Editor’s Note: One of the Grand Canyon’s most remarkable features is Havasu Falls, where aquamarine water drops from up to 100 feet into pools set against a backdrop of rich red rock. GP contributor Will McGough hiked 11 miles to where the Havasu River meets the Colorado River in search of the Canyon’s wilder side.
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Luckily, adventure travelers have an advantage that others don’t. Anyone can get on a plane and land on a Caribbean island, but no matter how much someone talks about that place deep in the wilderness, few have what it takes to make the journey. In this sense, I’ve simply changed my way of thinking. I’ve stopped beating myself over the head looking for places no one knows about. Instead, I’ve begun looking for beautiful places that are a complete pain in the ass to get to. I don’t expect to be the only one there, but I know that when I arrive, I’ll respect everyone I see for their efforts.
Zipperless Backpack: A dry, sandy environment can wreak havoc on zippers, greatly increasing the chance of a broken one. Avoid that wilderness nightmare by using a backpack without them. Kelty’s Trailogic PK 50 ($200) uses snap-in clips and rolling techniques instead of zippers.
Water Shoes: Wading in the Havasu River without shoes on will put you on the fast track to an emergency evac. Be sure to bring along a sturdy pair of water shoes, such as Teva brand, that you can hike long distances in to avoid constant changing.
Quick-Dry Clothes: When you’re going in and out of the water, you’ll want something synthetic and non-cotton that dries quickly. Visit REI or a similar store to decide on your mix of functionality and fashion.
Guides: If you would like hike to Havasupai but feel you need a little assistance, AOA Adventures runs outfitted tours that still make you earn it but will help you gear up and stay safe as you go.
This led me to the Grand Canyon, specifically Havasu Falls, which required a flight to Phoenix, a five-hour drive to the Canyon, and an eleven-mile hike in the hundred-degree heat. I stood at the base of Havasu Falls, my shirt suctioned to my chest from the sweat. It is without question one of the country’s best oases, spilling milky, turquoise water down the canyon with the same swagger as the chocolate that flows through Willy Wonka’s famous factory. Still, despite its smile-inducing beauty, I was not satisfied. The Havasupai Tribe has become savvier with its approach to tourism in recent years, and new agreements with helicopter and tour operators have allowed many to swim in its waters who cannot physically handle the hike.
Good for them, but this told me all I needed to know: I was not done hiking.
My new destination was ten more miles downstream, where the Havasu River meets the mighty Colorado. The next morning, I set out from Havasupai campground with six liters of water, a sandwich, salty snacks, and enough sweet dried fruit to keep me happy. The journey began with an adrenaline-filled descent down Mooney Falls via ropes and chains, taking me deeper into a world of striking contrast: The green of the trees, the red of the canyon walls, and that otherworldly, cloudy turquoise blue.
When I pictured hiking in the Grand Canyon, I thought of hot air, dry ground, red sand and hearty cacti. The biggest surprise of this journey was how much more there was to the terrain. At times, it felt like I was hiking through Hawaii, with fields of lush, bright green vegetation thriving between the canyon walls. Back and forth the trail crossed the river, sometimes at ankle depth and other times up to my knees. Each time was an opportunity to take a quick dip and cool off. Fallen logs and rocks were sometimes the means of crossing, but mostly I just waded through.
As I approached the meeting of the two rivers, the canyon walls seemed to close in, tightening down by the river where the rock color changed from red to beige. During the final mile, deeper pools were more prevalent, and I saw many groups of people swimming. Rock on, I thought, but then noticed something strange: I didn’t see any backpacks. Where had these people come from?
The last five hundred feet of the hike required that I hike up and over one last ridge. Coming to the crest, I could hear the surging waters of the Colorado, and when I finally saw the two rivers merge, both my hands found their way to the top of my head. The turquoise of the Havasu smashed head-on into the puke-green of the Colorado, creating a contrast in the swirling current that simply had to be stared at.
As the tradition goes, rafters who stop at the junction of the Havasu and the Colorado give beer to hikers who have made the journey on foot as a sign of respect.
Ready to refuel for the return trip as I took it all in, I spotted a rock down by the water. I scrambled down the cliff and reached the river, only to see two rafts tied to the side of the canyon wall, previously hidden out of site. They were, for the most part, empty. Putting the pieces together, I realized that all the people I’d passed along the way — the ones lounging in the Havasu River — had come by boat. Exhausted, I cracked a smile and shook my head. I had walked 21 miles from the Canyon rim to get there, but I might as well have walked one, as far as solitariness went.
While this sounds like a “boo-hoo” moment to the general public, outdoor enthusiasts have a way of ensuring that things even out in the wilderness. As the tradition goes, rafters who stop at the junction of the Havasu and the Colorado give beer to hikers who have made the journey on foot as a sign of respect.
With the sun overhead and the 100-degree temperature beaming down on the unforgiving terrain, my lunch was now complete, and the sight of another human never tasted so good.