Thanksgiving amongst the Havasupai
28-November 2002 to 1-December 2002:
The weather forecast had said we would face bad weather today. It certainly looked that way yesterday in Laughlin when dark skies and swaying trees seemed to indicate the arrival of a big storm. But as we gazed at the double-barred plumes of Havasu Falls, we marveled at how the reflected light in the shadows of the surrounding sandstone cliffs painted the travertine rocks and cliffs a pinkish orange while we saw dark turquoise at the base of the falls...
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Day 1: THANKSGIVING IN A LAUGHLIN BUFFET
Julie and I had left our apartment in West LA first thing Thursday morning. Today was Thanksgiving Day, and we headed out to Laughlin, which had offered us a stay for $20 at the Flamingo Hilton. This was by far the cheapest rate for a reasonable accommodation I had ever received so how could I say no to this?
The goal of this trip was to finally get to see the Shangri-La of the Grand Canyon - Havasu Canyon
in the Havasupai Indian Reservation.
The drive was mostly uneventful. The weather was cool yet beautifully sunny throughout the entire drive along the I-15 then the I-40. Maybe leaving the I-15 at Barstow really helped our cause as we had largely avoided traffic.
We arrived at Laughlin at 2pm. Over there, the skies were overcast. I was worried about bad weather ruining our trip to the Havasupai as the forecast called for the first significant rainfall to hit on this weekend.
After checking in and walking around the tiny little riverside town in Nevada, we eventually settled on having Thanksgiving dinner in their buffet area. Yeah, it was lame but at least we were going to have a more active Thanksgiving weekend than most.
What was disconcerting about the dinner was that both of us could look out the window and see the skies getting progressively darker from the menacing clouds and the trees swaying in the wind. It almost seemed as if something was building up and was about to unleash the fury of the skies. It looked like the weather forecasts were right after all, and I kept having these ominous thoughts about hiking in the rain for our Havasupai excursion.
We slept early this night (9pm) knowing we had to get up at 2:30am so we could get an early start on the hike into Supai Village from the Hualapai Hilltop.
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Day 2: THE JOURNEY TO SUPAI
The wake up call had us up at 2:30am as expected. It didn't take long before we packed our belongings, took advantage of the 24-hour reception to check out, and got in the Legend. By 3am, we already headed onto some local road that took us directly into Kingman (instead of having to backtrack onto the I-15 to get to that town).
The whole drive was dark but uneventful. It was quiet and peaceful with hardly any cars on the road. When we got to Kingman, I filled up on some real cheap gas (knowing I'd get ripped off any further along Route 66) and took the Route 66 turnoff, which left the I-15 after our brief stint on it.
From there, the drive continued to proceed uneventfully through the darkness. When we passed the Hualapai Lodge, we actually overshot the turnoff for Indian Road 63, which wasn't much further east from that lodge. When we got onto the desired road, the paved road was a little bit more grainier than the smooth interstate and highway driving we were used to up to this point. But we couldn't complain since the 60-mile road was still paved.
From the darkness and the high beams piercing through the darkness, all we could tell from the scene was that the desert seemed vast. This road really looked like it was cut into a wilderness of nothingness. This is certainly not a place to have your car break down!
Finally at around 6:30am, we had arrived at the car park at the Hualapai Hilltop. Just at that time, the sun started to rise above the horizon and we could finally start to see the depths of the canyon before us.
I was shocked to see how many cars had already crowded this remote hilltop. Still, we were able to find a parking spot against a canyon wall away from the drop-offs. It was practically ice cold this morning and there was some patches of snow clinging on to the canyon walls. Apparently, it did precipitate here not long ago.
And so after taking some time to sling on our packed backpacks and locking up the car, Julie and I started descending the trail into Hualapai Canyon at about 8am. It was an 8-mile one-way hike with at least 2000ft elevation loss to get to the Supai Village.
Shadows still dominated most of the steep 2000ft descent, but the bright light of the sun already shone onto the opposite cliff walls with nearly blinding intensity.
Since we had pre-booked a room at the Havasupai Lodge several months ago, I knew we only had to bring clothes and water. No need for a tent, Thermarest, nor sleeping bag. Julie was afraid they didn't have a blow dryer so she actually packed one in her backpack.
The steep descent into the Hualapai Canyon seemed a bit long. Actually it lasted for about the first mile or so on the trail. I shuddered to think how brutal this would be on the way out.
Julie and I finally reached the wash at the base of Hualapai Canyon at 9am. The view before us was quite scenic. Even though we had been to the Grand Canyon twice before, we had never been to the base of the main canyon nor any of its side canyons. So the image of looking up the canyon with cliffs around us was really a memorable sight.
