Backpacking to Havasu Falls
The village of Supai, Ariz., is as much the gateway to some of the world’s most beautiful and luring waterfalls as it is an improbable man-made wonder of a town.
The trek to Havasu Falls is eight miles down a dusty trail booby-trapped with horse poop, and you've got to hike alongside the Pony Express. I'm not joking - Supai is the only town in the United States that still relies on mules for snail mail. (Brings a whole new meaning to that, doesn't it?)
It’s hard to believe your eyes when you stumble into Supai past signs advertising the annual rodeo, a shop selling breakfast burritos and a church with a white painted spire.
We went in mid-November, just before Thanksgiving and past prime weather for taking a dip in the 70-degree water. Although it felt good to cross through the creek barefooted, the air was much too cold for backpackers who tried so hard to pack light, the towels were left behind.
After checking into the tourist office, where we paid roughly $80 each for permits and two nights' worth of camping fees and were given wristbands marking us as visitors, we ordered curly fries at the cafe. It's the only restaurant in town, and fresh food is in short supply, but how could you complain? You're eating fried food and you've got running water after hiking for hours in the desert.
Sure, you can take a heli ride or hop on a mule, but to us that felt like cheating. And cheating doesn't come cheap.
Everything about Supai Village and the trails surrounding it seems like an anomaly; the low foot bridges criss-crossing the creek were rudimentary, merely planks or logs with wooden slats nailed to them. We waddled, hunched over, through tunnels hewn in the rock to get to the base of Mooney Falls. Yet even miles from the campground, in places horses couldn’t reach, picnic tables dotted the landscape. I never ceased to point them out and marvel at their existence.
The trek from the campground to Mooney and Beaver falls was almost unreal. We crawled through tunnels hewn into the rock, slowly shimmied down slippery rock steps with the help of a loose chain and climbed down a wooden ladder. We crossed Havasu Creek at least half a dozen times until we had to duck under a massive palm tree that looked lost in this lush part of the desert, and we walked through a field of scrub brush that felt oddly similar to the queen's garden maze in Alice in Wonderland.
On the first day, as we neared the edge of town on the way to the campground - another two miles - I wondered what it would be like to live there, in a place with so few full-time people that's so heavily dependent on tourism. Supai makes my tiny Rhode Island hometown feel like New York City. Do the locals get sick of each other? Do they long for life above the canyon rim, for college and cars and modern conveniences you can't transport by horse or helicopter?
As if to answer my question, two kids immediately raced past on horseback, laughing as they kicked up dust.
Read more about my trip to Supai at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where I was a crime reporter before I started working for SNEWS.