Discovering Havasu Falls…

A few naked pictures of my mom inspired my hike to Havasu Falls. Back in my pre-teen days I was idly flipping through some old photo albums, giggling at my dad’s afro when I discovered photos of my mom posing naked in towering aqua colored waterfalls.  With my mom’s confidence and my dad’s photography skills the pictures could rival anything you’d find in “Playboy”.   Simultaneously mortified by my mom’s brazen nudity and mesmerized by the tropical desert oasis, I tried to block out the images of my naked mother but the idea of taking a dip in the blue-green waters of Havasu Falls lingered for over twenty years. Finally I booked a guided hiking trip to Havasu Falls and wrangled my sister into joining me in retracing our parents steps, minus the early 80’s naked photo shoot…

Havasu Falls hiking tour
A completely unfiltered/unedited picture of Havasu Falls. The water really is this shade of blue!

Obtaining a Hiking Permit vs. A Havasu Falls Tour

Unfortunately when I started scheming and researching a trip to Havasu Falls I discovered that a lot had changed since my parents made the journey to the iconic Arizona falls, namely that it’s extremely difficult to get permits. There are a multitude of articles devoted to strategies for obtaining hiking permits and it’s not unusal for it to take several years of relentless calling to get a permit.  Not wanting to deal with the craziness of obtaining a permit for hiking to Havasu Falls, I started looking into alternatives and discovered that going with a guided hiking tour is an easy way to circumnavigate the entire permit nightmare.

Havasu Falls hiking tour
It’s hard to pick a favorite waterfall or swimming spot

The Advantages of a  Havasu Falls Hiking Tour

  1. They take care of the permit process: The company that you book with is issued a certain number of hiking permits every year by the tribe. Rather than trying to call the office on February 1st when it’s flooded with requests you can contact the company of your choice and ask what dates they have available. I inquired at the beginning of September with Wildland Trekking, a reputable company and was offered several different tour dates for October, my preferred month.

    Havasu Falls hiking tour
    Don’t try hiking without a permit. There are rangers who patrol the trail and they will turn you around if you don’t have a permit!
  2. Hassle free prep:  Camping requires a lot of gear and it can be a hassle to transport your gear on a plane. So if visiting Havasu Falls involves air travel or you’re pressed for time, you should definitely consider booking with an outfitter. They planned all the meals, packed all the necessary gear, and drove us to the trailhead, basically eliminating the worst part of backpacking.

     

  3. You’ll have exactly what you need: A knowledgeable tour company will provide you with a packing list that’s tailored to the time of year and what the weather is projected to be like. Paula, our Wildland guide, noticed that the nighttime temps were going to be unseasonably low while we were camping in the canyon and packed us extra warm 0 degree sleeping bags. When I got into my toasty sleeping bag after a long day of hiking I was grateful that someone took the guesswork out of what I would need, especially knowing that the group from Los Angeles camped in the next site over was sleeping huddled under their backpacks and extra clothes because they didn’t realize that they would need sleeping bags since they “thought the desert was warm”. Shocking but true.

    Havasu Falls hiking tour
    A typical campsite in the Havasu Falls campground.
  4. A more enriching experience: Our guide showed us a hidden cave behind one of the waterfalls, found fossils along the trail, and led us to a pretty little beach downstream from Mooney Falls. I pride myself in being a modern-day explorer but I’m not sure if I would have found these gems without the knowledge of our guide. Furthermore we learned about the geology of the Grand Canyon and some tidbits of Suapi history.
    Havasu falls hiking tour
    Often overlooked but stunning nonetheless, Fifty- Foot Falls is an easy walk from the campground

    Havasu Falls hiking tour
    small wonders in the Grand Canyon
  5. Getting the 411 on Havasu Falls etiquette: We were debriefed on some basic etiquette guidelines (don’t take pictures of the Supai people or their village!)  that allowed us to hike respectfully through the village and left no trace of our presence in the campground when we left.

    Havasu Falls guided hike
    Be mindful of the mules and their handlers, keep a respectful distance
  6. A Safer Hike: Our guide had extensive training in wilderness first aid and carried a hefty first aid kit and satellite phone on all of our hikes. This is great peace of mind, particularly if you have any health issues or are accident prone.
    havasu falls guided hike
    It’s a harrowing climb down a cliff to reach Mooney Falls.

    Hiking to Havasu Falls  tour
    Cross rickety bridges worry free knowing that your guide has a satellite phone and a hefty first aid kit.

The Downside of hiking to Havasu Falls with a tour

  1. Not setting your own pace: You will be expected to stay together as group while hiking so if you’re a fast hiker you might have to slow yourself down a bit and likewise slower hikers might feel pressure to keep up.  This is not really an issue if everyone in the group is of similar ability level but in a group that has a wide range of fitness levels this could be a challenge.
  2. It’s pricey: Convenience isn’t cheap. If you don’t already own gear a tour might actually save you money because you won’t have to spend your paycheck at REI  but for veteran backpackers who already have equipment it might be a bit of a shocker to spend upwards of $1000 for a few nights in nature.
  3. Traveling with random people: I’ve always had great luck on tours and met some amazing people, however it’s luck of the draw who your hiking companions are when you go to Havasu Falls with a hiking tour.

    Havasu Falls hiking tour
    Be prepared to hike at the speed of the group when you go on a hiking tour to Havasu Falls

Picking a tour company for hiking to Havasu Falls

So you’ve decided that you like the idea of hiking to Havasu Falls with a tour, now you are wondering which group do you book with? I was beyond impressed with our experience with Wildland Trekking but there are plenty of companies to choose from, including, Four Season Guides, and Arizona Outback Adventures.  I realized how lucky I was to have had such a wonderful experience as I was stretching out my tired muscles post hike at the Hualapai Hilltop parking lot and watching a different tour prepare to set out on their hike. Without naming any names lets just say this group looked disorganized, large and was frantically tossing sandwiches to their guests before starting out in the midday heat whereas my experienced guide had made sure that we hiked in the cooler parts of the day. That being said, when you’re picking your hiking outfitter there are several things to consider…

  1. How many years has the company been offering guided hikes to Havasu Falls? Needless to say a group with at least several years of experience is going to have more efficient, better systems in place than a group that is new and still working out the kinks.
  2. What are their hiker to guide ratios on their treks? How big are their groups typically? A large group tends to move slower than a smaller one. Is this ok with you or do you want a more customized hiking experience?
  3. What is included in the price? Make sure you look at the pricing carefully to understand what meals, transportation, and other services are included in the price. For example, many outfitters have the option of a tour that uses mules to carry gear to and from the campground so that hikers don’t have to carry large backpacking style packs. It costs a little bit more but since you’re already doing a glam style backpacking adventure why not splurge on a mule?
  4. Read reviews! Yelp and Tripadvisor are great resources when you’re planning a trip. I was apprehensive about spending the money to hike with a tour to Havasu Falls but when I read Wildland’s glowing reviews I felt confident booking with them.

The Bottom Line: Hiking to Havasu Falls with a tour will probably cost you more, but will save a lot of hassle and show you some absolutely amazing spots. When you’re looking up at the brillant starry night sky after an afternoon of swimming you will feel  that the trip was worth every penny.

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