So the next few hours were spent walking along the sandy wash. The silence and pace of our walk were interrupted by frequent transits of Havasupai Indians on horseback with herds of horses and mules. Also breaking the quiet was the piercing sounds of the helicopter going back and forth between the village and the hilltop.
Most of the walk was pretty featureless once we got accustomed to the surroundings. The walls slowly started closing in until we got closer to the village. By then, the canyon walls reminded me of Hidden Canyon in Zion National Park with striations and streaks providing evidence of past flash floods.
At first the skies were sunny, but it didn't take long for clouds to overtake us and keep things overcast for the majority of the hike. I was worried those clouds would be rain clouds and that was a shame.
The trail forked when we finally saw Havasu Creek some 7 miles into the hike. By now, Julie was getting tired (I'm sure that hair dryer didn't help) and even my legs started feeling heavy from my pack weight.
Finally at 12pm, we saw the Wigleevas - a pair of balanced rocks watching over the roadless village of Supai. We walked through most of the town in search of the Havasupai Lodge. There were already folks at the building where campers pick up permits, but the lodge was way in the back of town past the cafe, school, and church. The lodge was nestled in the corner of town with some cliffs looming behind the complex.
Julie and I wasted no time trying to check in and relieve our hips and legs of our heavy internal frame Gregory packs. At first there was no one at the reception and apparently we must've caught them on their lunch break. Our watches said 11:15am, but I had forgotten that they were on Mountain Time here so really it was 12:15pm.
So Julie and I lingered around for a bit and checked out the cafe, which was basically a featureless diner serving simple greasy stuff. Of course, we noted the fry bread offerings and were determined to get ourselves some of this stuff for dinner.
When we got back to the lodge, someone was there to check us in. And with that, we unpacked our stuff and proceeded to bring just my fanny pack, which detached from my Gregory pack. It was 1:30pm when Julie and I continued down the trail on lighter feet towards the Shangri-La of the Grand Canyon (i.e. Havasu Falls, et. al.), which was about another 2 miles further.
At least sun was breaking through the clouds and some blue skies were showing. If this was going to be the only sun we're seeing this weekend, then we weren't going to be denied seeing the waterfalls of Havasu Canyon on this afternoon.
So the dirt trail was well worn and easy to follow as well as mostly flat. After about 30 minutes, we were at Navajo Falls
, which was a bit difficult to photograph due to obstructing foliage surrounding it. There were signs around the cliffs warning us to stay away from the edge as they were unstable. So I took a few shots of the 75ft waterfall against the sun the best I could before continuing on the trail.
We noted the trail by the falls actually forked but then reconvened later. I guess there were other ways to explore Navajo Falls, but we'd worry about that later.
Then at 3:15pm, Julie and I started hearing rushing sounds from Havasu Creek. Just then, the trail started to descend. And as we went down the sloping trail, there is was...
Even though I had seen this waterfall thousands of times on postcards, the internet, on TV, on calendars, on guidebooks, you name it, it was still awesome to see in person!
Julie and I stared at the falls before us and we even engaged in conversation with this cute hiker who wanted us to take a picture of her. I asked her if she had been to the base of Mooney Falls
since it was a concern of mine for tomorrow, and she said it was scary. She told us she thought her life was in danger as the bottom parts of the steep descent were slippery from the mist of the falls.
Well, this wasn't what I wanted to hear, but I would just play it by ear and see what happens tomorrow.
Anyways, Julie and I continued down to the base of the waterfall after a short but muddy descent. Before us we beheld travertine dams that were starting to rebuild after they were washed away in the big flash flood of August 1997. That flood, by the way, also changed the shape of Havasu Falls into the dual-flume state we saw this day as well as knocked some 30ft off its height.
When we were done taking photos of this waterfall with the orange reflected glow of the setting sun bouncing off the upper canyon walls, we continued down the trail towards Mooney Falls.
Along this mile-long stretch, we passed by numerous campsites that lined the trail. They were all primitive sites and I could tell you basically had to rough it if you were here.
By the time we had made it to the top of Mooney Falls, the sun had already disappeared behind the tall canyon walls behind us and there was nothing but shadows cast over the falls and its precipitous drop into the canyon below. It gave us butterflies to look down into canyon at the waterfall from the top. I could see the signs indicating where you would go down to the base of the waterfall, but there was no way we were going to attempt it as nightfall threatened.
But based on my first impressions, it was a cliff-hugging trail all right. Havasu Creek looked tiny as I stared down at the base of the Canyon. So I thought we mind as well worry about doing the rest of this hike the first thing tomorrow. For now, we had to get back to the Supai Lodge.
And with that, Julie and I were back on the trail. It was dark by the time we returned to the Supai Village. Since we held out on a full blown meal up to this point, we headed dropped our day packs into our room and wasted no time heading over to the village cafe.
