report to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribal government, and SAVE if you see instances of abuse.]
Down Into the Canyon
The first section is the steepest, and is the most difficult on the way out. You will descend down steep and dusty switchbacks all the way down to the canyon floor. At the top, there are some wonderful views of landscapes that you aren’t otherwise going to see. So it is a great spot to stop to take pictures before you get started. The switchbacks themselves aren’t particularly steep, but they will be a huff for most people on the way out. This can be extremely difficult for non-backpackers in the heat of the day when you are trying to leave. So plan accordingly. Also, when I say that this part of the trail is dusty, I mean it. There are parts where you will be sinking up to your ankles in the dust and it can be tiring to walk in.
The second section is the longest stretch of the trail and will take you through the dry parts of the canyon. This is relatively flat, with some lost in altitude on the way in and some climbing out when you leave. Overall not particularly difficult except in its length. I personally think that this part of the trail is very lovely. There is a kind of desert desolation here. You will pass through short stretches without so much as a bush between the smooth, stone walls of the canyon. In other places, you will pass through patches of desert bushes and walk by impressively large trees rooted deep into the water running below ground.
This part of the trail ends when the canyon opens up again, and you start to hear the blessed sounds of flowing water. The absolutely vibrant, green riparian forest will also come into view, beckoning you onwards. When you reach this point, you are very close to Supai. You will turn left (following a sign) into the woods. Here, in the shadow of the trees, the trail will follow along the brilliant, blue waters of the stream. Slowly, you will start to make out houses here and there, tucked away from the hustle of the trail.
In Supai, you will need to stop at the tourism office to check in and get your wrist bands. This building will be easily apparent. There will be signs and it is in the most densely built up area of the town. Near here there are also restaurants, snack shops, and a gift shop!
After Supai, you will be on your final stretch. You will follow the trail out of town, and continue to follow the stream for two miles downhill. Before reaching camp, you will start to see some beautiful waterfalls. Havasu Falls will be before the campgrounds to the right of a sharp decent into the canyon on another very dusty part of the trail.
When you arrive in camp, you are allow to choose any open camping spot.
Alternative Transportation and Accommodation Options
If you want to explore Havasupai, but have some issues hiking and/or camping, there are options for you.
If you are unable to hike to camp, there is the option of taking the helicopter in and out of the canyon. The flight is $85 each way (limit 20-40 lb backpack). You may end up needing to wait quite a while to catch a flight. So, if you decide to go this route, I would advise you to arrive very very early.
If you are not up for camping, you may also consider the Havasupai Lodge. Reservations open on June 1, 2019, and rooms go for $200 a night. They are described as accommodating up to four people, however, I have never personally stayed in one, so be sure to check out the website and see for yourself.
Camping sites are first come first served. There are bathrooms spread throughout, and a fresh water spring that you can safely drink from.
The squirrels at the campground WILL get your food if you don’t bring a rat sack or store everything in a ranger-provided bucket. Absolutely DO NOT store food in your tent or backpack (unattended). The last thing you need is a squirrel chewing through your gear.
Camp is also relatively close quarters, so be sure to be quiet and respectful of all your neighbors. Afterall, the quieter you are, the better you can hear the nearby stream flowing.
Exploring the Falls
While there are several falls to be enjoyed, Havasu is the one that you will see most often. This is most easily accessible from camp, and is a great place to hang out at, picnic, and swim. Exploring Havasupai doesn’t stop at camp, however.
If you are a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and not afraid of heights, Mooney Falls is a short hike past the campground and then down a cliff. While I am not afraid of heights (more than the average human being anyway), I find this climb to be a bit scary. You will first walk down through some narrow tunnels in the stone. Then you will start lowering yourself down from very slippery, slick chains, which lead to a ladder and more chains. The steeper the trail, the closer you are to the waterfall and everything is covered in at least a fine layer of water. Go slow and insure that you don’t have anything in your hands on the way.
Beaver Falls is down the trail past Mooney about four miles (one direction). Even though you will be tired of hiking at this point (most likely), I would highly suggest continuing on as a day trip from camp. The trail itself crosses the stream several times. It passes through some amazingly beautiful stretches of forest and strange assemblages of desert plants. It is a beautiful trek. Beaver Falls, while not as high as Mooney or Havasupai, is really lovely and the perfect place for a swim. It is often slightly quieter than Mooney, although if you go in the high season, you won’t be able to escape the crowds. I’ve even heard rumors that people have been stuck waiting for an hour to get up or down those chains near Mooney.
If you want to learn more about what to explore in Arizona, be sure to check out Nightborn Travel’s guide to Arizona!