A Guide to Havasupai: Visit the Land of the People of the Blue-Green Water

Mooney Falls is located just below the Havasupai campground on your way to Beaver Falls.

Mooney Falls is located just below the Havasupai campground on your way to Beaver Falls.

Those familiar with the ethereal beauty that is Havasupai are also likely aware of the seeming impossibility of visiting this isolated Arizona destination. Those who do luck out and obtain a permit, though, are in for treat.

But before I go into specifics about obtaining permits and the experience backpacking to the campground and camping itself, I’d like to do a brief dive into the history of the Havasupai people. After all, if you intend to visit, you should be familiar with the history and the circumstances of the people that are so graciously allowing you access to their sacred, unspoiled land.

Fun Fact: Did you know that Supai Village, (which is located approximately two miles from the Havasupai Campground), is the only U.S. village that still has its mail delivered by mule or packhorse?

Historical Origin

The Havasupai are one of fourteen Pai tribal subgroups. Pai, means "people”, and Havasu means “blue-green water”. Therefore, Havasupai roughly translates to "people of the blue-green water,". Traditionally, the Pai people have inhabited Northern Arizona, occupying land along the Colorado River of the Grand Canyon and onward to the Bill Williams River. The Pai people consisted of three major groups: the Yavapai, the Hualapai and the Havasupai.

Modern History

Sometime in the late 1800's, hoards of cowboys and miners came to Havasu Canyon. Sadly, though not surprisingly, these outsiders came into the canyon and began claiming ownership of the region. Also unsurprisingly, this greatly upset the indigenous communities residing within the canyon. Eventually, a three year war broke out between the Pai people and the United States Army. Because the Havasupai did not engage in this war, they were considered a separate band from the Yavapai and the Hualapai.

Years later, then-President Rutherford Birchard Hayes proclaimed that the Havasupai would retain ownership of 38,000 acres along Havasu Creek. This was in 1880. Only two years later, in 1882, President Hayes’ original decree was repealed. The Havasupai’s land now constituted a mere 500 acres. Thirty-six years later in 1919, Grand Canyon National Park was established, restricting the Tribe to a reservation located in the southwest corner of the park. Since then, the Tribe has seen 185,000 acres returned to them. A result of lengthy legal battles in the early 1970’s.

Today

Hiking down the canyon toward the Havasupai Campground.

Hiking down the canyon toward the Havasupai Campground.

Today there are over 600 people who make up the Tribe. They maintain one hundred percent fluency in their native language and still inhabit their native homeland. The Supai Village, your one and only stop prior to descending down the canyon another two miles to the Havasupai Campground, is only accessible by mules, helicopter, or an eight or so mile hike. Within the village, there is a lodge, where some might elect to stay rather than camp in the campground, a store, church, and a school.

Supai is the most remote village in the United States. It is situated approximately 160 miles from the closest grocery store. Therefore, all outside supplies the Supai people might need come to them via packhorse or helicopter. The Tribe itself is completely self-sufficient, and a special place to visit.

Sources: National Park Service website; Wikipedia website (be sure to check out initial sources for deeper reading on the subject); Flyers received at the Hualapai Lodge .

Getting a permit.

Okay, now that we’ve covered some basic history and familiarized you with the land and its people, let’s dive into the specifics of visiting Havasupai. First and foremost — obtaining a permit.

Note: This information is current for 2019. It is subject to change. I will try to make edits if and when it becomes necessary to do so so that the information is as up to date as possible.

In the past, if you wanted to make a reservation you had to call in advance and hope that the dates you wished to visit were available. The trouble was getting ahold of folks on the other end of the phone. If you have been trying to obtain permits for the last several years like I have, then you’re likely familiar with the busy tone at the end of Havasupai Tourist Office’s line — 928 - 448 - 2121.

The 2018 and 2019 permit season saw a change, however. There is now a website that you visit and purchase permits from. You can find it here. All you have to do is make an account, add your payment information, login, find the calendar dates you want to visit, select them, and finally, purchase your permit. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, not quite.

