Crossing another switchback, on what feels like a never-ending climb, my girlfriend Lizzie and I begin questioning what put us on this dusty, godforsaken trail.
Sweat soaks through our clothes, stinging our eyes and drying in salt-crusted lines on our faces. A day that started with hiking and devolved into trudging finally slows to a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other crawl.
A woman and her two young children sit off to the side of the steep path, faces blush red and cheeks puffed with heavy breaths. "No, thank you" is all the mother replies when I ask if they need water, worried all three might be badly dehydrated. And so we push on, not wanting to take on the appearance of trailside casualties ourselves.
We are making the final ascent out of Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in northern Arizona. The 20-mile round trip that connects the lonely Hualapai Hilltop trailhead with the turquoise, cascading waters of Havasu Falls begins and ends with a brutally steep stretch.
The trail drops approximately 2,000 feet in elevation in the first 1.5 miles, from the edge of a red-rock plateau into the bottom of a canyon that eventually connects to the Grand Canyon. This first stretch is a downhill breeze upon setting out, but a true test of uphill determination and the final hurdle to getting back to the car upon return.
As we squint up through the dust toward tiny glints of sun on metal, Lizzie and I fantasize about the air-conditioning in our rental car.
"Are we there yet?" she jokes. I don't laugh.
• • •
There is good reason for hiking through this punishing desert terrain. Far from the last bit of pavement, Havasu Falls is a lush oasis. Imagine waters as brilliant as any in the Caribbean, but juxtaposed against the red rocks of America's Southwest. You can't believe your own eyes.
The nearest city is Kingman, Ariz., a sprawl of strip malls and chain motels. Only a few hours from Phoenix and Las Vegas, Kingman serves as a solid jumping-off point. From there, it's 118 lonesome road miles to the parking area at the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead. And that's where the real adventure begins.
Every step down into the steep canyon is a reminder of the climb that awaits you at the end of the trip. Red earth gives way to red rocks as you trudge through the canyon bottom's thick, loose gravel. The landscape is dry and inhospitable. Depending on the day, it's likely to be hot as blazes.
There's no water along the way, so you better have plenty in your pack, along with a tent, sleeping bag, mat, food and all the other camping gear that didn't feel as heavy in the outdoor-retailer aisle. (It is possible to get into Supai Village via helicopter instead of on foot, but at significant cost.)
Finally there is green. Lush willows rise from the ground. The sound of rushing water grows louder. And then the sight of Havasu Creek's crystalline waters is at your feet. Soon you'll arrive in Supai Village, a community of approximately 200 Native Americans of the Havasupai Tribe. After checking in at the camper visitor center, you'll walk the dusty dirt path through the village center.
The juxtaposition of REI-clad campers from San Francisco, New York City and in my case St. Petersburg against the impoverished Supai villagers is jarring, uncomfortable.
"Welcome to Supai Village! If you want to try horseback riding, just come find me," exclaims the first resident we cross paths with, a jovial tribal member named Tony. The next few locals ignore our naive "hellos" as they brush past us on the trail.
The Havasupai Indian Reservation has a poverty rate of 37 percent, twice that of the state of Arizona, according to 2010 census data. More than 60 percent of Supai Village's population lives below the poverty line, according to a 2010-14 American Community Survey report.
Garbage and debris fill yards. Dilapidated trailers serve as homes. Two miles downstream, dozens of tourists unfurl Marmot tents and Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads.
This village is one that the white man's government has neglected.
• • •
The campgrounds along Havasu Creek would likely be overrun if it weren't for the tight permit allotment, overseen by tribal members.
Scoring a Havasu Falls camping permit must precede anything else if you're planning a trip, because no permit means no access. (Unless you elect to pay significantly more for a room at the village's lodge, and reservations there are no guarantee either.)
On Feb. 1 of each year, the Supai Village camping office opens up the availability. There are just a couple of phone lines, and chances are you won't get through on your first try. Or the second. Or any of your calls after.
With 300 individual permits per day allotted for this coveted camping destination, demand far exceeds supply in the Instagram era.
Lizzie and I each began calling promptly at 11 a.m. EST on Feb. 1, when the office opened. We received busy signals. Hundreds of them. Every 15 or 20 tries, the call would ring. My anticipation would build, heart in my throat. And then it would quickly lead to a message about no one being available. Eventually I became wise to the misleading rings, as my attempted calls tally rose into the triple digits.
Lizzie, being the more resourceful of the two of us, did some digging on Twitter. Turns out, the Havasupai Tribe quietly rolled out an online reservation system in 2017. Bless the person who made the discovery. We acted fast. Our permits were miraculously secured for March.
• • •
The phone calls and frantic Twitter searching feel worlds away as we walk the winding trail through the campgrounds, unplugged from technology.
After passing the last tent, we arrive at the overlook above Mooney Falls, the tallest of the Havasu waterfalls. Pushing back my vertigo, I creep out on the menacing rocky ledge. The sight of the creek water crashing hundreds of feet below inspires us to get down there for a closer look.
The trail continues in treacherous fashion. Through a series of tunnels, ladders and chain ropes, it's possible to climb down the intimidating cliff to the base of Mooney Falls. (Be sure to wear shoes with hiking soles and exercise extreme caution, as a slip could be disastrous.) A bit of our personalities is revealed by the descent, me cautiously feeling out each step as Lizzie flies down rotting ladders with the cavalier confidence of a seasoned climber.
Once at the cliff base, the overwhelming hydraulic power of Mooney Falls can truly be appreciated. The spray from the crashing water flies hundreds of feet through the air, keeping the ladders and chains slippery.
The trail continues downstream from here another 2.5 miles, crossing the creek at multiple spots and eventually ending up at Beaver Falls. We'd made it this far and figured it would be a waste of a safe descent not to see what else the desolate canyon held. On we explored, across rickety tree-branch bridges and through overgrown meadows.
For those not comfortable with the cliff descent, do not fret. Havasu Falls, New Navajo Falls and Fifty Foot Falls, all located upstream between the campground and Supai Village, offer spectacular views. Make sure to pack a swimsuit, because hopping into the turquoise waters on a hot afternoon is about as refreshing a feeling as you'll find.
On the last of our two nights sleeping next to the creek, once our fellow campers had tucked into their tents, we don headlamps and head upstream. Moonlight reflects off the top of Havasu Falls, a bright precipice above a dark drop.
A thick mist fills the air, dampening our clothes as we stand near the waterfall's base. Alone, Lizzie and I soak in the scene.
For adventurous campers looking to experience an isolated slice of American wilderness, there are few destinations like Havasu Falls. The hike in and out will test your grit. Swimming, reading and exploring are sure to rejuvenate your spirits.
It's not too early to set an alarm for Feb. 1, 2018.
Contact Loren Elliott at [email protected] Follow @Lelliottphoto.