Once in the cafe, we got our fill of the oh-so-tasty-and-satisfying Navajo Taco. We were liberal with the amount of salsa we had put on it, but man that fry bread with southwestern topings above it really hit the spot.
After the satisfying dinner, we got back to our room. After I got a hot shower and we brushed our teeth, we had no trouble going to sleep. Julie opted to defer her shower till tomorrow morning. But as I was in the process of falling asleep, I could swear all the lights outside the lodge went out and everything was pitch black. Even the noisy generator outside went quiet.
"Was this by design to save energy?" I thought.
Well I didn't give it any further thought as I slept. Julie was sound asleep a while ago.
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Day 3: THE SCARY DESCENT
It was cold inside our room as we awoke at 7am. Julie went to start up her shower when she gave this disturbed cry.
"There's no hot water!" she exclaimed.
When we tried to turn on the lights, they wouldn't come on. So apparently I wasn't dreaming after all. The lights and generator going out last night was because the village had lost electricity!
So Julie had to put up with a lukewarm bath and she couldn't even get to use her blow dryer.
By 9am we had put on our hiking gear and we were back out on the trail. This time, we intended to get to the base of Mooney Falls and see how much further we can go before returning to the village.
The morning started off on a promising note with sun light between the quickly moving patchy clouds before us. The trail was quiet and even Havasu Creek provided reflections in certain parts of its watercourse.
It was nice and quiet during the hike, and we were able to pay attention to some of the subtleties of the canyon from the smell of sagebrush to the skies in the reflections of the creek. We even noticed some of the trees turning color as we were well into Autumn.
By 9:30am, Julie and I were back at Havasu Falls. This time, we opted to scramble towards its top just to see what it was like. Once again, we were met with warning signs saying the area was unstable so we didn't linger here for too long.
After having our fill of the top of the falls (noticing the travertine dams and cascades down below), we then followed the familiar trail back down along more conventional views of the impressive Havasu Falls. Of course there were fewer butterflies as we got our views from here.
With the falls still mostly in shadow in the morning, the lighting was even and we could really see some of the color come out of the water of the creek. I could only imagine just how much more insanely colorful it would've been if the sun had shone directly into this canyon (November didn't seem like the right time of year to avoid the shadows and get the full extent of the colors).
Afterwards, we immediately continued past the campgrounds and were right at the top of Mooney Falls at 10:15am.
Mooney Falls had gotten its name after prospector D.W. "James" Mooney fell to his death here while looking for a way down. It wasn't until Mooney's compadres noticed a Native American boy donning Mooney's boots did they learn how to get down to the base of the falls.
The route involved going down a pair of tunnels while constantly hugging the cliff. And today, the trail more or less goes down this same route.
At that point, we continued towards the cliff edge where a sign urged you to take your time going down. And so we obliged and proceeded to go down the cliff-hugging "trail."
We immediately went down a rocky stairway that passed through a tunnel. The tunnel then opened up into a sheltered cove with a gorgeous look at Mooney Fall. Chains were bolted near the dropoff to assure us we wouldn't go over that cliff. Then, we entered another tunnel.
As we left that tunnel, the really steep part began. At that point, I took the lead and made sure my foot was on something solid before I would put weight on it. All the while, I was holding on to the chains bolted onto the cliff. Clearly, this part of the trail was practically vertical, but my back was to the exposure so I wouldn't let the mental fear factor take over from constantly staring at the depths below.
While I awaited Julie to make her move, I tried to point to where her foot should be with each step of the way down.
Finally, we had reached one of two ladders which forked away from each other at the base of the cliff. By now the rocks were wet from the mist of the falls - just as that girl said yesterday. But both of us had no problems getting down the ladder and to the base of the 190ft waterfall.
"It wasn't that bad," Julie contended.
And with that we took photos of the falls then proceeded to walk down the trail. With each step, we could appreciate the height of the falls as well as see travertine dams creating smaller cascades before it.
We would eventually get to a part on the trail where we could see a fair-sized cascade tumbling before the main falls further upstream. Both Julie and I checked out the scene as we managed to avoid a few spiny cacti near the overlook.
After we had our fill of the falls, we continued further downstream until we were stopped by Havasu Creek as the trail ran right into it. Neither of us were in the mood to wade across the swiftly flowing creek and so we turned back towards the base of Mooney Falls.
When we returned to the climbing part, there were lots more people heading down the cliff. We patiently waited for these people to take their time cautiously going down. In the mean time, I took a photo of the scene just to convey somehow the steepness of the trail.
Then, Julie and I climbed back up the trail. It was much easier going up than down. In no time, we were back on top of the falls. And not much later, the skies started to rain so we donned our ponchos to protect ourselves from the wet weather.
