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Day 61-63: Havasupai, AZ (10/3-10/5)

We saved an amazing experience for the last backpack of our Epic Trip. Havasu Canyon, a part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation, is known for its remarkable blue-green water and beautiful waterfalls. We had seen pictures of it before our trip and couldn’t believe the water really is that color, but it really is that blue! It did not disappoint, it’s an amazing place that we highly recommend.

The trip does require permits for camping overnight which can be hard to get in the peak season (particularly long weekends like Memorial Day), and sometimes it can be difficult to reach the Havasupai Tribe’s tourist office on the phone, but back in May Katharine was able to get permits for October. We decided to reserve 2 nights so that we would have plenty of time to explore the canyon. After we finished the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim earlier than expected, we were even able to move our reservations up by a couple days, so apparently they weren’t totally sold out. In the end, that worked out great for us because we hiked out on Saturday, which allowed us to avoid the apparent weekend crowds.

Since the government shutdown was still in full-force, we were very glad that this amazing place was on tribal lands and still accessible. It is possible to hike to the Colorado River and enter Grand Canyon National Park, and while we considered doing it just to be in the park briefly during the shutdown, we decided it wasn’t worth the extra 8 miles of hiking. Instead we enjoyed a very leisurely 3 day backpack.


A view from Hualapai Hilltop, the start of the trail to Supai

This adventure starts by driving down the remote Indian Road 18 to a parking lot with a helipad in the middle of the desert on Hualapai Hilltop.  The only way to the Supai village is hiking or riding a mule 8 miles through a canyon or via helicopter. All supplies and everything needed in the village are transported one of those ways.

The trail descends about 2,000 feet to the canyon floor, most of which is in the first couple miles.  The canyon walls were the traditional red sandstone, but after backpacking Zion and Grand Canyon we weren’t as impressed.  We only took a few photos of the hike to the village, which definitely improved our hiking time.


There were a few differences we noticed from hiking in the Grand Canyon and other National Parks.  For example, the mule trains supplying the village were much larger and the mules were loose, relying on herding techniques. Of course the canyon walls do much of the herding, but there are several areas where the canyon is rather wide and there are multiple different paths to follow, so sometimes the gear-laden mules would split up and the herder on horseback would go one way and rely on his dog to go the other. This was fun to watch, but did force us to take cover behind rocks or climb up a small ledge to get out of the way. This is not a trail to put on headphones while you hike… you need to be alert!

We noticed that backpackers were in the minority here… while we only saw a few people riding mules, most people used the mules to transport their gear. Given that it’s a pretty long hike for most people (10 miles to the campground) with a lot of elevation loss/gain (depending on your direction), we totally understand why most people use the mules to transport their packs.



After 8 miles (which felt longer since there was a lot of sand to hike through), we reached the village of Supai, where we checked in at the tourist office to get our wristbands and permit tag for our tent. The village was tough to walk through because although it is located in an internationally-renowned hiking destination, it is also a grim reminder of the poverty and remoteness of the village.  We didn’t take any photos in the village because many of the conditions were so poor, and we felt it would be disrespectful. Mostly there was a lot of trash, but we also saw malnourished horses and many wild (but mostly friendly) dogs roaming the dirt roads hoping for food hand outs. On the other hand, the school building was very well maintained and the grocery store had a lot of postings for community events. We couldn’t imagine living in such a remote community.

The last 2 miles from the village to the campground seemed like they took forever, but we were encouraged by the blue water of Havasu creek and finally knew we were close when we came to Havasu Falls. The turquoise water pouring over the cliff into a beautiful deep pool was as amazing as all the pictures show it. We decided to leave exploring the falls for the next day since the sun was setting behind them, so we continued on to the campground.

Havasu Falls

At the campground, there were some obvious differences between the National Park and the tribal lands. Here there were no assigned campsites, and a recent flash flood had completely reshaped the area and left many picnic tables stranded in the river. We were amazed how many picnic tables they had made or transported down there, and the campground was clearly meant to hold hundreds of people, which was definitely more than the NPS would have allowed, but certainly makes getting permits easier. Limiting access to protect a place like this is such a tough trade-off, especially when tourism is the main source of income for the tribe. Unfortunately there was quite a bit of trash left by all the campers, which is always such a shame to see. On the other hand, the tribe had an impressive number of solar toilets that were quite good shape and we noticed they were serviced every day. They also did check permits on every tent to make sure that everyone had checked in. As rule-followers ourselves, we like to see permits enforced because there are plenty of people who ignore the system on the chance they won’t get caught. We’ve only had our permit checked in a National Park/Forest once in all our years of backpacking (it was in the Grand Canyon actually).


