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Havasupai: Experiencing heaven and hell in Paradise

Written by DanielaZavala. Posted in Blog, Read The Backpacker

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Published on November 21, 2015 with No Comments

Before moving to Phoenix in early 2014, I never imagined this state was home of many astonishing natural wonders. The Grand Canyon is the second most visited National Park in the United States, but its beauty goes beyond this famous landmark.

Just a few days after settling in the Valley, I came across with photos of unreal waterfalls of blue green waters, hidden deep into the Havasu Canyon and guarded by the Havasupai Tribe.

“How can this place exist? Maybe it looks like that because people are using filters in the photos to enhance the colors,” I thought.

I was determined to go there myself and see if this Shangri-La truly existed.

For months, I called repeatedly, trying to get a permit to visit Havasupai. The phone was always busy. Getting a reservation is hard, very hard. This paradise has become very popular in the last years. It is known as one of the best hikes in the country. Thousands of people dream of visiting, but only those with permits get to enjoy it.

A year and half later, I was finally ready to visit it in November, when the crowds slimmed down as the temperatures dropped with the arrival of the winter.

By the time I left Phoenix, this trip wasn’t only about an adventure. I was seeking spiritual healing. My dad’s illness was progressing. With a broken heart, I ventured in another solo journey into the wilderness to clear my mind and sooth my hurting soul with solitude and nature.

I have traveled solo to over 80 countries. I have endured very long and harsh treks. I have camped in the wild countless times. However, this was the first time I was going self-supported style, meaning no guide or porter. I had to drive myself over five hours in my old car to where the trek started. I had to carry myself over 30 pounds in my back with camping equipment, water and food. If I encountered a problem, I had to figure out all by myself.

I decided to take my chances. This place was too beautiful to miss out. I was ready to prove myself once again that if you have a dream, you just have to take risks to make it happen… but what I didn’t know was the kind of kind risk I was about to put myself into, and had nothing to do with the driving, the long trek or my ability to camp or carry weight…

On a Thursday afternoon, I arrived in the Hualapai Hilltop with an elevation of 5,200 feet, located at the very end of Indian Rd 18.

View from the parking lot

I got off the car and walked to the edge of the parking lot, facing the intimidated and magnificent reddish and gray canyon with 3,000-foot height walls.

From the parking, I was able to see many paths down in the base of the canyon. I checked the beginning of the trek at the top, and stared with concern to the zigzagging dirt road that took trekkers down to the bottom.

Suddenly I was overwhelmed with doubts.

“I may get lost. I may fall off the edge of the canyon trekking at dark. I may injure myself on the trek and who would know what happened to me?”

While I faced all sort of doubts, I tried to think clearly of a plan to make it down safely.

The sun was setting down, turning the sky and the canyon in blood red color. It was spectacular.

red sunset in parking lot

When the sky turned black and the stars started to shine, I went back to my car and prepared to sleep. But it was cold, very cold. I was shivering. The three layers of clothing, and the sleeping bag didn’t seem to protect me from the below zero temperatures. I also started to have a strong headache, probably due to the high altitude. I questioned myself once again if hiking down alone at dark was a bad decision. It wasn’t the 8 miles that worried me because I run 7 miles daily. It was the environment and the conditions that I feared.

The alarm clock went off at 4:30 a.m. I hardly slept. I was still cold, but at least the headache was gone. My fears would not defeat me. I put my backpack on, turned my flashlight, and at 5 a.m. sharp, I hit the trek at dark.

My heart was beating so fast that I thought it may come out of my chest. I thought of the dark and freezing nights I attempted the summit of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Gondogoro LA in Pakistan. I made it safely both times. I had a guide and a team with me in both expeditions. Although this time I was by myself, this trek was nothing compare to those.

“I am going to be fine. This is nothing,” I mumbled repeatedly as I hiked the twisting path cut into the cliff that drops down dramatically.

I feared an injury or a misstep that could make me fall off the edge of a 3000-foot sandstone precipice.

I stepped firmly and confidently. Never took my eyes of the ground.

It wasn’t 10 minutes into the trek when a roar came out from the distance. It was as if rocks have been falling. I stopped, breathed deeply and tried to make an assessment of what was going on, but I saw nothing.

Other people have done this trek at dark without a problem, so I tried to repeat myself as well “If others did it, so could I”.