On the morning of February 1st, 2019 when the website opened for reservations, the server was immediately flooded with thousands of people trying to obtain permits for the 2019 season (which actually extended so far as February 2020). This caused the website to crash for many permit-hopefuls, and really, it was up to chance whether or not you would get through to the actual reservation page to purchase your permits.

Many of us took to Twitter to get live updates from other Havasupai-hopefuls and see who had actually been successful in obtaining their permits. Many recommended opening the webpage in a private browser, refreshing incessantly, restarting your computer, logging off and logging back on (I don’t recommend), and a slew of other tactics. I don’t think any one of them worked more than the other, necessarily, but it was worth a try.

Myself? I refreshed the page incessantly for about four hours before I was finally able to get to the calendar to select dates. But by that time, the season was almost entirely sold out. Luckily, President’s Weekend still had availability for a party of two, so while that only gave me two weeks to pack and make necessary arrangements, I jumped on it. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when trying to obtain permits to Havasupai is flexibility.

What your email confirmation will look like.

What your email confirmation will look like.

The reality of the situation is that you are not alone in your desire to visit Havasupai. Literally thousands of people are trying to get permits the same time you are and those who end up getting them are likely those who are flexible and willing to go whenever they possibly can. This flexibility is not something everyone can accommodate, though. People have jobs and responsibilities, of course, but if you really want to visit, then you will want to try to be as flexible as you can.

Cost and Logistics

If you have successfully obtained permits, woohoo! Congrats! I know I was stoked when I finally received mine. Now, though, you will need to factor in costs and logistics.

If you’ve gotten as far as purchasing the permits, then you know the price is steep. As can be seen from the screenshot above of my email confirmation, the cost for myself and my partner to visit was $350.00 per person. This price increase, steep as it is, was necessary. In order to keep up with demand, maintenance, and clean-up with so many visitors each year, the Tribe needed to raise permit prices. It’s just part of the deal.

My partner and I were wary of the costs but understood why the prices had been raised and knew we were privileged to even have the opportunity to visit so we invested in the experience. Each person will have to decide for themselves whether or not they can justify spending that much on a camping trip. But I can say from my own personal experience, that it was worth it.

Currently, you are required to purchase a reservation that consists of a three-night / four-day stay. The cost of your stay will differ depending on whether you will be staying in Havasupai over a weekend or during the week. As you’d expect, it does cost $25 more per night per person when staying over the weekend.

I took a couple of screen shots from the official Havasupai Reservations website on the breakdown for associated costs, as well as general booking rules below.



New this year is the ability for you to transfer reservations through the website. Because I did not do this and have no experience in doing so, I will defer to the official Havasupai Reservations website (linked above) where you can find that information. Something to keep in mind should anything come up in your life that keeps you from honoring the reservation you made.

Now, with prices for permits so high, it might be overwhelming thinking of other logistical costs, but I highly recommend breaking them all down prior to your even purchasing permits to save yourself a lot of undue stress. This advice doesn’t apply as much for those who are local and can simply drive from where they live to the trailhead, but it is still important to consider the cost of the trip as a whole before moving forward with purchasing permits.

As an out-of-state individual who had to fly in for the trip, these are the things that I needed to consider in addition to the expense of the permits.

On our way to Las Vegas.

  1. Flights. We used miles, so our tickets were only $10.00 a piece, but had we not had miles, the cost would have been closer to $300.00 per person. We wouldn’t have come had we had to pay for our flights, too. It would just be too much. So that is of course something to consider.

  2. Baggage costs (if flying). This is HUGE and so easy to forget. When using Kayak, or some other flight search engine, you will often find cheaper airlines to fly with such as Spirit. But don’t get too excited. If you are backpacking, you likely have some heavy, oversized bags. Be sure to research the additional baggage costs that apply to whichever airline you are flying. The ticket, on budget airlines, is often cheaper than the cost to check your bags.

  3. Car rental. Again, we were “lucky” because we had points and so we were able to get our rental car for a mere $20.00. Hint: If not already obvious, sign up for reward programs and credit cards so you can get miles and points to use toward future travel! It will save you tons. Anyway, rental cars aren’t necessarily cheap. Do your research and book them quick. You don’t want to do last minute shopping when prices have jumped up and availability is slim.

