[Doug is a valued member of Team NordicSkiRacer. This article and the pictures original appeared on his web site, http://www.hitsession.com/. All photos are by Doug - click on them to enlarge - they're great pics!]
Are you looking for true adventure? Carol, my wife of 28 years, and I were looking for a vacation outside of our home state, Michigan. We've always been active people, I compete in bicycle and Nordic ski races. Carol enjoys cycling, walking, and day hikes. So when I suggested that we travel to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, she happily agreed.
Arizona, between Phoenix and Flagstaff
"But I don't just want to drive to the rim and look at the canyon," I explained. "I want to hike into the canyon."
Without blinking an eye, Carol replied, "You figure it out, I'll go with you."
After looking around Google for a bit, I found a website for a company called DiscoveryTreks.com, who offered a wide range of trekking adventures. Since I was a total novice at trekking, I called the company and spoke directly to one of DiscoveryTrek managers, Tom Fulcher. I explained to Tom that we wanted to multi-day excursion into the canyon, but we didn't know where to start.
Rather than hiking directly into the Grand Canyon, Tom suggested that we take a trip into the lesser-known Havasu Canyon. This trip was a fully-guided 10 mile hike into a small canyon that is on the far south-west edge of the Grand Canyon. The completion of this hike results in rejoicing in the cool waters of the Havasu Creek and Havasu Falls. Tom explained that primitive camp sites run along the creek for almost a mile. His company would provide a guide, tents, camping gear, food, and all of the permits necessary to spend two nights in the canyon. As an added bonus, DiscoveryTreks would also take us for a day hike in the Grand Canyon on one of the popular south-rim trails. Tom warned us that we were going to be in the canyon at the tail-end of the summer season. Most hikers make the trip from late-spring to early summer, because the monsoon season is during July and August. He said that it would be very hot, especially compared to Michigan, which often has hot, humid days for only a short period in the summer months.
Carol and I agreed that this sounded like the perfect vacation, so we signed up for a late-June trek.
Living in Michigan offers many opportunities for adventure, but the state has a serious lack of elevation gain. Our trails are certainly rugged, as there are large glacier rocks everywhere, but the hills only go up and down for (at most) a few hundred feet. As an avid mountain biker, I knew of a few hilly trails, so Carol and I spent each weekend hiking as much as possible. We also rode our tandem touring bicycle about 100 miles each week. I knew from experience that I'd have no problem hiking up-hill, but prolonged descents really tax my quadriceps. There wasn't much I could do about this, so we just hiked and rode our tandem as much as possible.
For a trip like this, you don't need a ton of equipment. We sprung for some nice Kelty day-packs, mostly for carrying water (they have an internal pouch to hold a CamelBak bladder). We also bought some nice bush-hats to ward off the Arizona sun. Instead of hiking shoes or boots, we opted for trail running shoes because we preferred the lightness and breathability.
DiscoveryTreks sent us a list of all of the other items we needed, and we erred on taking too much stuff (we never needed rain gear, but hey, it was on the list!).
We booked our flight into Phoenix, and reserved a rental car for the 2 hour drive to Flagstaff, our debarkation point for the trip.
DiscoveryTreks reserved us a room in the upscale Hilton Garden Inn in Flagstaff, which is their home base for all Grand Canyon treks.
We had an uneventful flight from Detroit to Phoenix. Enterprise rented us a nice Dodge Caliber, and we were excited to see the strange and beautiful landscape in the Arizona desert for the first time in our lives. The cactus, prickly pear, boulders, and large hills were a stark contrast to our green and mostly-flat Michigan.
The elevation climbs from 2000 feet in Phoenix to 7000 feet in Flagstaff. The drive was a blast, as the highway ran up and down some amazingly hilly terrain. The land south of Flagstaff transformed from high-desert to pine forest, and the majestic San Francisco mountain range loomed behind the city of Flagstaff at over 12,500 feet. The air here was a very comfortable 85 degrees, with bright sunshine. This would be the coolest air we'd feel for a few days!
After checking into the very nicely appointed Hilton Garden Inn, we received a call from our guide, Rob. He explained that we'd be traveling with two young British ladies. Oh, and he'd pick us up at 5 a.m. because we'd have a better chance of beating the mid-day heat in the canyon, which was expected to be nearly 115 degrees!
