Backpacking Havasupai Falls and the Confluence of the Colorado: Reflection and Photos
A month before the world would be on bated panic lockdown, my alarm went off at some blurry predawn hour. “Havasu!!” A text came in from my friend, a rallying cry reminder of past me’s reasons for the abridged sleep. Still in bed, I dutifully unfolded my laptop and, on a group phone call, began a play-by-play narration of a desperate attempt to secure four day, three night permits for Havasupai Falls.
Our success would be anticlimactic. It wouldn’t be until one flash flood and three years of canceled reservations later that the date would finally be in sight. As if the universe were conspiratorially against my going (though, in all honesty, the universe has yet to take a vested interest in my recreational plans) a minor head cold and near-death car accident compounded the decision-time drama.
Reeling from the crash, I assured the paramedics that, since I wasn’t actually paralyzed, I’d like to go home to pack for my flight. Head injury or no, I was determined to make the trailhead departure from Hualapai Hilltop. Twenty four hours after blinking into focus an ambulance gurney through a concussed fog I stood in before the check-in at the eclectic Grand Canyon Caverns Inn ready for one of the most incredible hikes of my life.
Day 1: Hualapai Hilltop to Havasu Falls Campground.
Day 2: Havasu Falls Campground to Confluence
Day 3: Mooney, Little Navasu, and Beaver Falls
Day 4: Hike out from Havasu Falls Campground to Hualapai Hilltop
A Brief History
Havasu Falls is fed by the Havasu creek, a diminutive on-paper sounding tributary of the Colorado River. For nearly a thousand years the Havasu Baaja people, one of 11 Native American tribes living within the Grand Canyon, stewarded this otherworldly wilderness. In 1882, they would be displaced without recompense.
Sarah Krakoff, writing for the Colorado Law Review, adeptly contextualizes America’s troubled relationship with its protected public lands in a personal reflection spawned from a 2 week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.
“U.S. policies ratified states’ hunger for Indian resources by removing tribes from any lands deemed valuable to non-Indians. This era, known as “the removal period” in Indian law and policy, overlapped with and eventually gave way to policies more prevalent in the western United States. For the Native peoples of the greater Grand Canyon region, the reservation and allotment periods coincided with two phases of public land law, both of which depended on eliminating indigenous rights to land. The first phase was disposition, during which the United States disposed of its newly acquired public-domain lands to railroads, miners, and homesteaders. The second phase was conservation, which set aside swathes of retained public lands for multiple uses, eventually including scenic, aesthetic, and recreational uses.”
At the stroke of a pen, the Havasu people’s centuries old aboriginal home would become designated public property. It wouldn’t be until 1975, after countless more indignities (like the National Park Service engaging Disneyland architects to convert the former home of Havasupai families into an “Indian Village” tourist attraction), that the tribe would reclaim anywhere close to the small portion of lands we now recognize as Havasupai Reservation.
Permission to backpack this sacred site is what we were after. Supai Village is the most remote community in the contiguous U.S. – accessible only by helicopter, mule, or a ten mile 2,400 ft gain trail. Reservations are relatively tricky to procure, limited in number and managed solely by the Havasu tribal government which today relies on ecotourism for the majority of their revenue.
Without social media, the ubiquity of the photos of the waterfalls may have been lost on me, but I certainly was not immune to their beauty. Just as I am not above the universal drive to proclaim my place in the world by asking friends to photograph me standing with my hands raised over my head in front of cascading waterfalls.
The trek down the canyon revealed gently gurgling streams of aquamarine water. Incredibly, rapid precipitation of calcium carbonate makes the color a natural phenomenon. From the upper limestone layers of the Grand Canyon down to Precambrian granite at the confluence of the Colorado River, the Havasu waters make visible in travertine and cerulean their journey through geologic time.
Photography: Havasupai to the Confluence of the Colorado
My adventure comes at a major moment of reckoning. The future of this major artery of the American Southwest, as well as the lives of millions who depend on it, is at once at risk from human activity and climate change.
About a decade after the park’s formation, a fateful allocation treaty set the stage for a hydrological crisis. Ignoring the true capacity of the river, not to mention the needs of all the communities dependent on its flow (notably the Republic of Mexico and a number of indigenous tribes) the Colorado River Compact negotiations divided the basin across seven states. Current demands on the river are greater than the total amount of water entering its system. States including Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California, continue to pipe water from the river source to wet their booming populations.
Levels dictated by the agreement were already beyond what the river could realistically provide in its signing year of 1922. And the population of the American Southwest has only ballooned since: up from 475,000 at the time of the compact to over 40 million today. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix are just a few of the West’s arid environments turned metropolises built on uncountable acres-feet (welcome to the nonsensical imperial system of volume measurement) of Colorado River water.
Further exacerbating the crisis are regional aridification and long-term drying. A diminished snowpack, responsible for 80% of the river’s annual water levels, has already seen a 20% flow reduction in the last 20 years alone. Deemed America’s most endangered river in 2022, the Colorado River presents us with a critical choice. A chance to preserve its singular majesty and a sustainable urban planning or succumb to the consequences of over-allocation and a changing climate.
Outside of a distant awareness of California’s overtaxation of the Colorado (and my own involvement as a current utility customer benefitting from the antiquated, and yet all too active, 1922 Compact), none of this was apparent to me during my cliffside scrambles and river crossings. My preparation is usually focused on more “pragmatic” concerns. But, as a part of my process to understand my experiences, together with an intrinsic desire for understanding, I tend to obsess over post-journey research.
While writing this a friend asked me what my takeaways were from the trip. I paused to consider his question. “It leaves me feeling raw,” I answered. After four days of being truly present – attending wholeheartedly to what was in front of me, be that the sound of bighorn sheep breakfasting on berry vines or the daylight-like burn of a full moon on a canyon wall – there is an uncomfortable awareness of all the tiny, unimportant things normally competing for my attention. My immediate return in particular was overwhelming. Inside an Arizonan barbeque restaurant, multiple televisions flashed 15 second videos from collections titled “Adorable Halloween Pets” and “Feats of Superhuman Strength.” The attention-grabbing reels defeated me. In a moment I was trying so hard to savor I found myself distractedly wishing to be anywhere other than where I was. Nearby an elderly couple masticated their barbequed ribs in silence, staring at their phones. A harbinger of the escape sequence in store for me.
If the past is prologue, this temporary ‘Sight’ will fade. Soon I will return to the daily jostle of trivial stresses until an entirely different adventure — one of memory and incitation — remains. As every trip is an exercise in attention and respect, I now have new preoccupations. Such as the question of Havasu and the Colorado Basin’s future. I, for one, hope we choose to value the river itself as well as the very many depending on it.
For more resources on continuing education and ways to engage with policy and management actions to protect the Grand Canyon see the following: