As told to Dave Odegard
It was just after 7 a.m. on a Tuesday last May when I realized the climb down to Mooney Falls in Havasu Canyon was going to be pretty gnarly. The water cascades over a 200-foot drop and when you first stand over it, you just think “Whoa! I would love to get to the bottom of that.” But then you realize it’s surrounded by sheer cliffs.
I had known beforehand that there was a steep descent along a little trail carved into the cliff with a vertical section that many considered risky, but I was confident that I could navigate it with my dog Caiya (a golden retriever-border collie mix who comes along for all my outdoor adventures). We’d even trained in the weeks leading up to the trip, with me working to get Caiya comfortable with being zipped up in my pack and carried around.
But it hit me just how much of an idiot I’d been when I saw the vertical section. It was straight up and down, exposed to the fall’s spray, and scary. I had seriously underestimated how hard this would be. I was so cavalier, I was even wearing flip flops! The thought of descending down right then and there made me tremble.
Caiya and I retreated to the nearby campground to regroup. I laid down in my tent and thought about what I was going to do. I was scared out of my mind, but I thought “I came all this way.” So I put on some different shoes and headed back out.
We headed down to the falls the second time as part of a group, which helped calm my fears a bit. Just before the vertical section of the trail, I was able to find a small flat part to the side. I sat down in the dust with Caiya and went through the protocol for loading her into the pack. My legs ached when I stood up with all of her nearly 70 pounds on my back. My heart was racing as I started to descend. I chose not to think about anything other than moving down, concentrating on each hand and foothold. It seemed that all the other hikers, on the clifftops above and in the valley below just stopped to watch. Some even took pictures.
Along the way, we met another group that had decided to climb up at the same time we were coming down. I got out of the way just enough to let them pass: a precarious position with me gripping the chains that were strung along the trail to assist hikers. I was terrified that Caiya would become anxious, start thrashing around and cause us to fall to our deaths (Mooney Falls is named after a prospector who met that tragic end in 1882 while scaling the very same section…and carrying an injured friend on his back). The ascending group seemed to be taking their time and I couldn’t help but feel a little angry at them. They were so slow! I did my best to keep calm and talk quietly to Caiya (and God).
Once the group passed, the final descent was quick, down some rock stairs, a portion of wooden ladders, and then finally the solid ground of the valley floor. My quads were screaming and felt ready to give out. But to explore the lush valley and cool off in the brilliant blue waters with Caiya (very possibly the first dog to be down there) was totally worth it.
I spent four days exploring and taking in the beauty of Arizona’s Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon that’s world famous for its breathtaking waterfalls and ice-blue waters. People find the pictures of the waterfalls online, which are so unique and beautiful, and want to go see them in person. But it’s not that simple.
The area is managed by the Havasupai Tribe. They only grant so many camping permits throughout the year and getting one is super tough. The process is still done over the phone and I was lucky to be part of a group that snagged one. And because the terrain pretty much prevents seeing the falls in a single day trip, visiting Havasu canyon is kind of an exclusive and rare experience.
My dangerous descent with Cayia was day two. Day one was spent hiking into the canyon. You have to go eight miles down to Supai Village.It takes a while to get t and along the way you’re just completely exposed to the desert elements.
That’s probably the biggest surprise to most people: the super brutal hike just to get there. You have all these people that want to go and then the hike in jumps up and bites them. It just rocks people. It’s steep down through these canyons and rocks. There’s no water, it’s dusty, and there are trains of donkeys and horses going up and down at the same time. But the heat’s the worst part. It’s fierce.
Supai Village is right in the canyon, where it widens out a little bit. It’s small with a few little rows of buildings, a school and a community center, and a couple stores, where you can get a few supplies and snacks (including a refreshing ice-cold lemonade!). But it’s dirt roads and dusty. There’s no pavement or anything. It’s almost like stepping back in time.
…Visiting Havasu canyon is kind of an exclusive and rare experience.
From there, it’s another mile and a half or so to the campground. You set up right alongside the Havasu Creek, which flows through the canyon. The water is an ethereal blue — it looks like “Frost Glacier Freeze” Gatorade — and the surrounding rock formations are this chalky white from the mineral deposits. It’s all this lush valley with cottonwood trees, ferns, wild grape vines, and other foliage. It’s a paradise! And you can’t help but spend your time hiking to waterfalls, laughing and enjoying the company of fellow hikers, exploring, taking photos, and swimming in the surprisingly warm and almost unearthly blue waters. Besides Mooney Falls, which is the most intense one to get to, there are a few other main falls and hundreds of smaller ones.
But the big thing that surprised me about the trip was, even with the difficulty in getting a permit, how many people I met. It was such a wide diversity of people, from the obviously affluent in pricey guided tours to outdoorsy backpackers who’d come on their own. And there was the underlying Native American culture of the place, as well. And everyone just mixed together.
People find the pictures of the waterfalls online, which are so unique and beautiful, and want to go see them in person. But it’s not that simple.
I think most don’t realize how hard and how taxing it’s going to be to get there. They just think waterfalls and beautiful pictures. And I think the rough hiking leaves them with a feeling of confidence and they cherish the lush landscape even more because they did something they didn’t realize they were going to have to do. And everyone kind of bonded over that.
Getting out was a special treat. I didn’t want to wearily make that same 10-mile trek we’d done to get in since we’d need to be fresh for another long backpacking adventure the next day, so we took a helicopter.
Yeah. In a tiny village in the middle of the Arizona desert, where pack mules and horses are used almost daily, there’s regular helicopter service. In fact, it’s a really reasonable price. But it’s first-come-first-serve, flights can get canceled because of the wind, and any of the locals can bump you. Thankfully, Cayia and I were part of the lucky few that were able to fly out that day
When you hike Havasu Canyon, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. There’s an edge to it. It’s special because it’s so difficult and awe-inspiring, over the top, and beautiful. It’s a world-class kind of thing.
Just don’t underestimate what you’re dealing with. It may be harder than you think.