Picnic bench washed away during a flash flood

Lasting effects of the flash flood

The campground was also different because there were lots of dogs roaming from campsite to campsite begging for food. We didn’t feed the dogs, but others did which would cause more dogs to gather at their campsite and sometimes break out in small skirmishes over food. Luckily though they didn’t seem too aggressive, and there were plenty of people, so if you didn’t give them attention they left pretty quickly.


We had the entire next day we to explore Havasu Falls and dayhike to Mooney and Beaver Falls (8 mile round trip).  The water in Havasu Creek percolates through layers of limestone picking up high concentrations of magnesium and calcium carbonate, which gives the water an unusual blue color and builds striking travertine dams.  The 100 ft Havasu Falls is quite a sight, and we were glad to return to explore it a little more, but the 190 ft high Mooney Falls was even more impressive. The surrounding walls are minerals built up over many years and the water changing its flow around the walls.  The falls were named after a miner who fell to his death on the falls in 1882.  They were never able to retrieve his body, and it is now encased in the walls.

Mooney Falls

Reaching the bottom of Mooney Falls is actually quite a challenge, especially for those with a fear of heights. It requires climbing down the walls through a series of tunnels, chains, and wooden ladders, all of which were cold and slippery due to spray from the waterfall.  Once again we were reminded that this is not a National Park, and the maintenance and safety of the trails are not guaranteed. All hiking beyond the campground is at your own risk.



The narrow tunnels and ladders can get crowded and we watched as many people became stranded in the cold spray from the falls.  Keep in mind, most people are headed down in the morning and up in the afternoon.  Trying to go up in the morning will be nearly impossible.


But once you get to the bottom, you realize the climb was well worth the wait and effort.


We ate a quick lunch and switched to our water shoes to hike to Beaver Falls.



The creek flow and depth varies and some areas are easily traversed while others are quite deep.  Our Zion backpacking trained us quite well to identify deep pools and find unique routes around them.



The trail is unique since it crosses the small water fall travertines, fields of vine-like bushes, makeshift bridges, and ladders.





After hours of photography and hiking we reached Beaver Falls in the afternoon.


It’s almost impossible to get lost because you are just following a canyon, but you can get on the wrong side of a deep pool or waterfall making it more difficult to continue on to Beaver Falls.  One of the only directions we heard was to look for a single palm tree.  You want to make sure you hike on the side with the tree and at that point you’re getting close to the falls.

The single palm tree

We saw a lot of people turn around before reaching the falls, and by the time we reached the falls many people had left and we had them all to ourselves! Unlike Havasu and Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls is more of a series of smaller falls, which makes it easier to explore and get up close.

The view from above Beaver Falls

Many people also just enjoy the view from above Beaver Falls, but we hiked down to the bottom then back up the travertines.

Yes, we hiked with our tripod and remote!

As the sunset behind the canyon walls we made the lonely hike back to the campground.

Keeping with our desert hiking tradition, we also saw a snake.  It wasn’t a rattlesnake this time, but still startling.

After our long 8 mile day hike, we made it back to the campground and enjoyed some local fry bread!  The local vendors are just outside the campground and are very friendly.  To our surprise, the young locals we talked to had never been past Mooney Falls!  We were shocked that you could listen to thousands of people from around the world rave about the creek and falls and never go explore them in your backyard.  We were also surprised to find the two fry bread vendors were quite competitive and did not work together to fix prices… the stand we went to was relatively new and had driven prices down. The fresh fry bread was less than $5 and tasted amazing after a full day of hiking!

We left early on a Saturday morning passing almost a hundred college-age kids backpacking down the canyon.  It definitely seemed like the campground would feel very crowded that night, so we were glad to be on our way out. The hike out wasn’t too bad, but it definitely got hot once the shade disappeared.

When we got back to our car, we found a tribe member sleeping in the shadow of our car, apparently waiting for someone/something!  Nathan gently woke him up and pointed him toward the next shady spot, which he crawled to and went back to sleep.  Just another reminder this was a different world!

We highly recommend visiting Havasupai… and since the mules can carry you and/or your stuff, it’s quite accessible for anyone. They even have a lodge in the village if you aren’t up for camping.

Although we were sad that this was our last time camping as part of our Epic Trip, taking us to a total of 33 nights in a tent, this was definitely a great place to finish it off! And we were still excited for the final leg of our trip, taking 6 days to make the remainder of the drive from AZ to PA.

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 63
  • Nights in a tent: 33
  • Miles driven: 7,475
  • Photos taken:  11,834
  • Miles Hiked: 237
  • Water crossings: countless

Check out some more photos of this amazing place! 