Early the next morning, Carol and I met Jo and Ailsa in the lobby of the hotel. These young British women were both 6 feet tall and very fit looking. Ailsa had been in the southwest for a couple weeks already, rafting the Colorado River and doing some serious sightseeing. Jo, who was living in Boston, had only recently joined her friend for this part of her journey.
Rob showed up promptly at 5 am. We loaded our gear into the van and embarked on the 2.5 hour drive to Havasu. The first part of the drive was spent getting to know each other. We took a break at a service station party store after 1.5 hours, and then began the last leg of the trip, which was along a scenic 2 lane highway that ended at the Havasu Canyon.
Upon reaching the canyon parking area, we unloaded our gear and left it for the native Havasupai who would travel from the Supai Village to the canyon rim on burros to retrieve our camping equipment and food. I snapped a few photos of the canyon and we began the 1500 ft. decent to the canyon floor and ten mile trek to the Havasu Falls.
Rob led the way with the Jo, Alisa, and Carol following. It's hard to explain what happened next, but all I can say is that my over-developed bicycling muscles did not react positively to a continued downhill trek. Only by stopping frequently to stretch my burning muscles was I able to make it to the level canyon floor. I joked to the girls that "I'd finally found something I suck at - walking downhill." But once on the more level ground, I was able to walk without serious difficulty.
The next six miles were a stunning array of reds, oranges, clear blue sky, and massive boulders. We walked single file down the narrow path of crushed stone and dust, swinging into the shade every chance we got. Our bush hats were very effective at keeping the heat from our heads, and a pleasant breeze helped evaporate our sweat (not a difficult task - the humidity was zero!).
We stopped several times for rest and photography breaks. I marveled at the silence - there were no man made sounds at all. All we could hear was the breeze and our own voices. I've never been to a more spiritual physical location, and as I write this 3 weeks later, I still marvel that I had the good fortune to experience Havasu.
Rob provided plenty of granola bars, but everyone enjoyed the Coffee Nips candy that I'd brought along. The Brits kept up a lively pace and we caught and passed several other hiking groups along the path. Eventually we came upon a wooded area and the path changed from small stones to sand. Rob led us to a spring that was the beginning of the Havasu Creek. We all sat down, took our shoes off, and ate our lunch of ham/turkey and cheese sandwiches that Rob had brought for us. We all craved salt, and Pringles chips were very satisfying. After soaking our shirts and hats in the cool creek, we began the last part of our journey.
One thing that eluded our preparation was how difficult it would be to hike in hot sand. For some reason, Carol and I had on shoes that were much more susceptible to sand that those of the others. We had to stop frequently to shake the sand from our shoes, socks, and sweaty toes. I had blisters forming from the friction, and was not at all pleased with myself. At this point all I could do was soldier on.
Finally, we reached the outskirts of the Supai Village. These people live a simple life, but have electricity and the conveniences it offers. The natives make their living farming or supporting the tourists. While Rob checked us in at the campground office, the rest of us found the general store and purchased cold soft drinks. That icy cold Coke tasted like heaven in the 115 degree afternoon heat.
We hit the trail again for the last two mile part of our trek. Rob had a surprise for us about one mile from Havasu Falls. He led us into a craggy area, down a narrow path, and we emerged into a pool of water fed by the Navajo Falls. These small falls were very beautiful, and the cold water was especially welcome. After a brief swim, we put our shoes back on and headed back on to the trail.
"How much farther Rob?" I asked.
"Not more than a mile," was his reply.
One thing we learned is that there are miles, and there are canyon miles. I imagined a mile of walking at home, that would take about 10 minutes. I told myself, you can hike 10 more minutes. But we were hot, tired, and had sore feet. That last mile seemed to take forever.
Suddenly, when we thought we could continue no farther, we emerged from a bluff and got our first glimpse of the Havasu Falls.
The blue-green water was something to behold. Calcium carbonate coats any fallen logs that lie in the water, making convenient walking surfaces and small dams. The creek runs along the entire length of the campground, and we each had fun swimming in various areas.
Our campsite was right on the edge of the creek. DiscoveryTreks provided deluxe tents, therm-a-rest pads, and sleeping bags. We all went for a swim, then rested a bit in the ample shade of the cottonwood trees. Rob made us a wonderful dinner of chicken fajitas, and we all ate our fill. After dinner, we swapped adventure tales, then went for a walk to the end of the campground to see the Mooney Falls.
