Posted by | 05.01.2014
Waterfalls near Havasupai campground
by Alan Vanderhoff, Assistant Scout Master, Boy Scout Troop 362, El Cajon, CA


The Havasupai Indian reservation is in a breathtaking valley of the Grand Canyon. They operate a beautiful (although somewhat crowded) campground surrounded by spectacular waterfalls. The Havasupai reservation is not anywhere near the main visitor center. It is a few hours’ drive west of the visitor center (so do not expect to see the classic Grand Canyon sites on this trip). Getting to Havasu Canyon requires a very sturdy 10-mile hike. The hike takes from 6 to 8 hours each way. The hiking trail is very well maintained.


Note: This destination is written to provide Boy Scout troops with tips on planning a Spring Break trip to Havasupai, but can be altered for any size group. The trip can also be done without horses, using lightweight backpacking techniques.



The Havasupai Tribe can accommodate a group of almost any size. However, you need to reserve your permits well in advance. Spring break is a popular time for Havasupai. The Havasupai do not take reservations prior to January 1st. You should reserve your permits in early January to ensure that you will have the permits for April.


The phone number for making reservations is (928)448-2121. It is very difficult to get through to that number. The phone system is primitive there. It took me at least 30 to 40 tries to get through. When I finally did get through the person who answered the phone spoke only Havasupai. I called back on another day and got someone who spoke English and it went fine. You can also e-mail them at touristoffice@havasupaitribe.com.


The camping fees include (1) a per person entry fee, (2) a per person per night camping fee, and (3) tax. They require a 50% deposit at the time that the reservation is made. When you plan the trip, try to avoid being in Havasupai on the weekend. We hiked in on a Tuesday morning and hiked out on a Saturday morning. While we were hiking out we passed hundreds of college students hiking into Havasupai for the weekend.



The horses are reserved one week before the trip (they guaranty that horses will be available). The horses can carry up to 130 pounds. They prefer that the gear is in four duffle bags per horse. Each duffle bag should not weigh more than 32 pounds. You will have to impress upon the scouts and leaders that there are strict weight limitations. You should weigh all bags before you leave. The Havasupai weigh all of the bags before they put them on the horses. I budgeted one horse for four people and two additional horses for troop gear and some of the food from three individual cooking groups. We had 12 horses for 40 people. We came within 20 pounds of our 1,560 pound limit.


Some people asked if they could carry backpacks in addition to their duffle bags. I had a strict policy prohibiting the scouts from carrying full-sized backpacks. A thirty-two pound duffle is ample room for a scout’s gear. With the horses carrying the gear, the hike in and out of the canyon was delightful. However, the same hike under the load of a full backpack would have been miserable. Moreover, the scouts already have to carry daypacks with two liters of water, their lunch, a jacket and rain gear. Adding more to that would be unwise.

*There is some controversery surrounding the health and wellbeing of the Havasupai horses. We urge you to research the issue and decide for yourself on the usage of these animals. 

Read More: Veterinarians Treat 70 Horses During Trip To Supai Village;  Havasupaihorses.org



This trip requires a National Tour Permit (for scouts).


This trip requires a Class 3 medical form (for scouts). The medical form that is used for summer camp is a Class 2 and is not sufficient.


The hardest part of the Havasupai hike is hiking back out. It is uphill the whole way. Most of it is pretty easy, but the last mile is a killer. We had a few adult leaders (including some of the regulars) whose knees were giving out by

the time we reached the top. I required all participants (scouts and especially the adults) to take a qualifying hike that was at least as hard as the Havasupai hike. It is more likely that an adult will have problems on a hike like this. Be sure that you require the adults to do the qualifying hike.


A similar hike in difficulty to Havasupai is the long loop of the Iron Mountain hike near Poway. This is the trail that is about 9.5 miles, loops around some of the hills and comes at the peak from the back (not to be confused with the shorter trail that goes straight to the top). If someone can do the long Iron Mountain hike, they should do fine on Havasupai.


I describe this trip as a backpacking trip without the backpacks. Scouts and adults should bring the same gear, food and clothes that they would bring on a regular backpacking trip. The temperature at the trailhead can be quite cold. When we went in April, the daytime temperature in Havasu Canyon was in the 70's. The temperature drops at night and campfires are not permitted. People should bring warm clothes. We had great weather, but rain is always a possibility. Everyone should have rain gear. Bathing suits and towels are a must.


According to the Havasupai website, the average high temperature in March is 67 degrees and the average low is 37 degrees. By contrast, the average highs and lows for April are 75 and 43, respectively. The difference in temperature might be a significant factor because swimming is the primary activity there. When you are swimming, there is a big difference between 75 degrees and 67 degrees.



