Last week we took a five-day outing with Arizona Highways Photography Workshops to Havasupai in the Grand Canyon. The workshop was led by Suzanne Mathia and supported by Tyler, A.J. and Todd from Arizona Outback Adventures. It was a great trip with some excellent hikes, spectacular photographs, and lots of fun!
More after the break…
Our trip started early Thursday morning in Phoenix where we met, loaded gear, and started on the five and a half hour drive to Hualapai Hilltop where we then loaded our camping gear in duffles suitable for loading on pack mules. There are three ways to get down into the canyon from Hualapai Hilltop; hike, horseback, or helicopter. With 16 photographers in the group we were scheduled to use the helicopter to get in and out of Supai Village. One of our guides went with the gear and set up camp once they arrived. The rest of us waited with our camera gear for the helicopter ride. Passengers are strictly on a space available basis, with the priority going to tribe members and supply and support flights. This is an important point, because there is no guarantee that a ride will be available. Something to remember if hiking is not among your strong suites.
We spent the next several hours getting the group down to the village. While the helicopter could seat six, since we were all carrying camera gear the usual load was four or five which split us up into more groups, and those groups fit in between higher priority trips. It was a short but fun ride with great views of the canyon, but some found it a little disconcerting. Helicopters do take some getting used to. Once the entire group was down, we hiked the two miles to the campsite and settled in. There are several excellent reasons to use an outfitter but at this point the best was that they had a great dinner ready for us! While the day was planned as a travel day, after dinner we hiked back to Havasu Falls to work on our night shooting techniques. It was a long day, but it finished on a strong note.
The morning of day two we woke early to a light pre-breakfast and headed back up to Havasu Falls to get a daylight look at it. A truism with landscape photography is that you always get up ridiculously early to get the good light. Shooting at the bottom of a canyon has its differences. You don’t have the spectacular sunrise and sunsets, but with the light reflecting off the canyon walls you have beautiful even light to shoot in. This makes for a longer photographic day. After spending a couple hours at the falls we returned to camp for a full breakfast, loaded up and started downstream to Mooney Falls.
While it’s only about a mile to the falls, the trip involves a somewhat strenuous descent. As you near the top the trail starts descending through some moderately steep switchbacks, through two tunnels bored in the rock and finally out to the lower face where hand and foot holds have been chipped into the rock and chains attached to provide some security. Once these are braved there’s another twenty feet or so of wooden ladder to descend to the base of the falls.
The picture above shows the area between the tunnels and the ladders. The first tunnel leads to the “balcony” where the group of people are standing. Above the tunnels the trail is steep but tame, but below them it’s less of a trail and more of a climb. When we all got down to the base I don’t think anyone actually kissed the ground, but I’m pretty sure some were at least thinking about it. The 190 foot Mooney Falls was named after a miner who in 1882 climbed down to rescue an injured friend. After tying his friend to his back and trying to climb out, he fell to his death. The friend apparently survived both falls.
We hiked a mile or so down stream crossing to the opposite bank a couple times on the way, with frequent stops for pictures. The water was knee to thigh deep in most places, with decent footing and a mild current. It was cool, but felt wonderful on my tired calf muscles. Had we continued down the stream we would have eventually reached Beaver Falls about three miles from Mooney, but daylight would have become an issue on the way back. If you hike with photographers, don’t expect to cover a lot of ground – we tend to stop and work shots on the way…
Returning to the base of Mooney several of us took the low route right on the bank or in the stream. It made for a little trickier footing, but was nice and cool and passed under some small falls. The climb back up to the camp ground was pretty brutal. (Remember all that camera gear everyone was carrying?) It was another long day and everyones leg muscles were pretty fried by the time we got back. Our outfitters had another great meal cooked up for us and I think everyone retired fairly early. I know I did!
It was an early rise again Saturday for a hike almost back to the village to check out the new falls. In 2008 there was a major flood that changed the course of the stream causing the original Navajo Falls to go dry. The new route created the Upper Navajo and Little Navajo Falls (the names are still somewhat fluid.) The stretch between the two is filled with beautiful cascades. One could spend a week just working this area.