I finally made it to a dry wash in the base of Hualapai canyon. I continued, praying and hoping that no rocks would fall over me.

As I went further inside the canyon, my confidence grew. The sun was slowly coming out and my flashlight was no longer necessary. Gigantic sandstone walls with red layers surrounded me. It made me feel so small.

“Supai. You are almost there!” read a sign with an arrow indicating to turn left.

almost there sign

I followed a stream covered with trees until I arrived in Supai Village.

I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt happy, empowered, proud, excited, all at the same time.

I turned on my phone and realized it was only 7:40 a.m. The estimated time to complete the 8 miles trek from the hilltop to Supai is between 4 to 7 hour hike each way. I had done it in less than 3 hours. I realized I was much stronger and faster than what I thought I would be.

The village was still sleeping. As I walked to the tourist office to register and pay my entrance permit, I passed a stable, a store and some houses. I came to a point that I could go either left or right but had no idea where to go.

A tribesman in a horse was in the middle of the road. He looked at me with curiosity.

“Good morning! I am looking for the Tourist Office. Which way should I go sir?” I asked.

“Is that way. About 5 minutes’ walk,” he said with a very strong accent. “Are you alone?” he asked.

“Yes, I am very happy to in here. Have been dreaming of Havasupai for over a year,” I replied without being able to content my excitement.

“Welcome to Supai,” he said smiling and left in his horse.

I walked into town and started seeing more locals.

I said “Hellos” and “Good mornings” but women and children avoided eye contact and never answered, which made me think that it was probably a cultural difference thing or maybe a language barrier. Maybe they still felt uneasy for what the people from “Up there” have done to them? I wondered.

With 188, 077 acres, the Havasupai Reservation is remotely located in the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon National Park, but it is not managed by the National Park Service, but by the Havasupai Tribe.

The Havasupais have lived in the Grand Canyon for over 800 years, but when the National Park was established in 1919, the tribe was forced to leave. They kept only 518 acres! During decades, the tribe fought the federal government to have their homeland returned to them. They succeeded in 1975, becoming self-governed and a sovereign nation.

What the Havasupai people have been gone through, made me think of the tribes of the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia, who have been losing their land to the federal government, putting their cultural heritage, generations and homelands in risk of disappearing.

Despite the cold stares, I smiled and greeted any local I saw on my way to the Tourism Office located in the middle of the village.


A young Havasupai woman in her 20s greeted me.

“How many is your group?” she asked.

“Just me,” I replied.

“Just you? Ok, no problem,” she seemed surprised.

She quickly processed my camping permit and an armband.

“There are waterfalls along the way,” explained the girl.

My back started to hurt from the weight of my backpack, but I was beyond thrilled.

I walked through the village, passing the store, the lodge and even a church to follow the trail to continue to the campground. Another 2 miles walk down deep into the canyon.

A few minutes into the trail, I could hear and see the blue waters. I sped up, eager to see more.

I encountered the Navajo Falls, the first major waterfall on Havasu Creek, with beautiful cascades plunging 70 feet into a pool.

navajo falls

At one point the trail drops dramatically and on my right side, here they were: the spectacular Havasu Falls!

The pictures that I have seen were not filtered or enhanced. This Shangri-La was real! A glorious waterfall plunged 100 feet from a vertical cliff into a blue-greenish pool. Its peculiar color is due to the high concentration of lime that the water carries. The contrast of the reddish rock of the cliff with the clear blue water and the greenery surrounded the place, make the place look as if it was an perfect painting.

I went down to the base of the waterfall. It roared strong and wetted my face. I closed my eyes and smiled, feeling happy that I didn’t allow my fears to defeat me and prevented me to experience first hard this wonder of nature.

first view of havasu

My back needed a rest so I went to look for the camping grounds. Although it stretched for about half a mile, I camped next to the ranger to protect my things and to protect myself while camping solo at night although this place didn’t seem dangerous at all. This is paradise! Nothing could go wrong in Shangri-La, right? Well that’s what I thought…

The ranger was a short Havasupai man of a few words. I approached him and tried to befriend him but he seemed confused or very shy. Maybe he didn’t understand me. I have read Havasupai people spoke Yuman language and 100% of them spoke them.

I left the tribesman alone, set up my tent near his ranger’s station and continued my solo expedition. I had only one day so couldn’t waste one minute.