You should plan on 8 to 9 hours of driving time. It is too long of a trip to travel in a convoy the whole way. We set up a series of rendezvous points until we got to Peach Springs. I had the cars travel in pairs between the rendezvous points. Then we traveled as a group from Peach Springs to the trailhead. I also had the cars carry two-way radios so that we could communicate between the cars when we were close to each other.


Directions from San Diego: Interstate 8 west to Interstate 15 north, Interstate 15 north to Barstow, Interstate 40 east to Kingman, State Highway 66 through Peach Springs, Indian Highway 18 to the trailhead. The trailhead is at the end of Indian Highway 18 and is 68 miles north of State Highway 66.


Our first rendezvous point was at an In ‘N Out Burger in Barstow. (The address of the In ‘N Out is 2821 Lenwood Road, Barstow. Exit 15 at Lenwood Road and head east. In-n-Out is on left side).


Barstow is the last good town for stopping for lunch. There is nothing between Barstow and Kingman. Originally I had planned on leaving San Diego at 7:00 a.m. until I realized that, if we did, we would be eating lunch in Barstow at 10:00 a.m. We pushed our departure time up to 8:00 a.m.


Our second rendezvous point was at a Burger King in Kingman. (The address of the Burger King is 3250 E. Andy Devine Ave, Kingman) As it turned out, it was a little too soon for dinner. However, Kingman is the last real town before Havasupai. If I were to do it over again, I would get take-out food (sandwiches, Arby’s, etc.) in Kingman and eat it when we get to the trailhead. There are a lot of restaurant choices near the Burger King in Kingman.


Our third rendezvous point was at the gas station in Peach Springs. It is a good idea to fill the gas tanks in either Kingman or Peach Springs. The round trip from Peach Springs to the trailhead is at least 150 miles. There are no services of any kind past Peach Springs. From Peach Springs we drove in a group to the trail head.


I gave each driver an information sheet that had (1) the route that we were taking, (2) the rendezvous points, (3) the cell phone numbers of all drivers, (4) the phone numbers for the emergency contact person at home, and (5) the address of a KOA that we had planned on staying at on the way back.




The trailhead is at the Hualapai Hilltop. The Hualapai Hilltop is a large dirt parking lot perched on the edge of the cliffs. Sleeping the night before the hike down is the weakest link in this trip. I am not aware of any real campground closer than Kingman. Kingman is a 2 to 3 hour drive from the Hualapai Hilltop. As a result, we slept at the Hualapai Hilltop the night before the hike.


Other than some pretty gross pit toilettes, there are no camping facilities at the Hualapai Hilltop. People either sleep in their cars or on the ground next to their cars. We parked several cars parallel to the side of the parking lot with about 10 foot space between the side and the cars and the scouts slept on tarps under the stars. I had each driver provide a cold breakfast for the people in his car. It is not practical to cook or pitch tents at the Hualapai Hilltop. If we did not have good weather, the Hualapai Hilltop could have been a real problem. There is a guardrail around the parking lot. It is very important not to allow any scouts to walk or sleep on the other side of the rail. The ground drops away very suddenly. The drop is about 1,000 feet straight down in some places (I am not exaggerating).


The pack animals leave the Hualapai Hilltop at 10:00 a.m. The Havasupai Indians arrive to check people in at about 8:30 a.m. We started hiking at 9:00 a.m. The slowest hikers arrived at the campground at about 4:30 p.m.



The View from the Hualapai Hilltop
The View from the Hualapai Hilltop




The trail immediately descends about 1,200 feet in elevation and proceeds through the valley that is seen in the above photo. There is no water for most of the hike. I had the scouts carry 2 liters of water each. I had each of the adults carry an extra liter of water in addition to their own water. The extra water was marked as troop water and was to be kept for emergencies. Due to the steep canyon walls, radios are not very effective in the canyon. I had the designated lead scout stop at predetermined times to wait for the rest of the group. I typically would have them hike for 40 minutes and then stop to wait for the rest of the group.

The pack animals live in the Indian village in the canyon. They come up in the morning to get the gear. The hikers have to watch for the animals and get out of their way. It gets pretty wild when these horses and mules come up. They are not tethered. They come up in groups of 15 to 20 animals with the mule skinner riding a horse in the back. The horses literally race each other up the canyon, constantly jockeying for position. When you see them coming, get as far to the side as possible.


Mule and horse train coming through!
Watch out for those mules and horses!



The village is about 8 miles down the trial. You have to stop at the tourist office to get your permits. There is a general store in the village if you want to stop for cold soda or a snack.

The campground is about 2 miles past the village. The trail goes very close to the top of Havasu Falls. Make sure that no one tries to look over the top of the falls. I was told that someone fell from that spot the day we arrived. They helicoptered the person out, but they did not expect him to live.



Hiking down the Canyon
Hiking down the canyon















Havasu Canyon is dangerous. As a result, it is very important to have safeguards in place to prevent tragedies. I had a rule that the scouts could leave the campground only in organized groups and only with adult leaders. There are a lot of dangerous cliffs around. The most dangerous is the hike down to Mooney Falls. The scouts will think that the hike down to Mooney Falls is a lot of fun and will not appreciate how dangerous it is. You need to watch each boy very carefully as he descends the trail. I positioned myself at one particularly dangerous spot and helped each scout as he came down. Anyone who is afraid of heights should think twice before climbing down to Mooney Falls. Notwithstanding the white-knuckle climb down, Mooney Falls should not be missed. There is a rope swing down there to die for (not literally).



Boys playing on Mooney Falls Rope Swing
The Mooney Falls rope swing











Water is the other hazard. The water near the bottom of Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls is very turbulent and has very strong currents. One of our young adult leaders had to save a boy from drowning at Havasu Falls (the boy was from another youth group).



As the leader, I made a point to carry a larger day pack than usual and always carried emergency items including a large first aid kit, a radio, and a warm fleece jacket. The fleece jacket came in handy when one of our adult leaders started to develop hypothermia at Mooney Falls. Since I had the jacket, I was able to nip the situation in the bud before it developed into a problem. Note: these thundering waterfalls, which drop 200 feet, tend to make it somewhat cold, misty, and windy at the bottom; even on a warm day.



the climb down to Mooney falls
The white-knuckle climb down to Mooney Falls











The campground is a long narrow canyon along the river. There are picnic tables dotted here and there. You can camp anywhere you want. Tip: Each morning a number of campers will leave; opening up some of the choicer camp sites. The morning after you arrive, you can move your tent into a better spot after those people leave.



The Havasupai have a good water system in the campground. You can choose between an untreated spring coming out the side of a mountain (which we drank all week without a problem) or chlorinated water from a tank.



Keeping a large group safe in Havasu Canyon is very difficult. Therefore, I divided our 25 scouts into three patrols for the time that we were in the canyon. Some were existing troop patrols, others were a combination of boys from different troop patrols. I assigned an adult leader to each patrol. That leader was responsible for the boys in his patrol. That way, each leader only had to keep track of eight boys. When we did our outings, the different patrols did not necessarily go together. Each patrol did its own thing.



There are several great outings to do in the canyon. These include Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Navajo Falls. All of these are within a short hike of the campground and can be all-day outings (as long as it is warm enough to swim). It is possible to hike to the Colorado River, but I would not recommend it for the entire group. It is 16 miles round trip and is a very challenging hike. Three adults and one older scout hiked it when we were there. They left early in the morning and did not get back until dark. There are some interesting mines that the boys can explore right next to the campground. They are deep enough to be fun, but not so deep as to be dangerous. They are big enough to stand up in, have flat floors, and don’t go in more than 30 to 40 yards.



On the way to Navajo Falls
On the way to Navajo Falls.












We hiked out on Saturday morning. The pack animals leave at 7:00a.m. This means that all scouts and adults have to be completely packed up and have their gear carried to the pick-up spot before 7:00 a.m. I had the scouts break camp and pack all of their gear (except sleeping bags) the night before. The whether was good, all the boys slept under the stars. We got up at the crack of dawn and brought the gear to the pick-up spot.



The place where the pack animals pick up the gear is several hundred yards from where we camped. The easiest way to get the gear moved is to have the scouts work in pairs each pair taking one duffle (one boy on each handle). The boys then shuttle back and forth until all the bags are at the pick-up spot. Explain to the scouts ahead of time that they are not just carrying their own gear, but rather taking whatever bag is next in the pile until all of the gear has been moved.



We made only a brief stop at the Indian village. However, if you want to plan for additional time, there is a little café in the village that serves up pancakes and other items. You could stop for a hot breakfast if you wanted to. The hike out is tiring one. The last mile is the hardest.




I had arranged to spend Saturday night at a KOA in Kingman. They have a group site that they charge $5 per person. They have hot showers. The address of the KOA is 3820 North Roosevelt, Kingman, AZ 86401. Reservations: 800-562-3991. Information: 928-757-4397.



As it turned out, we got back to the Hualapai Hilltop earlier than we expected (about 2:00 p.m.). There was a strong consensus among the adults to drive back to San Diego on Saturday without stopping in Kingman. As a result, we did not stay at the KOA. We were pushing the time limits for getting back to San Diego on Saturday. If we had arrived at the Hualapai Hilltop after 2:00 p.m., it would not have been possible to make it back to San Diego that day. In addition, I was personally very tired driving after getting up so early and hiking 10 miles. I would recommend spending Saturday night in Kingman.



Finally, I asked all drivers to leave a message on my home answering machine as they got home (regardless of how late) confirming that they had arrived safely. That way, I was able to confirm that everyone was accounted for when I got back.


A Return to the Colorado River: What It's Like to Raft the Grand Canyon



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