The terrain is open enough along this stretch that it’s easy to follow the bank all the way down to the base of the Little Navajo Falls where the path joins up with the trail.
These falls are not as spectacular as Havasu or Mooney, but have a beauty all their own. Being uphill from the camp grounds they also seem more secluded.
We spent the early part of the morning shooting this mile long stretch of water before heading back to camp for breakfast.
The day was scheduled to be light to give us a chance to recover so after breakfast we hiked to the top of Mooney Falls to get a different perspective. It was a little surprising that there was no warning of the falls. Were you to try rafting down the stream you would find a couple of small cascades then a 200 foot drop. Ouch!
After lunch we went back to the base of Havasu Falls for some wading, swimming and general relaxing. In the photograph below the near pool makes a fine wading area with the water being knee deep. In the background the pool is deep enough to swim, and jumping over the small falls to the right is a fine way to get in and used to the water. Stay away from “bone crusher falls” on the left though, it dumps onto rocks, hence the name.
The original plan for Sunday was to do another trip downstream of Mooney, but most of us were still sore from the first time so we hiked above Havasu and checked out some of the upstream sights. This was another place extensively changed by the flood and showed how fast the area was coming back. We then hiked up the canyon after crossing below the falls and got a brief but interesting lecture on the fossils to be found in the area and how and when they were formed. We finished up by exploring a mine that had been dug in the late 1800’s. They had hoped to find enough silver to make it worthwhile, but it never worked out. Old mines and equipment can still be found throughout the area.
Since we had to cross the water at the falls to get back to camp, we took the opportunity for another swimming session to cool off. The water temperature was pretty constant at around 72 degrees, but felt colder or warmer depending on the sun and the wind. Back to camp for another fine dinner, and the plan was to do some night sky shooting. Unfortunately a front was blowing in and clouds put an end to that before it even got started.
Monday morning we needed to be clear of camp by 5:30 so our guides could pack up the gear and get it loaded up on the mules. While this is awfully early by normal standards, we had been doing it the whole trip so it wasn’t a big deal. It allowed us to take our time hiking up to the village and take some more shots at the Upper and Little Navajo. The plan was to get to the village by 9:00 so we could get on the list for the ride out. The front we had noticed the previous night, however, was still blowing through with winds too high for the helicopter. We waited till noon to see if the conditions would improve while our outfitters worked on contingency plans. The first alternative was to ride out, but there weren’t enough horses available for our group. People who planned to ride out or to have the horses pack their gear out while they hiked had left earlier in the morning.
They did manage to get horses for two of our group, who while I don’t doubt would have made it up the hill OK, would have taken longer than the 5 hours the rest of the group took. AJ, Todd and Tyler then ran to the general store for trail food and extra water, as not everyone had prepared a lunch. The trail from Supai Village to Hualapai Hilltop is eight miles long and gains 1900 feet. The bad news is the last eleven hundred feet is gained in the last mile and a half. As we started our hike out our guides split up with AJ making it to the top with the first group who beat the horses out (show offs!) and got the vehicles ready for us to load. Todd stayed with the slowest group to keep an eye on them, and Tyler travelled up and down the group with water and snacks and to make sure everyone was holding up. The last of us made it out in under five hours, loaded up and started the drive back to Phoenix behind schedule, tired and happy!
Some random thoughts on the trip… You can get permits to camp directly from the Havasupai Tourism Office, but there are a limited number available. Using an outfitter simplifies the process, and I was very impressed with the Arizona Outback Adventures guides. In addition to handling the camp management and organizational tasks they were a wealth of information, lots of fun and added to an already great experience. In addition their understanding of the environment and conditions adds considerably to the safety of the trip.
We’ve made several Arizona Highways Photography Workshops trips and have never regretted it. Offering workshops ranging from beginner techniques to international photo trips with a range of internationally published photographers/instructors they provide access to some wonderful locations. I’ve found it to be a great way to scout areas that I may want to investigate further.