When my buddy Sam returned from Arizona earlier this year and showed us pictures and videos of Havasu Falls we all got really excited about making this trip happen. Jon was definitely the driving factor and motivator. Brian was the first man on board, and I was the man who needed to see a bit of a plan before stepping up.
Here is a chronicle of how things shook out. In summary, this was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Day 1 - Kingman, AZ via Las Vegas
We all committed to this trip at different times so Sam ended up taking the morning flight, while Brian, Jon and I took a late afternoon flight. I realized on the way to the airport that I forgot to pack hiking shoes and a hat, probably the two most important things required for a hike in the desert.
On arrival in Las Vegas, the trio picked up a Ford Focus and was off to find Sammy. At first, we were a bit irritated because he was nowhere near the airport, having stowed his bags at the Mirage for the day since he arrived in Vegas 8 hours earlier. We were in town for only an hour so we decided to cruise The Strip and soak in the Vegasey goodness.
We picked up Sam at the Mirage. He was juiced, smelling of vodka and Jack Daniels had already played a lot of Blackjack. He told us the stories of his first 8 hours including the usual Sam-in-Vegas karma philosophy that involves significantly over-tipping people and winning copious amounts of money. So far he was up already and karma was good going into the rest of the trip.
On the way out of Vegas we stopped at Dicks Sporting Goods for Hiking shoes and a hat. I added the following to my gear repertoire. (Amazon Affiliate links)
I have to admit that these pieces were vastly superior to what I was planning to wear and both made this trip much more enjoyable.
We left Vegas at night and the ride to Kingman was really just a highway with dotted lines in the middle for scenery, but we did get a great night-time look at the Hoover Dam. We made a food stop in Boulder City at Jack In The Box for sliders.
When we approached Kingman, we also stopped at In-N-Out for some burgers and fries, animal style.
We stayed in two rooms at Motel 6 in Kingman. This was really a great hotel, very clean and right on Route 66 between In-N-Out and the Basha's grocery store we were hitting first thing in the morning.
By this time it was about midnight so we hit the hay.
Day 2 - Hualapai Hilltop
We got up at 5:30 am, showered and out the door to get groceries. We had a loose plan of what food we needed, but we really made the final menu standing inside Basha's. After getting back to the hotel by 6:30 am we got everything packed up and were able to get on the road by 7:00 am.
We decided to stop for breakfast at the Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs before hitting Indian Road 18. Lucky we did because that was the last chance for food until Supai. Expectations were low going in, but it turns out that the make the BEST breakfast steak and eggs ever. I'm talking about a proper 8oz steak, grilled to perfection. Great service and they really cater to hikers in that they prepare bag lunches for those making the trek to Supai.
Shortly we were on Indian Road 18 on the final stretch towards Hualapai Hilltop. We climbed up to over 5,000 feet of elevation through every type of weather possible.
It was very interesting to watch the helicopters take off and land. Apparently, a pair of choppers is brought in to transport people and supplies to Supai 4 days per week. We parked and loaded up for the hike into Supai.
The hike in was through sun, rain, hail, but mostly overcast sky. Lunch on the trail was pre-made turkey sandwiches and trail snacks. We had no idea what we were getting in to, but fortunately for us, each of us had brought something that the others had not to make the trip go smoothly. Bone was in charge of tunes, Sam had the garbage bags that we could use to keep our gear dry in the rain and hail, and Brian and I had the food.
I should mention that we each took our own gear by backpack on the way down. Brian had the newest and most technical backpack so he took the most weight at just about 40 lb. I was next around 35 lb, then Sam around 30 lb. None of us realized that Jon was carrying about 20 lb of sleeping bag, full queen size pillow, and full size towel until well into the trip.
We hit Supai in good time and paid $79 each for entry to the indian reservation and camping site fees for the two nights. The locals were very friendly and easy going. It turns out that Supai is the only place in the US that still receives its mail via donkey.
We got the final weather forecast and it looked like we were in the clear come morning, but had a wet night ahead of us.
On the way to camp we passed Navajo Falls and got our first look at Havasu Falls which at this time was, in our minds, what this trip was all about. We took a couple of pictures and proceeded down past the falls into the campgrounds. By this time our quads were burning from going downhill for 5+ hours and we just wanted to find a place to call home.