Although the tribe said there were full, the campground was half empty. It was actually very nice not to be surrounded by large crowds of tourists.

I was looking for peace, and I had found it in the magnificence and isolation of this place.

down on risk

I walked along the travertine cliffs with blue water. On the edge, campers relaxed under the shaded sites and refreshed in the clear stream.

Just when you think it couldn’t be get more beautiful, the Mooney Falls shows its splendor with 200 feet of falling water into another blue-green pool.

waterfall with rainbow

I stood at the top of the Mooney falls speechless. A rainbow decorated the already enormous chute of water. I somehow felt that each waterfall was giving me a welcome, like rewarding me for the effort and risk I had taken to see them.

Some people were at the base of the waterfall. I continued the trail that led me to another snaking path on the edge of the canyon.

“Descend at own risk,” read a sign.


An adrenaline rush came through my veins when I encountered a very rugged and exposed path that included: tunnels, slippery rocks and some steep and wet ladders with chains.

I could hear and feel my ponding heartbeat. I descended carefully, watching my steps and grabbing those ladders and chains hard. I breathed deeply and made it to the bottom where other two travelers were talking about how treacherous that climb was.

This paradise was a mining interest at one point. The name of the Mooney Falls actually comes from a miner called D.W James Mooney, who in 1882 tried to mine this area. He fell to his death while trying to climb this gigantic cascade.

I walked along the stream, trying to reach the Beaver Falls and this way complete the four falls of Havasupai. It was four more miles from the camp, and about three from the Mooney Falls.

I had done a lot of hiking already, but I felt great. Without my backpack on me, I felt like a new person.

The further I hiked into the canyon, the lesser people I saw and the hardest became to figure out the right path. I got lost a few times, but every time I got lost, I ran into a new site for more marvelous views and blue-green terraces created in the creek.

beautiful water

The vegetation became denser. I was told that to reach Beaver Falls, I had to cross the creek three times, and that sometimes the water could reach all the way to the hip due to the water’s depth. I had no waterproof shoes or another pair of clothing.

I had to look some the part of the creek that looked clear, rocky and whitish. If it was blue, it was too deep to cross.

I took my boots on and off. Annoyed by it, I tried to walk one path barefoot, which slowed me down.

I managed to cross the second creek and I suddenly felt that I was in a very remote place, walking in a winding path that has not been visit in a while. I knew it was visited the day before because I had met a couple that did it.

beaver falls

At that moment, I felt truly alone and vulnerable, yet very happy because such an unimaginable natural beauty surrounded me. The gigantic red walls of the narrowing canyon, the blue water falling into terraces, the greenery, the crispy fresh air, and the soft sound of the breeze were overwhelming and liberating.

Although it was still early in the afternoon, it seemed to be getting darker. I continued to hike. There was only one more creek crossing left!

Another 30 minutes passed and it felt the path was never ending. The high walls canyon started blocking the sun rapidly.

I stopped. I really wanted to go to Beaver Falls. I was probably very closed. I had gone this far! Yet, my instinct said it was no a good idea to continue. If I was caught here in the dark unprepared as I was (no flashlight, no warmer clothes for gelid temperatures at night) and in a place where the path was hard to find and follow with no signs to show the way, I could be exposing myself to unnecessary dangers.

hiking alone beaver

This was my first time in Havasupai, but this trip was just a quick first visit. The plan was to come back next year with my fiancé and some friends.

Maybe it was good not to see the Beaver Falls so I had something new to look forward to next time.

Although my adventurous heart was unsettled with my decision to turn back, my mind knew it was the right thing to do.

Hiking back to the campsite turned out to be challenging. Crossed the second creek and ran into a group of four guys, trying to reach the Beaver Falls. Felt tempted to ask them if I could join them, but they also seemed not prepare for the dark.

I continued hiking to the first creek crossing. And that’s when it became really sketchy. I came across with different paths, each leading to different parts in the creek. I walked into two of them, but I couldn’t find the one that I had crossed previously, that wasn’t that deep. I was getting anxious, but after 20 minutes I found the right spot and crossed. Somehow I felt, I had come back to safety although I had not yet experienced any real danger.

I could see and hear in the distance the Mooney Falls. From there to the campsite, it was a clear and easy path, so I decided to hang around and explore.

mooney falls exploring

Havasupai is like the land of waterfalls! I ran into what is known as the Lower Mooney Falls, it is not huge, but this 20 foot high waterfall is not less gorgeous. I sat at the edge of a cliff, looked at the scenic view of the canyon and meditated.

