Friday, September 27, 2013

Supai: The Grand Canyon Village Without Automobiles

            Supai area boasts a John Wayne kind of Wild West Landscape.

                                                     All photographs by Ravell Call.

                             Few parts of Supai are paved.

                                       Mooney Falls

Envision a world without automobiles ...
Imagine a tucked-away red-rock pocket without paved roads (let alone automobiles), where the hustle and bustle of modern life is almost nonexistent.
Add a remarkable, year-round, spring-fed stream of blue-green water that plunges off spectacular waterfalls, complete with picturesque, travertine-sculpted pools.

Mix in trees and plants not always found in such a desert locale, and include American Indians who have called this once-hidden chasm home for centuries.
There. You now have a barely adequate description of northern Arizona's beautiful Havasu Canyon and the village of Supai — likely the most remote town in the lower 48 states.
It is, as National Geographic once phrased it, the "Shangri-La of the Grand Canyon," of which Havasu is a tributary cleft.

"Even today many visitors to the Southwest learn with surprise of this community of Native Americans living within the Grand Canyon," Stephen Hirst wrote in an enlightening book about the tiny tribe, today about 500 people occupying an equal number of acres. "The people call themselves havsuw 'baaja — the Blue Creek people — and so number themselves among the few Native Americans who the Europeans call by anything close to their own name for themselves." They are the Havasupai — the final syllable meaning "people."
Of course, there is a catch to this scenic paradise. There are only three ways into the area:
By hiking.
By horseback.
By helicopter.

Also, while most visit here because of the spectacular 

waterfalls, found a mile or so below the village, many find 

that the most intriguing thing here are the Native Americans 

who live here as they have for centuries.


--Note that this paradise is not without its dangers, though. 

A  flood on August 16, 2008 closed the area to tourism for 

some  weeks. Trails were heavily damaged and some 

waterfalls were even reshaped.

Periodic floods are a part of the landscape here. There was 

another flash flood in July of 2012 and another back in 


'Best swimming hole'
                                                 Havasu Falls.

Supai itself is, as the raven flies, about 35 miles southwest of the South Rim's Grand Canyon Village. But getting there is really a bit of a challenge, as our group of nine — ages 8 to 58 — found on a spring trek there back in April of 2004.
For instance, after getting to Hualapai Hilltop — road's end, which is itself 60 miles from old Route 66 — the hike to Supai is an eight-mile trek down a cliff and through a sand- and gravel-bottomed wash. Then it's another two or so miles, one way, to the waterfalls — Navajo, Havasu and Mooney — just below the village on Havasu Creek.
Plus, to be one of the 25,000 outlanders who visit each year, you have to have an advance reservation to visit what Life Magazine once called "the best swimming hole in the nation."
                                          Supai Motel

According to Billy Jack, with Havasupai Tourist Enterprises in Supai, Havasu's campgrounds and small lodge are at their busiest from late March through June and are usually booked solid. July and August are not only the hottest months, when daytime highs can reach 115 degrees, but also the monsoon rainy season, which can create flash-flood hazards in the narrow canyons. Those two months have 50 percent vacancy rates. Then from October until early spring the area is seldom visited. Snow occasionally falls in winter, but it always melts off quickly.
Most of the camping area in the canyon is situated right along Havasu Creek between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls, a pleasant locale that can handle 200 backpackers a day.
The basic but quite comfortable lodge in Supai has 24 rooms that can accommodate up to four people each. (There are, however, no TVs or phones.)
                                          Supai Restaurant

                                       Inside the restaurant.

A store, restaurant, post office and emergency medical clinic are also available in Supai's center.
Indeed, tourism is the village's main industry. Villagers receive no government stipends and pay income taxes, like all Americans do, Billy Jack says.
The biggest problem the tribe encounters, he says, is people who try to make a day hike out of this experience. They usually get into trouble, trying to do 20 miles in a day.
"We don't recommend 'day hikes,' " he said. Night hiking is 

also not advised for those unfamiliar with the area.
A rewarding trek
Our two-day trek — in the end we wish it had been three — began on a brisk April morning that included a 20-mile drive through dense fog across the neighboring Hualapai Reservation to the Hualapai Hilltop trailhead, essentially a cliff-hanging parking lot at 5,199 feet above sea level.

We started moderately early, about 8:30 a.m., after a 65-mile drive from our lodgings of the previous night, and we were glad we did. The descent was steady and the temperatures mild.
The first mile-plus turned out to be steep, following a series of switchbacks and quickly dropping a thousand feet.
The views were marvelous. The canyons quickly plunge below the rim, gray-white stone at times ribbed in shades of salmon and iron red like a fantastic marble cake. Chasms and escarpments fade to the south, west and especially to the north and toward the Grand Canyon itself in scope and panorama that movie director John Ford would have appreciated.
And the morning odors proved both bracing and familiar — those who've hiked other Grand Canyon trails used by horses and mules will know what we're talking about.
Indeed, pre-automotive age horsepower is key to life in Havasu Canyon. We encountered our first riderless and package-free mules — properly giving them the right of way — near the bottom of the cliff; they seemed to know where they were going (up) but proceeded in a slow-and-go sort of fashion. On the way back to Supai they will carry passengers, food, sundry goods and, yes, the U.S. mail.
After the steep descent bottoms out, the hike is along a mostly dry streambed for the final six or seven miles to the Indian village.
In the confined canyon, rock walls stretch heavenward. The sheer cliffs and tight corridors are reminiscent of Zion Canyon's narrows in places (without the Virgin River's stream), as well as many other side canyons of the Grand Canyon.
Then the trail intersects Havasu Canyon and its life-giving blue-green creek. The water's remarkable color is a result of a high mineral content and suspended carbonates — key elements, as travertine, that coalesce and coat the creek's path, and so visible at the creek's famous falls.