By the time we reached the far end of the campsite it was getting dark. Brian pulled out his 200 lumens Surefire flashlight so we could see the trail and get an idea of what campsites were available. The campground was relatively empty so we took a site on high ground, near the trail.
We set up camp in the rain. By this point in the day we were all miserable and starting to grate on each other's nerves. We were tired, we were hungry, we were wet, we were sore, and we had a lot of work to do before we could rest. There wasn't even a single place to sit without getting soaked through to the bone.
Jon and I started to do tent set up, but Sam needed help with erecting a tarp. What he had purchased was clearly labeled "tarp", but was not by any definition a tarp. It was a crappy, thin, hexagonal piece of plastic that ripped every time you touched it. I learned never to buy anything with the brand name "World Famous" ever again after trying to erect this piece of crap.
I gave up on Sam and left to setup the tent I had left getting soaked on the ground. Brian took my place on tarp detail. (What the hell is the point of a hexagonal tarp? This piece of garbage wouldn't even have been good enough for a groundsheet for a tent of exactly the same size)
At this point, Jon noticed that one of the other sites had a fire and suggested that we make our own fire to warm up a little. I pointed out that fires are banned in the campground at Havasu. He ignored me and started to collect firewood. One by one we all joined in on the search for firewood. It seemed like there had been quite a bit of damage to the trees around the area and it was very easy to find wood that, while soaked on the outside was really dry in the inside. Bone tried to start a fire but nothing was dry enough to start so he headed over to the other campsite and got another camper to bring us some coals to get us started.
The fire turned everything around. Despite the rain and cold, our moods lifted with a little warmth. We laughed about the shitty tarp, huddled around the fire and dried the bench of a nearby picnic table with our asses and warmed our feet. Brian broke out the 96% pure polish vodka that he had smuggled into his pack and, mixed with gatorade powder and the remaining water that we had, passed it around to the crew.
I made dinner of chicken fajitas while Bone made fresh guacamole. We wolfed down dinner and chilled out by the fire as the rain started to let up. The lesson learned by this point was that, when in doubt, fire, food, and polish vodka make everything better. We went to bed when the fire started to die down. It had to be well before 10:00pm which, for a bunch of guys from the EST zone, is pretty late.
Day 3 - Beaver Falls
My new sleeping bag definitely did the trick. The other guys were complaining about the -6 temperature over night but the Merlin -3C held up beautifully. Brian had the same bag as I did, but he couldn't figure out how to zip it up so he froze most of the night.
Sam and Bone got a fire started before Brian and I got up, and they were reprimanded by one of the locals almost immediately about breaking the "no fires" rule. Sam and I cooked breakfast of omelet breakfast sandwiches on toasted English muffins, accompanied by fruit.
We packed up our day packs, including the tools and supplies for a hot lunch and got started towards Mooney Falls. I took the big pack while Bone and Sam took the hydration packs and Brian went pack free.
We didn't realize it the night before because of the dark, but we were only 300 yards from the top of Mooney Falls.
The descent to the bottom of Mooney Falls was the most technical part of our trip so far. Vertical drop is 210 feet beginning with a few switchbacks, followed by a steep descent through caves and finishing with a rock climb aided by ladders and chains that are very slick at all times due to the mist coming off the waterfall.
We continued hiking to Beaver Falls. The trail became much more challenging the farther we went along, hence way fewer hikers.
I found a place where a small spring joins the main river over a small waterfall. I stripped down and had an impromptu shower. The water was amazing because the 19 degree heat of the sunny weather combined with the dark rock over which the spring ran made for a nice warm flow of water. I was able to walk right under the falls and into a 15 foot deep cave filled with the richest green vegetation. None of the other guys were up for a quick soak so I finished up and started to get dressed. That's when I realized that one of my shoes had been knocked into the river by one of my buddies. The rescue mission was easy, but I was left with a soaker. I was lucky that Sam had brought along some water shoes and I had a spare pair of socks so I could continue in pseudo comfort.