Day 59-60: Sedona, AZ (10/1-10/2)

What do you do when you got a couple extra days of vacation in northern Arizona and the federal government is shutdown? You head to Sedona! Since we got our permits for the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim so early, we had a few bonus days before our scheduled permit for Havasupai. We initially thought we would go check out Petrified Forest National Park, but with the government shutdown, that wasn’t an option. But we have always heard great things about Sedona, and it did not disappoint.

We spent an afternoon hiking around Cathedral Rocks, which turned out to involve more rock scrambling than hiking.



We hiked up to the base of the towering rocks and admired the red walls as they started to glow in the late afternoon.



We then hiked down and around the rocks to catch them at sunset.


As we were being eaten by mosquitos and running down the trail we ran into this bug…!


Still not sure what it was, but it moved really fast and was about 6 inches long! Definitely a creepy-crawly…


After dinner we returned to the rocks to capture the milky way over Cathedral Rocks.


The next day we spent a few hours at Slide Rock State Park.  Although the water levels were low and temperatures weren’t ideal, we braved the cold and enjoyed the natural water slide. It was really fun and quite the ride.





It was nice to have a couple unscheduled days to explore and take it easy (aka let Katharine sleep-in). We can definitely see why people love Sedona!



Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 60
  • Miles driven: 7,375
  • Photos taken:  11,441
  • Miles Hiked: 209
  • Scary bugs: 1
  • Runs on the waterslide: 6


Day 55-58: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ (9/27-9/30)

We are starting to build a pretty extensive hiking/ backpacking resume since we started about 3 years ago, and one thing we were very excited to add was hiking across the Grand Canyon. There are a lot of different itineraries/schedules that people follow (including many who hike it in a day), but since we aren’t speedy hikers and we like camping in the backcountry, we decided to do it as a leisurely 3 day / 2 night backpack.

We entered the permit lottery a few months before the trip, but were not lucky enough to get a permit, so we left plenty of extra days in our itinerary to make sure we’d be able to get a walk-up permit.  For some reason, after going back and forth with the rangers on the south rim they gave us a permit on the first day we arrived!  Although we were excited and relieved to get a permit, especially with the impending government shutdown, we were surprised and weren’t really prepared to start the next morning. Our feet were still tired from hiking the Zion Narrows the day before and our gear was in disarray. So we spent the night preparing everything in freezing temperatures at night by head lamp.  While packing we met a new friend, Karen, who was also doing rim to rim in a couple days.  We stood around her campfire warming our hands and sharing adventure stories.

The next morning we parked our car near the Bright Angel Lodge, walked through a small group of elk in rut (and past a park employee who was pretty scared of the elk), then boarded our shuttle/ van for a 4 hour drive to the North Rim.  There were 9 others in the van and we listened to the driver ramble on and on about random stories as if silence was forbidden.  Most of the other people in the van had just finished the Rim to Rim and were taking the shuttle back to their cars. We could definitely tell who took 5 days and who did it in 1!  The couple who day hiked across were young and fit, but they were slow to walk as their muscles and feet were extremely sore.  This confirmed our choice to take 3 days and 2 nights to traverse down the North Kaibab Trail (8,241 feet, 14 miles) then up the Bright Angel Trail (6,850 feet, 9.9 miles) totaling 23.9 miles!

We reached the trail head just after 12:00.  As we tightened our boots and checked our gear we were surprised by three young guys staggering up the trail, stopping their stop watches, then collapsing around the drinking fountain.  They had just ran across the Grand Canyon in just over 4 hours!!  This is one of those times when you think you’re crazy, but are inevitably upstaged by someone else.  Just as we were about to head into the canyon, the three runners abruptly got up and took off down the canyon… that’s right, they were running rim-to-rim-to-rim in one day! (total ~50 miles)  We laughed as we slowly trekked down the switchbacks as we could see them hundreds of feet below us already weaving around other hikers.


Our goal for the first day was to reach Cottonwood Campground 6.8 miles down trail descending 4,000+ feet.  As the sun began to set behind the canyon walls the massive walls glowed red and orange



Since it was the weekend and the temperatures were mild, we actually came across a lot of people day hiking rim to rim south to north.  We came across many exhausted hikers eager to know how much further.  Some people were a part of large groups all wearing the same t-shirt others had a different type of uniform…


As you can see this girl had a tutu on because her group had all picked Disney characters.  Minnie Mouse had just passed us and we later saw a few characters from Peter Pan, Brave, and Alice and Wonderland.  I’m not sure what drives people to hike almost 24 miles across the largest canyon, but to do it in costume just boggles our minds.  It did bring a smile to our face every time we saw a costume hiker and it did seem like they were enjoying themselves, so to each their own.

