Red Rock Trail to Supai
1975, and later.
“On, of the most beautiful waterfalls in all America.” That was Francis’ excited assessment of Havasu Falls, hidden from the world a couple of miles below the Havasupai Indian village in the remote lower reaches of Grand Canyon. He was speaking not alone of the cascading waters — tumbling down like streams of spilled turquoise beads — but of the rock-enclosed turquoise pools which those waters formed below, and of the stalactite-stalagmite travertine rocks over which those waters glided. Considering the superlative waterfalls which America has to display, at Niagara, in Yosemite and Yellowstone, along the Columbia River Highway, in Hawaii, and elsewhere, we felt that Francis’ statement might be unduly colored by the excitement of the moment. Then we ran across a statement in Felton 0. Gamble’s book, EXPLORE GRAND CANYON: “Havasu Falls is one of the most beautiful sights of the entire world.”‘
Perhaps Francis, and also Felton Gamble, were both overstating the case for Havasu Falls. One fact is certain; this rock-rimmed turquoise gem is unique; no other waterfall has its special character.
Havasu and its sister waterfalls below the Indian settlement have drawn us four different times down to this Shangri-la of lower Grand Canyon. It is one of the Canyon’s treasures which we did not discover until 1975, although we had first made plans to visit Supai 30 years before, to produce a color motion picture of the Indian life there, and its idyllic surroundings. H. C. Bryant, superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park, was co-operating with us on our project. He issued a park permit for filming professionally at Supai, indicating that we should contact the Agent there. But, he wrote us, “The Indians are amenable to photographer’s wishes and gratuities are usually in the form of hard candy.”
The Agent saw it otherwise. Erroneously gaining the impression that we were a large Hollywood company, he set a fee — to be paid to the Indians — which was beyond our means at that time. We gave up our filming plans. When finally we did visit Supai, accompanied by our two young granddaughters, and without the strain of carrying heavy camera equipment, or the tension of film production — when we did make our trip to Supai, we had no cares in the world except to absorb its beauty and its wonders, and become close friends — non-professionally — with the Indians.
Our 1975 autumn hike to the Indian village and the waterfalls began at Hualapi Hilltop, 68 miles — over mainly rugged dirt roads — from Peach Springs, Arizona. Desiring to start the downward trek at sunrise, we drove to Hilltop mainly by dark. Tortuous rocks and ruts made driving hard but we were rewarded — if that is the proper term — with a display of animal nightlife such as we had seldom seen before. Probably half a thousand jackrabbits, during the 68 mile drive, criss-crossed the road in front of our car. Perhaps a hundred of them, at one time or another, raced in front of us, attempting to escape our headlights. Their speed was electric. Streaking, long-eared bundles of fur seemed to fill our world.
When the grassy terrain merged into areas of junipers, then ponderosa pines, the rabbit rampage subsided. Then we merged into grasslands again, and more rabbits. They deserted us toward dawn; we dropped down into a circuitous gorge, and a slight climb brought us to Hualapi Hilltop, where 30 or more cars were parked. Munching a stand-up picnic breakfast, we looked down at as much of the trail as was visible. It was steep. A cruel, cold wind whipped across the Hilltop, swirling dirt and dust onto our food. We bundled up in extra sweaters, wondered a bit if the airy onslaught might blow us off the trail, and started down. At once, a sheer perpendicular white cliff began shielding us from the wind. The descent was steep; soon all gustiness of the air was gone. We entered a world of quiet; quietness of air movement, quietness of sounds. Extraneous noises were gone. The 30 parked cars were no longer visible. We four were the only signs of civilized life in this canyon world we were entering.
There were sounds, occasionally; our hiking boots clicking against native rocks, for this trail was almost a cobblestone affair — huge boulders, almost like flattened washtubs, embedded in it. But they afforded good boot holds on the steep descent.
Then — other sounds. A faint staccato of hooves behind us. The tattoo grew louder; looking back, we saw seven Indian ponies trotting toward us. They were unattended by any humans. Frightened at our presence, they veered from the trail, plunged down a ravine, made it up the far side, then fanned out onto a desert ridge of low growth, and disappeared. Where they had come from, where they went, we did not know. Our first mystery of this mysterious land.