These falls drop several hundred feet to the bottom of another canyon. Named after a miner who fell to his death trying to descend the falls, the Mooney Falls and the swimming areas surrounding the falls provide fun for the campers. There is a very dangerous climb from the canyon rim to the bottom of the falls, involving chains, spikes, narrow steps, and a ton of courage. This path was blasted into the canyon by the miners who decided that they were smarter than Mr. Mooney.
The temperature dropped to around 80 degrees during the night. Sleeping next to the creek was like sleeping next to a noisy air conditioner, but we were all so tired, no one complained.
After a leisurely breakfast of bacon, eggs, bagels, and fruit, Rob led us down the Mooney Falls climb. We all made it down the treacherous wall safely, and were soon scrambling over rocks and under overgrowth. We eventually reached another popular swimming hole, and Rob, Ailsa, and I took turns on the rope swing.
Rob led the Brits on an extended day-hike, while Carol and I spent our time photographing the canyon. The climb back up to the top of Mooney Falls was much easier than the descent, and once back at the campsite, we relaxed with reading and napping for the afternoon.
Rob and the Brits came back excited but tired - the hike had been very challenging, but they saw a mountain ram (which I was very upset to have missed!).
Our chef, Rob, made us an excellent pasta dinner, and we all turned in early as we were going to depart at 5 am the next morning.
Carol and I enjoyed the hike out of the canyon as much as the trip in. We knew better what to expect in terms of endurance, and it was much cooler due to the early hour and plentiful shade. The entire group made excellent time, and we had no trouble at all climbing back up to the parking lot (1500 feet, 1.5 miles). Our gear arrived after a short wait, and we all piled in Rob's van.
"You guys smell funky," Rob said with a laugh.
"Well Rob," I replied, "There's body odor, and there's canyon body odor."
Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon
Rob picked Carol and I up at 7 am the next morning at the hotel for the 1 hour trip to the Grand Canyon. We were meeting a family who would hike into the canyon with us for a down-and-back trip.
After picking up Larry, Sue, and their two daughters (aged 11 and 14), Rob drove us into the Grand Canyon National Park. Traffic was light, as it was Wednesday. We pulled into the Kaibab trail parking lot. Rob assured us that Kaibab was more scenic than the more heavily-traveled Bright Angel trail. Rob handed us trekking poles, a requirement for this part of the canyon. As we reached the canyon rim, we all just stood there in awe of the majesty of the place. Carol and I had thought that the Havasu Canyon was large, but you could put 100 Havasu Canyons in the Grand Canyon and still have room for 100 more. The scale of the place was absolutely mind boggling.
We began our descent down Kaibab, first traveling down several shaded switch-backs before encountering longer slopes. The trail was built with some very severe steps, and we used our trekking poles to support our bodies as we stepped down 1 foot or more, carefully avoiding rocks. We eventually found our rhythm, and we all really began to enjoy ourselves. After a mile of hiking we encountered a building with porta-jons, and we took a short break. We descended another mile, then found a shade tree where we could eat our lunch.
Rob surprised everyone by pulling enough food out of his pack to make us all chicken and vegetable wraps. We all had slushy Gatorade to drink, and once again the salty Pringles were a hit. Larry really wanted to hike down another mile to Skeleton Point, so we hit the trail and climbed down the most difficult part of the trail so far. The steps were very oddly spaced, but eventually we emerged onto a plateau that gave us a clear view of the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch. After gawking at the scenery for a while (time had no meaning here), we turned around for the climb back up the trail. As a cross-country skier, I was able to use the trekking poles very effectively. Once again, it seemed to me that going up-hill was easier than downhill. The only limitation for most people would be their cardio fitness. We all made it to back out of the canyon without difficulty. The entire trip took us six hours. It was HOT, but we all had plenty of water and an expert guide to lead us safely.
Rob got us all back to our hotels, and it took three showers to completely remove the red dust from my feet. The next day Carol and I toured around Sedona, then Walnut Canyon and its cliff dwellings, and finally we climbed part of Mt. Humphries.
The Grand Canyon
If you are even remotely interested in trying a trek like this, quit thinking about it and just do it! Carol and I will have trouble matching this trip's splendor on our future vacations. We hope to see the Zion and Bryce Canyons, and also hike part of Yosemite, but we will always remember Havasu and The Kaibab trail as our first true adventure.
Red Rocks of Sedona
Cathedral Rock, Sedona
Mt. Humphries, Flagstaff