Words: Ian Belcher
Ah, the Grand Canyon: the vertiginous ochre and red walls; the mazy, magnificent Colorado River; the awe, the grandeur… and the Domino’s pizza deliveries.
No, my eyes are not deceiving me: fast food is indeed dispatched direct to one of the wonders of the world. I’m resting against my rucksack beneath two monolithic fingers of rock, when the helicopter touches down in Supai – the only village inside the ravine – and unloads two super-sized deep-pan pepperonis.
It’s the Grand Canyon, but not as you know it. Havasu is the largest side canyon inside the vast geological maze of America’s iconic landmark – and pizza deliveries aren’t its only USP. There’s the waterfall higher than Niagara, a creek with the turquoise brilliance of Maldivian lagoons and the most remote community in the ‘Lower 48’ states.
It also has the last mule train in the US Postal Service – a Hollywood dream made real with Stetson-wearing locals riding heavily laden animals down plummeting switchbacks. They’re a godsend. In an act of private-public partnership that would make George Osborne salivate, the mail mules are subcontracted to carry our tents and supplies into the dusty backcountry.
However, Havasu is not just the Grand Canyon less known; it’s the Grand Canyon less travelled. Carving through the Havasupai Indian Reservation, it attracts just 20,000 visitors each year. Around 50km to the east, the iconic South Rim viewpoints of the eponymous national park absorb closer to five million.
Its vital statistics may be less show-stopping – it’s 10 times narrower and half as deep as the main Colorado River Canyon – but Havasu still offers an elegy-inducing panorama. Standing at the 1,522m trailhead, I watch as turkey vultures catch thermals in front of massive cliffs that plunge into a barrel-shaped floor of black and cappuccino scree. Just visible is a tiny crimson thread: the inner canyon navigated by our hike.
First the descent. Or rather the time travel. The canyon is a layer cake of sedimentary sandstone and limestone with a base 185 million years older than its rim. Every step takes me 100,000 years further back in history. At 350 million BC, I turn right, hitting a metronomic stride on flatter, hard-packed sand and gravel.
The landscape may be vast, but it’s also strangely claustrophobic. The mammoth outer walls vanish and I’m swallowed alive by the inner canyon’s sandstone esplanade. It deepens rapidly: 100m, 120m, 150m, sculpted by flash floods into piles of giant stone discs.
And this is only the warm-up act. After 10.5km, turning into the main Havasu Canyon, I hear an incongruous gurgling: the first sound since entering the desert. Havasu Creek is gushing at more than five million litres an hour, lubricating an oasis of cottonwood, redbud and ash trees.
But just as nature gives, so it takes. Or nearly takes. Forty years ago, a hiker mistakenly turned right at this point. She was found three weeks later, delirious and emaciated after surviving on sips of spring water. A wooden arrow ensures no one repeats the near-fatal error and channels us further into a geological paradise.
A kilometre or two later, Havasu Canyon releases its vice-like grip, expanding into a pocket of peach and pomegranate fields. We’ve reached Supai. Home to 450 people, it’s underpinned by a classic case of fluctuating Native American fortunes. The Havasupai tribe arrived at around 1300, but six centuries later, found its territory decimated to near-zero by government prejudice. Vigorous campaigning reclaimed 75,000 ancestral hectares (185,000 acres) in the 1970s, with the creek as its main artery, the village its heart. But if you’re hoping for The Last of the Mohicans, you’ll be disappointed. Supai’s roofs have satellite dishes, its fenced gardens are strewn with toys and its two churches sit next to a basketball court and village square with posters warning about frozen pipes and flu jabs: the mundane and the everyday at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
‘You should come in the rainy season,’ says Olivia, one of the locals watching the helicopter unload its supplies. ‘Water pours from the cliffs all around. It sounds so beautiful.’ I hold that exotic image as I press on for a few more thirsty kilometres in dusk light, eventually reaching the campsite run by the tribe on ancient cremation lands – ground zero for two days of exploration.
Deep in the canyon, all adventures are tied together by the mineral-rich, blue-green ribbon of the creek. Its appearance is made all the more dazzling by carbonates that separate from the water in arid desert air, draping branches, rocks, even camera lenses, with a hauntingly beautiful veil of travertine limestone.
No fewer than five remarkably photogenic cascades lie close to the campsite, including Beaver Falls, reached by what wilderness bible Outside magazine describes as the world’s greatest day hike. After descending the cliffs next to Mooney Falls – 9m taller than Niagara – through slanting tunnels chiselled by late-19th-century miners (to reach their expedition leader, who had plunged to his death), we wade through thigh-deep water, wobble over narrow bridges and fight through dense vines of wild grape.
At least 100m above, a disused mine entrance appears as a pinprick in the massive rock wall. As a rite of passage, Havasupai teenagers somehow scale the near-vertical face to enter the chasm. Our slightly less terrifying route reveals a ladder of aquamarine pools, swaddled by mesquite, acacia and palm trees inside a golden gorge ignited by sunlight. It’s simply mesmerising.
Another day, another waterfall. Actually, two more, created seven years ago by thunderous flash floods. Each comes with a serene pool providing muscle-relaxing 20°C dips. Yet this amazing slice of wilderness is as much about people as natural drama. On my final night, Loren Manakaja walks from his home in Supai to sit next to dancing flames under a star-drenched Arizona sky.
He explains local fears about a planned uranium mine, sings mournful songs and laments the loss of traditions among the ‘couch potato’ young. ‘People leave for a few years,’ he tells me, ‘but they don’t like the fast life, the big stuff, the crowds. They prefer the isolation. They always come back to the canyon. Always.’
Steppes Travel (0843 778 9926; steppestravel.co.uk) offers the Havasu hike from £2,150pp, including three nights’ guided camping, two nights in Phoenix, a helicopter flight out, and return flights