Switchbacks in the trail zigzagged below us, so steep in places that care was required in going down. But up those switchbacks came a figure, running. Soon we could see that it was an Indian — a handsome young man negotiating the steep ascent with almost the speed of one of the jackrabbits we had chased. Our expressions of amazement brought a smile to his face, and our questioning greeting brought a response, as he hesitated briefly: “I go to Hilltop. Catch a ride into Peach Springs.” Then he was gone — like a jackrabbit.
Our steep downward descent continued for a mile-and-ahalf. Supai village is eight miles from Hilltop, with the last of the waterfalls three miles farther, and we wondered what the climb out might be, if it continued as steep as this. Then everything changed — abruptly.
A battered sign, “Supai,” with an arrow pointing to the right, indicated that we should make a sharp right angle turn, to the north. A lone girl hiker, we later learned, had missed that sign and had wandered off in the other direction. She was found, weeks later, still alive.
Following the trail in its new course, we entered a red rock-rimmed canyon. The descent became gradual. The texture and nature of the material over which we were walking was revealed by another sign: “Warning: Trail Subject to Flash Floods.” We were traversing, between these narrow red walls, what became, at times, a virtual riverbed. Where the canyon was wide enough, we had our choice of walking through loose sand, or over gravel, or even of picking our way around and over boulders, all products of flash flooding.
We stumbled often, over those boulders, for our eyes — far too frequently — were not on where our next step would be (as should have been the case) but on the majesties that were beginning to unfold, all about us. The rock canyon writhed like a serpent, so that we could seldom see more than a few hundred feet ahead. The views, rather, were up. Those red rock walls broke into fantastic shapes.
For our youngest granddaughter — eleven-year-old Krista — this was like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.
“Look, that big rock is a red frog; he’s going to leap down on us.”
“See those three rocks, as tall as chimneys. They look like ogres.”
“That rock looks like a puppy.”
Back beyond the red cliffs now began rising towering escarpments that were white. The sky — the narrow slit which we could see far above — was deep blue. Nature was displaying the national colors. As the canyon wound and undulated in its descent, it was as though those national colors were gently waving in the breeze.
Now the views were not alone up, but often to either side. To our right was a great burnt-red rock overhang. It would have made an excellent shelter from a thunderstorm, but no protection at all from the flash flood which such a thunderstorm might bring.
Soon, on our left, was a rock overhang which could shelter a regiment and which made us seem like dwarfs as we explored it.
It was as though we were within the broken half of a huge red urn.
Sounds, both ahead and behind us. From our shelter of rock, as though we had a grandstand seat, we watched two pack trains pass — one coming down with mail and supplies, the other a single Indian woman, with two extra horses, followed by two dogs. Later, an Indian man, coming down with a string of horses (but not the seven ponies we had seen) called out to us encouragingly, “You almost there, just four more miles.”
One of his animals had been injured on a rock. For a mile or so we followed a trail of scattered blood drops.
The canyon narrowed to a slit corkscrewing its way so crazily that in places we could see only 50 feet ahead. At these narrow spots, the pungent odor of manure on the trail hung heavy in the air. At one narrow place a giant boulder had fallen; only a nine-foot passageway remained open. And at another, wider spot, so many room-sized rocks had tumbled from the cliffs above that the canyon was completely blocked. Passageway had been made by cutting a trail into the side of the canyon wall itself, above the height of the fallen boulders. Soon we came to an overhang of rocks which could almost have sheltered a small army.
With the imaginative aid of our granddaughters, we determined how this grotesque canyon might have been formed. Some legendary Pauline Bunyan, up on the Hualapi Hilltop, must have been brewing an enormous cauldron of chocolate fudge, when the pan ran over. The molten contents, spewing for six miles down the wash, all hardened into these giant red walls of every size and shape. These boulders must have been the nuts in the fudge.
Several groups of hikers passed us, coming up — the owners of those cars parked at Hilltop.
Suddenly there was water in the wash where we walked. Our descent became precipitous, dropping in giant steps, beside which were much larger giant rock and boulder steps over which the water coursed downward. In a flash flood, this would be a roaring waterfall. Cables were strung to aid passage up or down. This was the “ladder.” Some animal — a squirrel perhaps? —far above, loosened a small rock and it crashed 30 feet ahead of us.
Our canyon widened. Its narrowness had closed us in so completely that here, for the first time, we saw the sun. A branch canyon came in from the right. Through cottonwoods ahead we saw and heard a stream — an undulating, bubbling ribbon of turquoise. This was Havasu Creek. We had reached the magic waters of Havasupai.