Water crossing became a pain in the ass because we could either take off our hiking boots or find a tricky way to cross using rocks or leaning trees combined with leaps of faith. Eventually, we found a rope swing that was a great place for a break, but decided to push on to have lunch near Beaver Falls.
At this point, we were overtaken by another group of hikers who were planning to hike all the way to the Colorado River. We took the high road, while they took the low road, but eventually they had to come up to where we were as the only viable trail.
At Beaver Falls, there was another group of hikers who had hoped to go to Colorado River, but gave up when they couldn't find the trail so they just stayed at Beaver Falls. Brian wasn't ready to get wet so he actually jumped the waterfall at the point where it was it's most powerful. I watched nervously, but couldn't help but record the video of it ... I debated: if he falls, how long do I keep recording before jumping in to help?
This was our chance to do some low cliff jumping into the river with some solid current. We all jumped, but Brian was the only one who went back for more. Brian was also the only one who could swim through the current without being pushed over the next waterfall. Everyone else left so we had this paradise to ourselves.
It started to rain, but there was a fairly large rock outcrop the we could stay dry under. We decided to make lunch so I set up to boil water to prepare our freeze-dried lunch of sweet and sour pork and kung-fu chicken.
Jon suggested a fire and, once again, I said no, but he went ahead and did it anyway and it was the best idea ever! We dried off and ate lunch standing next to the fire, built in a natural fireplace. We shared the meals directly out of the bags and were thrilled to have the food.
Once we were all warm and dry we disposed of the fire and started our hike home. We decided to take an alternate route home to keep things interesting. Brian had seen the "low route" while we were up top so we started back up the canyon close to the water's edge. As long as we stayed between the canyon walls we couldn't really get lost, we just had to remember that we needed to head upstream.
Eventually, we came to a place where either we were going to need to get really wet, double back, or scale the rock face to climb up to the "high route". While the other guys were debating, I took a chance at testing the rock face and was able to climb up with ease. It was about 15 feet of moderate climb, 5 feet of easy climb, and then 10 feet of very tricky climb. In retrospect, this was a pretty stupid thing to do so far away from any type of medical assistance, but we were all able to make the climb and continue our way along the high road. I really want to test my skill at proper rock climbing when I get a chance. The excitement was like nothing I had ever experienced. The hike back to Mooney Falls from that point was relatively easy in comparison.
At Mooney Falls, Brian and I got close enough to feel the temperature of the water and consider going in to get close to the falls. We went back to regroup with the other guys and consider our options. Sam said no way and I was with him. Jon was in, and since Jon was in, Brian was right behind him. Sam and I started up the ascent to the top of Mooney Falls and as I hit the first rung of the ladder Jon asked me to stay down and take some pictures, so I stayed behind. The boys stripped down and made their way toward the falls. I got some great shots, but I immediately regretted not being part of the action. I got a few more shots with the camera and then stripped down myself and ran in to the incredible power of the waterfall.
The conditions as you approached the centre of the waterfall were terrifying. We never actually made it to be directly under the falls. The closer we got the more it felt like a monsoon. I imagine this was like what it would feel like to be in the worst storm imaginable at sea. The force of the water splashing off the surface at us left red marks for an hour.
There were a few harrowing moments for me in the water. Brian lost his footing and I reached out to grab what I though was his hand and ended up almost drowning him as I held his foot in the air while he flailed in the current. At one point, I got caught in an undertow and, despite 4 or 5 hard strokes, I was trapped and almost got pulled in behind the waterfall.
We climbed up to join Sam and Jon at a lookout above the most technical climbing area to find that the day was still pretty young and that we had time to dry off before nightfall.
We had a quick snack of Hunts chocolate pudding to regain some energy while we discussed our next steps. We decided to have dinner at the base of Havasu Falls since we really hadn't spent any time there during our trip. A quick stop for fresh spring water and we were on our way. We played around a bit and took some photos before settling in to make some dinner.
On the advice of a more experienced Multi-day backpacker from MEC, we brought along some extra noodles to supplement our freeze-dried dinner of vegetable lasagna and Italian Pasta with beef. The vegetable lasagna was a huge hit with a little added Parmesan and sliced salami. After having our fill and cleaning up the dishes, we made our way back to camp and pretty much hit the sack around 8:30pm.