I was still in pain for my dad’s illness, but I found profound peace. It was as if the splendor of Havasupai was able to soothe my crying heart.

I closed my eyes, sat motionless and heard the deafening waterfalls.

“Did you go to Beaver?” I heard.

I opened my eyes and was a young Asian-American guy. He was from California. He had come with a group, but they were not outdoorsy. Before taking his friends there, he wanted to see how tough the hike was.

I explained to him, and he recommended me to check out a few more places around the Mooney Falls.

Using hands and feet, I climbed down to the based of the Lower Mooney Falls, which also gives great views of the big waterfall.

mooney falls 2

There I ran into the group of guys I had seen earlier trying to go to Beaver. They also turned back, fearing they would get caught up in the dark.

We all returned to the base of the Mooney Falls and climbed up the tricky, wet and scary ladder. Somehow it was less creepier to go up than down.

This part of the trek is definitely not for those people who are afraid of heights, or suffer from vertigo.

scary climb

I went back to my tent and found like 20 tourists gathered waiting for their bags being brought by mule and by a helicopter. This was the largest group I had seen in the entire trip, but they quickly dissipated in the camping site area.

I went back one more time to the Havasu Falls before the sunset. Sat from a cliff looking it from above. You can stare at this magical place for hours and feel you have not gotten enough of it.

Before getting dark, I went back to my tent and cuddled in my sleeping bag. It was only 6pm when I turned my flashlight off.

I fell asleep quickly and comfortably, while listening to the calming waters of the creek.

Although I was more exposed to the cold temperatures here in my tent than the night before when I slept in the car, I didn’t experienced the shivering cold, discomforts or fears of 24 hours ago.

It was a perfect day and a perfect night…

small mooney

After an invigorating rest of almost 11 hours, I woke up at around 5:30 a.m. I got ready, ate a protein bar as breakfast, took my tent down and packed. With my backpack in my shoulders, I started hiking back to Supai in the dark finding my way with a flashlight. Contrasting from the day before, I was no longer afraid of hiking at dark. I was confident and even enjoyed the 2-mile walk to the tribe’s town, looking at the clear sky covered with stars.

I made it to Supai at 6:40 a.m.

“Baby, this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen in the Planet, period!” I said with excitement to my fiancé who I called before losing signal again.

“It took me less than 3 hours to come down here, but it may take me twice the time to hike back those 8 miles to the parking lot, because of the weight of my backpack and the gain of altitude up at the hilltop, ok? But don’t worry. I can do it. I am leaving early to avoid the heat and the sun,” I hung up and started crossing the town.

I turned into a corner and ran into the store of the town, next to the lodge. Two men, one elderly, were hanging out outside.

I waved and continued walking but slowed down when one of them, a man in his 40s, approached me.

I thought he was going to offer me horse or mule transportation.

“Are you alone?” he asked me.

“Good morning! Yes, I am alone,” I answered smiling and considering the possibility of hiring his transportation services so I could avoid hurting my back carrying all that weight uphill.

“My name is Sydney. I love eating peaches for hours,” he said emphasizing on the word “hours”.

I was puzzled by his comment. He was a big man with full checks and rounded face. He didn’t seem hungry or homeless. I didn’t want to offend him so I asked what he meant.

He didn’t say a word, but his answer was very graphic.

Sydney used his fingers and tongue to simulate oral sex and didn’t stop even when I walked away from him.

I was shocked and frightened, but showed no fear.

“Be careful girl, that man is the rapist and thief of the town,” said to me a bit later a tribal man who saw me talking to Sydney.

My heart sank. It was only 7 a.m. and the town was still sleeping. I had 8 miles ahead of me. I starting running, running fast with my Swiss army at hand but afraid he would catch me in the path by riding one of the town’s horses.

Suddenly, the almost 40 pounds of my backpack vanished. I ran faster. I saw two hikers and tried to catch up them. I abruptly couldn’t see them anymore.

“Oh my God. I must be hallucinating!” I thought to myself.

I could feel the tears of fears washing my face. I ran, pray and thought of a self -defense plan in the case I had to face my biggest fear: rape!

Since 1997, I have only had one incident where I felt my physical integrity was at stake. It was in Ecuador, in the Amazon, and also with a tribesman. It was the brother of the shaman who I was going to experience the Ayahuasca with.