  4. Gas. Speaks for itself.

  5. A night (or two) in a hotel. If you are flying, you will probably need a hotel one of two nights both before and after your trip. I know some people opt to sleep in their cars at the Hualapai Trailhead, and if you are short on cash, that probably makes most sense, but I wanted a good night of sleep prior to the long hike so we stayed in a hotel. We flew in to Las Vegas and drove two and a half hours to the Hualapai Lodge (which is about an hour and a half from the trailhead). We LOVED it. The rooms were cute, the staff was great, and there was a little restaurant where you could get breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I booked with Hotels.com and saved a good chunk of change for each night, so I recommend checking that out. We went in the off season, so I am sure it will be more expensive come spring and summer, but it was only $82.00 per night. A good option to consider.

  6. Ubers / Lyfts to and from the airport. These are also easy expenses to forget, but they are important. We’re not close to our airport at all so this was quite expensive. Consider research local transportation such as trains or buses to get you to and from the airport to your home, or have a friend or family member drive you, to cut down on costs.

  7. Gear. My partner and I had accumulated all the gear we needed (except for trekking poles) over the last several years so fortunately we didn’t have to purchase anything new for this trip. But if you do, it can be rather costly. Do a thorough inventory of items you have and those you need to make sure you don’t have to go blow a bunch of cash extra gear. Aside from the permits themselves and maybe plane tickets, this is where costs can really soar.

All in all, the trip comes out to be quite expensive. Again, you will need to determine whether the costs fall within your budget. It was a stretch for us, but I am happy we went because I imagine that, if anything, costs will continue to rise for permits and travel. I recommend planning WAY in advance and to begin saving up so when the time comes you aren’t stressed about how to afford it.

Packing

PACK LIGHT, PACK LIGHT, PACK LIGHT.

This is especially important for those of us who don’t regularly hike ten plus miles. And even if you do, hiking is an entirely different beast when you’ve got anywhere from 15-40 plus pounds of weight strapped to your back.

Avoiding the rain and enjoying a hot cup of coffee in our tent!

Avoiding the rain and enjoying a hot cup of coffee in our tent!

Yes, you can take the helicopter in if you prefer (though it doesn’t fly every day so plan accordingly) and you can reserve a packhorse or a mule to carry your things in, but if you can help it, I highly recommend packing everything you need in yourself. Not only is it WAY more rewarding knowing you made it on your own, but spare the mules and horses. The Tribe has much stricter rules concerning the wellbeing of these animals, but I think its safe to say they don’t enjoy carrying huge packs and bags up and down the canyon. You can read more about this on the official Havasupai Reservation website.

In terms of actual items to bring, these are (in my opinion) must-haves.

  1. Ratsacks and / or a bear canister to keep critters and squirrels out of your food. We didn’t experience any issues with this as there were no squirrels around pilfering food in the freezing temps we experienced when we went, but I know in warmer months, this can be an issue. We brought a bear canister, which was a bit heavy, so I recommend looking into some more weight-conscious options such as ratsacks. A simple google search will yield plenty of results for you to consider.

  2. Trekking poles. I have done some backpacking and a great deal of hiking and never once used trekking poles. I bought them for this trip because it was so highly recommended and I have to say, especially if you are expecting inclement weather, they are great to have along. They help your knees on the downhill and protect your back by allowing you to place more weight in your arms. They are great for balance as well. Check out the used gear at REI, Craigslist, or an secondhand app. They don’t have to be an expensive addition to your gear if you do some shopping around.

  3. Water filter. Water is heavy, but water is essential. To avoid packing down gallons of water, invest in a water filter of sorts that will allow you to drink from Havasu Creek. There is also a spring you can drink from in the campground and you can buy water at the store in the Supai Village, but it’s nice to be able to just stroll a couple feet to the stream and drink from it. You can also boil water, but it takes longer and you don’t want to use up more fuel than you need to if you can avoid it.

  4. Headlamp. It’s no fun walking around or rummaging through your pack in the dark.

  5. Dehydrated meals. They save weight and actually, aren’t half bad. Usually. We really liked Mountain House’s Breakfast Hash, Biscuits and Gravy, and Chili Mac with Beef.

