I just returned from one of the most scenically stunning, physically demanding and culturally diverse vacations that I can remember.
Ted and I had been planning for months to travel to Arizona to backpack into Havasupai Canyon with his sister Betsy, brother Bill, niece Sarah, and my friend Tim. I had no true idea of what we were signing up for.
The little bit that I had read talked about a “strenuous” 10-mile trek into this side canyon to the Grand Canyon that is all tribal land, to a campsite down below. It was promoted as all switchbacks, so I figured it couldn’t be as challenging as some of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks that I had climbed.
But I hadn’t figured in the added weight and bulk of a backpack stuffed with clothes, bedding and food for 3 days, nor the surprise of a very tricky descent down the cliff of a waterfall.
The 6 of us gathered the night before the descent at a motel more than an hour from the trailhead. We arose to a very cold morning, and I started to worry that I might not have packed enough warm clothes. That turned out, though, to not be a concern at all.
We set out on the trail at about 9 a.m. and over the next seven hours trudged down the canyon walls into a broad desert valley that began to green as we neared the settlement of Supai, where we treated ourselves to ice cream bars from a tiny store while watching a helicopter drop off some construction materials and then a load of supplies that included a couple of Halloween pumpkins. Throughout the hike, we often had to give way to mule and horse trains loaded with bags (including post Office mail for the village) and, occasionally, hikers’ gear. The final two miles took us by some of the amazingly beautiful streams that gave the tribe its name: Havasupai, people of the blue-green water. And we walked alongside the iconic Havasu Falls, which grace many a postcard with their tumbling waters bordered by desert rock and oddly placed greenery.
We set up camp alongside the roaring stream, luxuriating in the availability of a picnic table and composting toilets, amenities not usually found on wilderness backpacking expeditions.
The next morning we took off to explore further into the canyon, where the written descriptions promised some more spectacular falls over a six-mile roundtrip.
We all were expecting more of the same type of hiking, along dirt and rubble trails, so imagine our surprise when we came to the top of spectacular Mooney Falls to find that we would have to step down the steep cliffside, trusting in heavy metal chains to hold onto, the occasional ladder and footholds worn smooth by thousands of previous hikers. There were a couple of short rock caves to crawl through. And there were sections where Ted had to walk me through where to place my next foot — “just 3 more inches,” he’d say, and I’d try to stretch a leg that far to get to the next foothold.
Safely down, Ted and I put on our water shoes and waded through the blue-green water to an island with a couple of picnic tables and gazed at the magnificent falls splashing into a pool, while keeping another eye out for Tim who was a little bit behind us on the trail.
The three of us then kept on, walking through one different landscape after another, all bordered by cliffs of desert rock: a stretch of wild grape vines, another stretch of tall grasses, then an area of ferns. After a couple of more stream crossings and some ladders, we reached Beaver Falls, a series of cascades of the same, beautiful blue-green water.
What we thought would be a fairly easy 6-mile hike turned out to take six hours with slowdowns on the steep descent and scenic stops.
After another good night’s sleep, we set out the next morning for the return trek out of the canyon. It was a grueling, long, 8-hour day returning through the unprotected canyon that we had come through two days earlier. At one point, I just kept my eyes trained on the horizon and focused on getting from one spread-apart shady spot to another. I can’t imagine anyone making this trip in the heat of the summer, and my mind also wandered to all the immigrants trudging through similar desertscapes to reach the United States with hopes for a better life.
After 8.5 miles we reached the final ascent: steep switchbacks reaching up the canyon walls to the parking lot and outhouse that would mark the end of our journey. Halfway up, we stopped at a small stone enclosure and looking up, I couldn’t imagine making it up the final leg. But it was surprisingly quick to wind our way up that final stretch, although by then I was out of water and starting to feel a little queasy even with taking sips from Ted’s hydration system.
It was exhilarating to reach the top and look out at the wide expanse of canyon that we had walked through. My legs were as sore as after a couple of the most grueling Adirondack High Peaks, and they got some rest the next two days as Ted and I took in some cultural offerings with his sister Betsy on our way back to her house outside Phoenix and then around that area.
We spent that night in Flagstaff and the next morning visited the Museum of Northern Arizona. There, we saw pottery, rugs and jewelry of the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni tribes and learned a bit about the Havasupai, who traditionally lived at the bottom of the canyon for the warmer months and then moved to the upper land in the winter. Some of the people are now returning to that custom, we learned. I was most impressed with a Kiva mural that was the most profound piece of art that I had seen in a long time, with images of past and present and messages of death and rebirth, concluding with a panel where modern technology provides access to all the truths of the major religions.
We then drove through Oak Creek Canyon, which resembled forests in the Northeast except for the rocky cliffs above, and stopped just outside touristy Sedona to check out one of the vortexes, “swirling centers of subtle energy” marked by the twisted bark of juniper trees. While spiritual seekers come to the area expressly for these sites, I didn’t feel much at the “masculine” vortex we stopped at by the Sedona airport, but the 360-degree view of the wide expanse of desert and mesas was spectacular.
The next day we drove out to Besh-Ba-Gowah, the restored ruins of an Indian tribe called the Salados that had built the stone structures and ceremonial spaces from about 1200 to 1400 AD. The Apache later discovered the place sometime after 1600 and gave it its name, which means “metal camp,” probably referring to vast deposits of copper in the area. In fact, the most discouraging sight on a drive that was otherwise a spectacular desertscape was immense copper mines dug out of the rocky hillsides. Apparently the metal is now in demand for wind turbines, reminding me that even our move toward so-called renewable energy (which I greatly support, by the way) comes with some costs.
Our final stop of the day, and the trip, was at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, where we saw all kinds of cactus from around the world as well as pomegranate trees with lush red fruit and leaves turning autumn gold. We had seen the signature desert saguaros (which we learned grow arms only after 50 to 75 years) and prickly pear cactus on many of our drives, but here were many more varieties.
Ted and I returned to the DC area last night, to very chilly temperatures and trees starting to turn yellow, orange and red. Memories of the trip will stay with me for some time, but it’s also good to be home, where I can walk and take public transit instead of being so reliant on a car as is the case in Arizona, and where there is lots of water and a sense of being in the center of things.