Read full story “Ayahuasca:Facing the Deepest Fear & the Spiritual Awakening”

I had put that horrible episode in the past, yet once again, I was in a similar situation.

“Would I get out of this unharmed this time?”

I thought of my lovely fiancé, our wedding plans, our future together… he has been so supportive to my adventures and my dreams. If something happened to me, I would have failed him.

Every time I travel, I always tell him not to worry… that I would not do it if I was not certain that I could make it safe and sound.

How would I explain to him if something bad happened to me in Shangri-La in our home country? I mean this was not happening in one of the far away lands I have traveled to, but in the state we call home!

I never imagined when I went to the Amazon that I could be in danger. From all the fears that I had when I took this trip to Havasupai, being rape was not even a possibility in my mind. I feared a car accident; I feared an injury, dehydration, getting lost in the canyon, falling from a cliff, but rape in a trip to the Grand Canyon? Never!

I had to survive this. I did in Amazon. I had to do it for my fiancé and for all the people who loved me, including my dad. I ran faster and miraculously the two hikers I had seen earlier were not a hallucination, they were a young couple from Mesa.

“Sorry, please!” I broke in tears while holding the hand of the husband. “I am sorry. Can I walk with you guys?”

“Of course. What happened?” he asked.

I told them what I had just experienced and they were shocked to hear about it.

As me, they wondered how a rapist/thief could be wondering freely on the streets.

It took us three hours to hike the eight miles from Supai back to the parking lot.

On the way back, I was able to appreciate and see the canyon I had hiked mostly in the dark the day before. The gigantic canyon walls and formations were mind-blowing. I was able to see the zigzagging path bordering the edge of the cliff that I feared so much. It wasn’t so scary at sunlight.

next morning

When I arrived in that parking lot, I felt so relief that it was over, so accomplished to have overcome my fears, so happy I had finally visited the falls I had been dreaming of for over a year, but mostly so grateful that I was safe.

I drove non-stop back to Phoenix, still puzzled to what happened hours prior, and when I arrived home, I started researching about sexual assaults and crime in Havasupai.

To my surprise, I ran into an article dated July 2007 from Backpacker Magazine. It was about the murder of a 34-year-old female Japanese tourist. She was stabbed 29 times. Tomomi Hanamure was an “independent, adventurous woman who enjoyed traveling alone to outdoor destinations worldwide,” described Backpacker’s journalist Annette McGivney.

As I read about Tomomi, I got chills all over my body because I completely related to her and the way she lived and traveled.

A 19-year-old tribal member committed the homicide. As horrendous as this crime was, the investigation that led to the capture of her killer also revealed the underlying climate of violence and serious problems (drugs, alcohol, and sexual assaults, gang culture) that the tribe faces. A dark side that I had never heard of before coming solo to Havasupai.

In the article, special FBI agent Doug Linter told the Backpacker’s journalist that during the investigation, he started getting “calls from women who’d been assaulted in Supai but hadn’t reported the attacks…. most cases involved young male tribal members making sexually threatening comments to women on the trail or in the campground. In two cases, a woman hiking alone had been grabbed from behind by a man who tried to pull her off the trail, but she had fought him off.”

So my scary encounter with creepy Sydney that morning was not an isolated incident.

“Women shouldn’t hike or camp alone. And all campers should be streetwise about the potential for petty theft,” read the article.

I just had done both! I was lucky though to get out of it unharmed. I wish I had read this article before or knew about the problems within the tribal community because, although it would have not stopped me from visiting Havasupai, I certainly would have NOT gone there alone.

I reported the sexual harassment incident to the Havasupai Tribal Council, with the hope that they increase security and prevent that what happened to me doesn’t happen to another woman (either tourist or tribe member).

If the next sexual harassment turns into a sexual assault, it would not only scar someone for life, but it would also impact the tribe’s reputation, putting at risk their main income: tourism.

Two weeks after the incident, I haven’t received any response from the Tribe Council. Hopefully, despite their silence, actions have been taken.

Despite the sour end of my trip, Havasupai is like no other place in the world, the most beautiful site I have ever been in the over 80 countries I have visited.

In less than 48 hours, I experienced heaven and hell in paradise.

Slideshow of ALL Havasupai photos

heaven and hell in havasupai

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