Other essential items include:

  • Backpacking backpack

  • Sleeping bag

  • Tent (preferably a lightweight, backpacking tent)

  • Backpacking stove

  • Fuel (we only needed one, eight-ounce canister and we didn’t even use it all over the course of three days)

  • Hiking boots / shoes

  • Water shoes (we brought our Chacos or went barefoot)

  • Rainjacket

  • Swim suit

  • Lightweight towel

  • Sunglasses

  • Gloves (for descending the ropes and ladders down to Mooney and to keep your hands warm if visiting in cooler months)

  • Sunscreen

  • Hat

  • Layers

  • First Aid Kit

  • Camera

  • Extra batteries for headlamp

Below you will find a photo of all that we brought with us on our trip. Yes, it was too much. Yes, we regretted it. Heed our warning and pack as little as possible. The hike is long and more challenging than you might think.

You will also find some great recommendations on, you guessed it, the official Havasupai Reservation website.

Gear

The Trail.

I want to let you in on a little secret — the hike down to and out of Havasupai is hard. There. I said it.

I don’t recall reading much about the difficulty of the trail, so I would like to say that it was quite challenging. At least for me. (Though I will admit that I don’t think it would have been nearly as challenging if I hadn’t packed like such a dummy.) I don’t think it would have been nearly as difficult without the pack. In fact, it probably would have been quite enjoyable, but any time you are carrying more than your own weight along a trail it is going to add to the difficulty. Pack well and wear good hiking attire and you will be just fine.

Brian hiking on the trail to the Havasupai Campground.

Brian hiking on the trail to the Havasupai Campground.

Here are some general stats:

  • The trail is rated as being “Moderately Difficult”.

  • Plan to be hike between 4 - 7 hours each way.

  • The trail itself is 20 miles, out and back. Though it felt longer than that to me. It is eight miles to the Supai Village, and another two to the campground.

  • The change in elevation is around 2,400 feet, with the majority of that change occurring in the first mile or so. It will be much more challenging on the hike out, as you will be climbing up the entire way.

  • You will need to check in at the Supai Village. There will be signs. Follow them, and enter to receive your wrist band and permit paperwork. You will need proof of permits. Bring a printed copy as well as your ID.

As mentioned, we visited in the off season and we experienced some highly unusual weather. It was cold, rained, hailed, and even snowed. In fact, on our way out it snowed A LOT. It made for a slightly more challenging climb, but it was a really unique and beautiful experience.

Check out my story, titled “Havasupai” on my Instagram account (@shaylyn.marie) if you’d like more videos and photos from the hike in and out.

From what I understand, the trail is generally hot and dry. Bring plenty of water for the hike in and out, take breaks, and pack along some snacks to munch on along the way.

The trail is tough and long, but it is really beautiful. We tried to hurry in and out because of weather, but try to enjoy the scenery and take as many stops as you need.

You will also want to be cautious of horses and mules that are either hiking down to the campground or out of it. They have the right of way. Make sure you don’t startle them or get in their way as your are hiking along.

Respect the land and the people and enjoy your stay.

Supai is stunning. If you’re here reading this right now, you already know this. If you visit, respect the land. Respect the people who live there, and who have lived there for hundreds of years. The Havasupai people are generous to allow us to visit their land. When we visited, I was saddened to see all the rubbish and gear left behind. That is just absolutely unacceptable.

If you are strong enough and willing to pack all your things in, pack all your things out. This goes for your trash. This goes for your gear. Something that I love to do wherever I camp is pick up the surrounding area. Granted, I was limited in the amount I could hike out with from the Havasupai Campground as my pack was already full with our own things and trash, but I did make a point to walk around picking up as much trash and waste as I could from others who had left it behind.

Please consider doing the same. Keep this area beautiful. Not only for future generations to explore and appreciate, but for those who live there. We wouldn’t want people polluting our yards or parks or campgrounds, so please be mindful of this when you are there.

And lastly, enjoy your stay. It is a magical place. Revel in it while you’re there. After all it took for you to get there, you deserve it.

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