Flora Gregg Iliff, a teacher who traveled into Havasu over a century ago, wrote about her reactions to the sudden oasis of Havasu Creek in her only book, "People of the Blue Water."
"To eyes that had grown weary of gazing at stone, the lush verdure of Havasu Canyon, overshadowed by tall cottonwoods and old willows, seemed straight out of some fantasy. There was greenness and life and growth, and I could hear the purling of restless water."
Today Supai, about 2,000 feet below the trailhead, seems on first glimpse very like a small Western town from perhaps the 19th century.

Horses, mules and a few cattle feed, stand and loll in barren corrals lined by the valley's stolid trees.
The roads and paths are hard-packed dirt, muddy in spring from recent rains.
Most residents (except for some of the children) pay little 

notice to the incoming tourists. Their free-roaming dogs, 

however, are friendly and outgoing; they also seem to know 

the "town square," flanked by a small restaurant and the post 

office/general store, is a pretty good place to be.
Picture perfect
Supai sits in a wide section of Havasu Canyon, guarded by twin sandstone towers known as the Wigleeva rocks. Should these pinnacles topple, it is said, the Havasupai believe they will cease to exist. Small houses and fields fill the little valley, which is crisscrossed by narrow roads and small canals.

The principal path angles through the village, past a small Christian church and along Havasu Creek — headed down-canyon to the campground and waterfalls.
The first major cascades we noticed are part of Navajo Falls, surrounded by vegetation and named for a Havasupai chief.
Soon, a left turn (downward) at the "Havasu Campgrounds" sign, signals that the canyon's most famous cascades are nearby, just beyond a sylvan stretch of camping spots. (Be sure to take that turn! We took a little side trip to nowhere along some cliffs.)
A half-mile later, or about two miles from the village, and there we were: Havasu Falls, once known as Bridal Veil.
The setting seems like nothing less that exactly what a desert-oasis waterfall should look like.

Twin streams plunge 115 feet off a craggy travertine cliff into a perfect pool 25 feet deep. Smaller pools, sculpted by curving travertine dams formed by the calcite-laden water itself, added to the idyllic scene.
The creek issues from a large spring that drains much of the upper plateau, including the San Francisco Mountains area around Flagstaff. The water's temperature is about 70 degrees year-round.
Visitors tiptoe across the dams like gymnasts on beams. Others bask on the beaches. A few indulge in a swim or clamber onto a boulder beside the waterfall before leaping with a yelp into the translucent waters.
By this point the afternoon light was waning — and we had yet another spectacular waterfall to see.
                               The scramble down to Mooney Falls.

For a mile beyond Havasu is Mooney Falls, where, as Iliff wrote, the river roars "in a solid column over a ledge higher than Niagara." Today that mighty ribbon of water, which drops 196 feet, is named for an early miner who fell to his death there. However, to the Havasupai of Iliff's time it was the "Mother of the Waters."

Beyond the first viewpoint . . . and maybe even there . . . Mooney isn't really a place for acrophobics.
"Descend at own risk," warns a trailside sign. "Exercise extreme caution."

"Go slow," Billy Jack advised.
Two tunnels, chains and ladders help hikers approach the mighty cascade and its large pool. Jagged, red-tinted travertine shields, similar to stalactites, decorate the chasm's walls and, with the tunnel openings frame the exquisite waterfall.

Hikers with more sightseeing time can venture even farther down Havasu Canyon to Beaver Falls (four miles distant) and the Colorado River (another three miles). Our plan of action, however, called for a return by nightfall to the Supai lodge.
The next morning we were to retrace our steps, trudging 

stoically back to Hualapai Hilltop — knowing full well that it 

would be much more pleasant to be spending a bit more 

time soaking in the delights of Navajo, Havasu and Mooney 

falls and Havasu Canyon.


--Some of the Supai residents have cars parked at the 


In recent years, there's now a night watchman at the parking 

lot to help curtail crime.

--Note that advance reservations are a necessity here, 

especially in the spring and summer seasons. Permits must 

be purchased just to travel the Supai area.

--Also, since our trek drew attention in the LDS Church-

owned Deseret News, church sent members from 

Kingman, Arizona and reopened a church branch there after 

some 20 years of absence.

(-Revised and originally published in the Deseret News by 

Lynn Arave and Ray Boren on May 9, 2004. All 

photographs  by Ravell Call.)

                        Most of our group lines up before leaving Supai.

                                          Walking out of town.

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