At 12:30pm, we continued up the wet trail and past the campsites. Many of the tents that were there yesterday weren't there anymore. Perhaps they already started their climb back up to the Hualapai Hilltop.
We proceeded to check out Havasu Falls again. This time, we watched from a travertine shelter that protected us from the rain. The rain was coming down pretty hard and so I figured the weatherman was right after all. But by now, we had comprehended the Havasu Canyon scenery and it wasn't all that bad. We had our good weather and now we were getting the bad one. But it was all good.
At 1:30pm, we were back at Navajo Falls. Not satisfied with my previous view of the falls, I opted to take a noticeable spur that led to its base. When I got to the falls' base, I took photos of the falls through the obstructing foliage. I didn't feel like wading through the creek to get better photos of it in the rain.
I did notice a scary-looking singular log bridge that traversed a part of the creek, but I wasn't in the mood to test my high-wire balancing act abilities nor did I have confidence that if I scooted my way on the log that I'd still be sitting upright all the way through.
So with that, I went back up the trail and rejoined Julie who opted not to spend time at Navajo Falls.
We returned to the village at 2:15pm. They were still without electricity so the cafe was closed. We were bumming that we couldn't have more Navajo Taco.
Instead, we went to the village store, which was like a liquor store. Most of their food was of the junk food variety. Since Julie and I didn't bring any of our own food (taking for granted there was food in the village), we had no choice but to buy some of the super expensive munchies and munch on them as we killed time the rest of the day.
No one looked happy going into nor out of the store - especially the locals. Apparently, having no electricity was bad for everyone down here.
So after we took our lukewarm baths and tended to our dental hygienes, we had nothing better to do than to sleep the rest of the night away. Just for good measure, I went back through the cold and bitter darkness to see if the cafe was open.
Actually, they were! But when Julie and I learned that they didn't serve any hot foods, we turned back and eventually went to sleep.
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Day 4: GOING HOME
At around 9am, we awoke. This time, the lights were on and I heard the generators going again. It appeared that electricity had finally been restored.
Julie and I determined that we didn't want to carry our heavy packs with us on the way out - especially with that 2000ft ascent in the final mile up to the Hualapai Hilltop. So we lingered on in the village until the helicopter started taking tourists out of the canyon. I also figured it would save us a little time as we would be able to make it home in a reasonable hour before returning to work tomorrow.
So to kill the time, we packed up, checked out, and headed over the village cafe. Since their kitchen just started working again, we couldn't have the elaborate Navajo taco we enjoyed two days ago. Instead, we had fry bread with eggs on top as we generously poured on salsa above it all.
And so as we awaited the 11am chopper flight out, we lingered about as we munched on our fry bread breakfast.
The backpackers who were hiking out would say to us, "Cheaters!" as they passed us. Obviously they were jealous that they had to take the physical challenge ;)
As we waited for the chopper, we engaged in some socializing with other folks who also intended to take this way out of the village. In one instance, I was busy chatting with someone when I put my fry bread on the bench as I was putting away something in my pack. But before I knew it, one of the stray dogs snatched at my fry bread breakfast and stole it!
Well, there went my fry bread fix. We all had a good chuckle from it. Perhaps my health was better for it by not finishing the greasy but good food.
Finally at 11am, the helicopter arrived. The first couple of iterations involved shuttling out villagers and supplies. Once that was done, then it was the tourists' turn. Julie and I rode in separate flights, but it wasn't long before we both got to the Hualapai Hilltop after our 8-minute flights.
And after we loaded the car, my car struggled to crank as I started the ignition, but eventually the satisfying starting sound was heard and I gave the car some time to warm up.
Thus, we were on our way home. It was 11:15am.
The drive was pretty uneventful and smooth along the Route 66 then along the I-40. When we got to the London Bridge turnoff, we opted to go south along the Colorado River at the California/Arizona border instead of going on the I-15 - sensing there would be horrendous traffic there.
And so we drove down the desolate desert highway in partly cloudy weather. The road undulated as it went up and down washes, but it was smooth. We finally got to the I-10 after missing a Joshua Tree turnoff that I contended might have been better to avoid some of the traffic on the I-10. Julie protested and so I-10 it was.
And I-10 was terrible! We were still several miles east of Palm Springs and traffic crawled.
By the time we got to Cabazon, it was 7pm. So we opted to stop by the outlet here and have a meal as well as some post Thanksgiving sales. We had bought a few good synthetic clothes from the North Face Store for really cheap as they were closing for good.
Eventually at 9pm, we were back on the I-10. The traffic was still heavy but it flowed much better than before.
Finally at 11pm, we were back home in West LA. Exhausted from all the holiday traffic driving, I didn't even bother to shower as I crashed in bed and went to work the next day.
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