Day 4 - Return to Vegas
Getting up and ready to be on the trail for 7:00am was impossible. We split up to fetch water and break camp while making a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee.
Even before we had arrived on our hike into the canyon we had decided that we would do our best to see if we could have our packs hauled out for us by horseback. Lucky for us, a gentleman by the name of Lawrence was happy to do just that for us. We met him at 7:00am and loaded up most of our gear onto the horses backs. We kept a day pack each with Brian taking the biggest load of the day.
We said goodbye to Havasu for this trip and started on the first leg of the hike towards Supai. The first 2 miles went quickly. The day was young, the temperature was perfect, and we had lots of water. In Supai, we hit the generic store and each grabbed gatorade and high calorie snacks. After making some quick Skype calls to let people know we were alive, we checked out with the office and started out of the canyon. The day reached it's peak and we quickly realized that we were short on water.
After putting a few solid miles behind us we took a break and realized that we had been accompanied all the way from our camp by Casino, the camp dog that we had fed a few slices of salami to days earlier. We didn't have any water to spare, but Casino was thrilled to share in our lunch of bagels and peanut butter. I was a little worried about Casino not having anything to drink in the now 26 degree heat, but he was way more savvy than the rest of us. He knew exactly where to jump up onto a cliff to find a puddle of sitting water leftover from the rain a day earlier.
We got close enough that we could see reflections off of some of the cars in the parking lot at the top of Hualapai Hilltop and we were reenergized to begin the trek up the switchbacks in the final mile. Nobody said anything about it, but it turned into a bit of a race to get to the top. We were all very close together and we were completely exhausted, but we pressed on to make the top. In the end Jon took a small lead up the trail on the final switchback so the rest of us used the last of our energy to scale the side of the canyon to compete. In the end it didn't matter who was first, but the race was exhilarating.
At the top there was a sketchy trailer selling cold drinks. After being in the canyon heat and running out of water, we didn't think twice about paying $7.50 for 3 bottles of ice cold tap water in plastic bottles. It was so refreshing! It actually hurt to drink it was so cold. Exactly what we needed.
We got on the road pretty quickly and made for a gas station on Route 66. After a quick stop for drinks we debated on where to stop for food, settling, once again, on In-N-Out burger. Next came the Hoover Dam where we saw a pickup truck pulled over and two guys arrested.
One final stop on the road was to try the famous KFC DoubleDown, but we were only able to share two sandwiches between four of us.
Arriving in Vegas we ended up staying at the uber-inexpensive Motel6 across the street from the MGM Grand. I was starting on a downward spiral that would see me sick for the rest of the week with cold / flu and the complications that follow, but the other guys went out fast and furious.
Day 5 - Travel Day
I was awakened by Sammy when he hit home base at 4:30am followed by a phone call from Brian at 5:00am saying that he was a mess but that Jon was way worse and that he needed help. I talked him down and he promised to pack his stuff, then help Jon and meet us in the lobby for 5:30am. I got Sammy into the shower and made my way over to the other guys room to find Jon passed out, but completely packed and ready to go and Brian undressed, spooning Jon, with everything from his bags spread across the room. Somehow I had to get these guys organized and to the airport on time. The trickiest part was trying to get these guys to "lock it up" enough to be permitted to fly. Brian went with the stoic silent approach which worked great. Sammy is always able to keep it together when he needs to. Jon needed constant supervision. Even on the plane he told the story of this trip to a girl that he just met loud enough that most of the back half of the plane heard it. Lucky for us she found the whole thing endearing and Jon had made a new friend to sleep on.
Sam asked me how far I thought we had travelled, counting the flights, the driving, the hiking, the climbing, and the return and I couldn't even make an estimate on the spot so I went back later and did the calculations. It turns out that our round trip took us over 8,800 km with almost 50 km hiking down and back up almost 3,000 feet of elevation, excluding the trip from our homes to the airport here in Toronto and the miles of walking around the various airports and Las Vegas.
As we were hiking at one point we talked about how we could possibly explain this trip to someone in just a few sentences. I think Brian said it best when he came up with: