Written by Jesse Watkins
Photos by Dan Fish
As I flew into Las Vegas, I could really start to feel the butterflies building up. I always love traveling with Travel and Explore. I have known the founders since college, long before T&E was created. Some of my most memorable travels have been with this crew and they never disappoint with the amount of thrill, adventure, and awe that seems to arise from the trips that are planned. Upon being picked up at the airport we began our 3-4 hour drive to the Havasupai Indian reservation in Arizona. It was a great time to catch up and talk about what we had heard, seen on YouTube, or read about with Havasupai.
We arrived at the Hualapai Hilltop around 4am and when I stepped out of the van and gazed up and saw the vastness of the stars shining so bright bringing me to a state of awe. If possible, I highly recommend getting there the night before and sleeping in your car or popping up a tent so you can get an early start on your 10 mile hike to the campground. As this was my first trip to the Grand Canyon I truly was not prepared for the view that awaited us upon sunrise. Seeing the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon was absolutely breathtaking.
Once we gathered our California crew who had already spent the night there, all 15 of us began our hike down. You have the opportunity to rent a mule to help get your get down, so if your taking a big group and have a lot of gear, it may be a good idea. With our camera man Dan Fish along side us, we were able to fly his drone high in the canyons and get a view unlike no other.
After about a 4 hour hike we arrived at the Havasupai Lodge. It was another 2 mile hike into the actual campground. The first visible waterfall “Fifty Foot Falls” is your first true taste of the falls as you descend into the campground. You can stay high and view it from afar, or you can take the left-heading trails toward the creek and swim in the fantastic turquoise pool of water below the falls. We camped near the beginning of the available camping and even though it was a longer hike each day to the falls, it was accommodating that we were near a fresh spring for water and the bathrooms.
The first afternoon we visited Havasu Falls: given its namesake of the area, you cannot miss Havasu Falls as the trail turns a corner and descends next to it. We then trekked through the campground further to get a taste of Mooney Falls. Mooney Falls was the tallest of the 5 waterfalls, and is below the campground. As you approach the falls the sound and power of the waterfall will make your stomach churn and your head spin. The views from the top are so awe-inspiring. If you want to reach the bottom of Mooney, you’ll have to descend the chains, ladders, and bolts down a 200 feet tall travertine cliff. It is potentially dangerous as it is technically easy and possible to descend, pay very careful attention to yourself and your team as you descend because one slip and fall could be fatal.
Once we were all back in camp that evening, we all enjoyed our MRE meals and took the opportunity to get our tents and hammocks set up and spend the evening telling stories and sharing in the energy of the Havasu Indian reservation.
The next morning after we all had breakfast and a quick swim in the creek to clean up, the crew began our adventure for the day. It was a challenging and nerve wracking experience to get down to the bottom of Mooney, but with our teamwork and encouragement everyone made it down safely. I keep coming back to this memory every time I close my eyes and think of Mooney, but the falls were so powerful it was nearly impossible to swim out close to them but I can still feel the water on my skin and the air coming from the flow of the water and it truly brought me a feeling of calmness and closeness with nature.
After hanging around Mooney Falls for a few hours, we all continued down to Beaver Falls, which is the most remote of the Havasupai waterfalls. It’s about 3.5 miles down from camp and about 3 miles past Mooney Falls. The hike was amazing and rugged and well worth the adventure. There isn’t an exact trail and can be tricky if you don’t know your way but surely there will be enough people heading that way so if you’re journeying on your own or in a small group someone can help get you there.
I had watched several videos on YouTube of people jumping the falls and especially the videos from Beaver Falls. I have to tell you that maybe 60 ft. up doesn’t sound like a lot but when you’re at the top looking down, it can be very intimidating and scary. Thankfully Ryan Heller was with our group and after a careful inspection of the pool below where we would be landing, Ryan took the first leap and pioneered the way for us all to jump. I’ve done some pretty scary and amazing things in my life but when I look back this is still one of the feelings ill never be able to forget. I cant even begin to explain the anxiety I felt right before I jump and then the calmness once I stepped off and then the exhilarating rush of intensity that swept over me as I landed in the pool and then surfaced to a cheering and screaming group of friends high above. We all spent a good amount of time jumping the falls some of us from higher levels but overall sharing in the thrilling experience.
Probably the most memorable and amazing part of the trip was what lies ahead: another 5 mile unmarked and difficult hike to the Colorado River. So as I hiked down on the first day somehow unexpectedly I had bummed out my left knee creating a lot of pain and uncertainty as to whether I should even make the journey. Well as the saying goes, “You Only Live Once” I decided that with brothers Brian and Ben Heller leading the way and after many trips with them in my life, I know that I would be safe and could make it through this excursion. Now I have to tell you that you must plan this hike accordingly with the time because there is no marking and really no trail to get to the Colorado river and the last thing you want to have happen is be stranded almost 10 miles away from camp in the dark with no food or water so make sure you prepare. The 6 of us that set out used our intuition and faint markings along the way. We only passed two sets of people who had made the trek that day and were already on their way back and we still had a long ways to go.
When we finally reached the Colorado River and stood high in the Canyons gazing down at the River, I can comfortably say that I’ve never in my life seen such a site. Somehow with fate, a group of 4 rafts were coming down the river and it felt as though we were in a scene from a movie. With my knee being bad, after about 20 minutes of savoring a little bit more of the view, I began to make my way back while the other traversed down to meet the rafts stopping at the mouth of the Havasu Indian Reservation waters and the Colorado River.
Come to find out, they were on a 20-day rafting trip on the Colorado and we had been the first people they had seen in days. I’m sure for them it was a great experience and I know for us it was the same. We all began to hike back to camp with a good pace knowing that we were in a race against time for daylight.
As the day began to fade and turn into night, we still found ourselves a good ways away from camp and having to navigate back was quite difficult but at the same time so primitively alluring. We finally made it back through Beaver Falls and onto Mooney where we stopped at the bottom taking a look up at the obstacle course we would have to traverse and ascend back up. It was well into night at this point and as we climbed the canyon I really got to fulfill my childhood wish of being in the movie “The Goonies” Once we finally made it to the top, the state park rangers were there waiting to greet us and explain they were worried. I’m very thankful and grateful to Brian, Ben, Dan, Ryan, and Tanner for giving me the strength and courage to make that journey that day. It is one that I will never forget and cherish for the rest of my life. Once back into camp, I was lulled into a sleepy bliss with food, music, and amazing company each sharing our perception of the day’s adventures. I never thought sleeping in a hammock could be so good
The next day as we packed up camp and started to head out we knew that the 10 mile journey and hike out of the canyon would be tough and that I’d much rather be laying by Havasu Falls soaking up some sun listening to the serine sounds of the water and nature. It was challenging and tough with my bum knee and as I watched so many take flight out of the campground on helicopters and the mules rapidly ascending the canyon, I knew that the only choice for me was to suck it up and continue the journey hiking which I had started. Huge thanks to Dan Fish to sticking by my side and helping me with the hike, though I think he needed my support just as much as I needed his. The last 2 miles out was the most difficult and excruciating but as we reached the last half mile Dan and I were so relieved to see Ben and Brian Heller come down to help us carry our packs out the final haul.
Travel and Explore is never selfish or wreckless with the trips and there’s always such a huge sense of community that even though half of the people that came on the trip were from California and I had never met before, at the end I felt as though we were all family. That is how founders Brian and Ben have always portrayed themselves and given so much of themselves to others so that they could experience joy, happiness, and freedom with travel in life. As I took one last glance out onto the Grand Canyon, I blinked my eyes a few times and couldn’t believe what I was seeing or feeling. How in 3 days had I and the others hiked over 40 miles and seen some of the most amazing waterfalls and scenery I’ve ever seen in the world much less the United States? Truly a paradise and heaven on earth. As we were leaving, I bought a Gatorade from a Havasu native who had a cooler full of drinks for sale, I’ll never forget her friendly demeanor thanking me so much for having come and wishing me the best on my journey in life with the hopes that I would soon return to Havasupai Falls, Arizona one day again.