We reached Cottonwood after 3 hours of hiking down a well maintained downhill trail.  The campground was small, simple, and most people went to sleep pretty early.  The next morning we got a later start, but knew we had time to spare hiking to Bright Angel Campground just 7.2 miles and dropping another 1,600 feet.


It was near freezing at the top at night, but down in the canyon it was much warmer, probably close to 70 or 75 degrees during the day.  We were happy to have time to make a side trip to Ribbon Falls, which is a strange but beautiful waterfall.



To be honest, when hiking in the canyon, the views weren’t as incredible as we expected.  The stereotypical Grand Canyon views are from the rim or Plateau Point.  As you can imagine, you can only see the two massive rock walls on either side of you, but it doesn’t have the narrow slot canyon feel of the Zion Narrows.  On the other hand, that could have just been our jaded feeling as we approached the end of our trip. Either way, we didn’t take too many photos on the second day.


After 5 hours of hiking we reached Phantom Ranch around 2 pm, and the temperatures had risen significantly.  Many people ride mules from the south rim to Phantom Ranch, where there is a restaurant and small cabins.  For non-hikers, it definitely sounds like a great way to experience the Grand Canyon, but you have to plan ahead since they take reservations up to 13 months in advance and they sell out immediately.



We setup our camp in the crowded Bright Angel Campground. It is a far cry from the secluded backcountry wilderness that we typically seek out when backpacking. They even had flushing toilets! But it was well-run and clean, and we were happy to have a nice place to set up our tent.



Then we spent the afternoon exploring the black bridge and the banks of the Colorado River.



Cooling off in the cold (but brown) water of the Colorado River


While making dinner at our campsite we noticed a critter trying to get under our tent!


Not really the type of visitor we wanted crawling around our camp.  After we gently encouraged the tarantula to leave our campsite, kids hovered around as it creepily walked across the sand.


Just after sunset we went to hear a ranger give a talk on the stars above the canyon. He was very knowledgeable and entertaining as he told us about the stars and the park.  During his talk he mentioned that people could stay after for a scorpion hunt.  I think most people thought he was joking (Katharine included), but we had to find out.  We headed to the empty mule corral where the ranger scanned the rock pillars with a black light.  Within minutes we were staring at a glowing scorpion.  These scorpions glow bright green under UV light which helps them stay out of the sun during the day.  We found 8 scorpions that night and were shocked at the ability to find them, but were now a bit scared to crawl in our sleeping bags.  We also shook out our boots really well in the morning!

We had been mentally and physically preparing for the last day for a while, expecting the 9.5 miles and 4,380 feet of gain from Bright Angel Campground to the south rim to be really challenging, especially considering the likely heat. Despite all our experience hiking in SoCal, we do not do well in the heat.  So based on recommendations and research, we packed up our gear very early in the morning and hit the trail to beat the rising sun and heat.  By 6:20 am we were crossing the Colorado River on the silver bridge.


Even with our full packs we found ourselves racing up the canyon.  The trail was well maintained and had lots of switchbacks, making it an easy grade (designed for mules).  We were also surprised by the number of bathrooms and water refill stations along the trail, they were nicely spaced out and made for great mini-goals and rest spots.  We were worried about dealing with a lot of mule trains headed down, but we only saw a few and they were quite small and very calm.



As we climbed up closer to the South Rim, the views kept getting more and more amazing. It felt incredible to look back and see the bottom, knowing that we were just there earlier that morning.


We reached the rim around 12:15 feeling great, very proud, and a little surprised that we had just climbed 9.5 miles out of the Grand Canyon in under 6 hours with fully loaded backpacks!  Keeping with tradition, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner and watched the sunset over the canyon, then treated ourselves to a night in .  It was quite accomplishment and will be something we think back on for many years to come.



Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 58
  • Nights in a tent: 31
  • Miles driven: 7,283
  • Photos taken:  11,164
  • National Parks: 14
  • Miles Hiked: 206
  • Scorpions in our boots: 0 (thank goodness!)

Check out the rest of the photos!

After Buckskin Gulch we drove to Page, AZ and spent the night drinking beers around a campfire on the beach overlooking Lake Powell.  The next morning we had one more stop to make before driving 9 hours back home.  Downstream from Lake Powell’s dam is a bend in the river that looks like a horseshoe and standing on a ledge with a wide angle lens you can capture it.


For this trip to Utah Katharine bought a 9-18mm f4.0-5.6 lens for her micro four thirds camera.  If you’re a camera fanatic keep in mind it has a 2x crop factor, but it’s still a nice 18mm equivalent.  Also keep in mind this lens weighs .34 pounds (155 grams). The entire camera with battery, memory card and this lens weighs just over 1 pound!

Olympus E-PL2, ISO 200, 9mm, f/4, 1/800 sec