The steady thump-thump-thump of the chopper’s blades draws my eyes skyward. What is this — the sixth or seventh time the helicopter has passed us since we began our hike less than an hour ago? Not at all what I expected to see in this remote dimple in the vast Grand Canyon’s southwestern flank. The chopper lightly flits over us like a giant dragonfly, tilts sharply to the left, then disappears around a curve in the red canyon wall.

“Must be payday down in Supai,” says Gary Elbert, one of our guides. “Everybody’s been out shopping today.”

Before I can ask him to explain, Josh Kloepping, our other guide, sings out, “Horses baaaack!” Everyone in our group quickly steps off the trail. We know what’s coming.

Before we began this 10-mile trek to our campsite in Havasu Canyon, some 2,400 feet below the rim, Elbert and Kloepping warned us that we’d likely run into a pack train. Such a group of horses or mules tied together in a line are the main way the Havasupai tribe ferries mail, food and other supplies to their village of Supai on the canyon floor, 2 miles shy of the campground. The beasts of burden have the right of way, and hikers must step aside to let them pass. Pronto.

The pack train clip-clops past us in a whirl of white dust and sand just as the helicopter buzzes back up to the rim for its next load. I gulp water and step back onto the trail. We can’t dawdle. This hike takes several hours, and Kloepping says now that it’s November, darkness will soon be upon us.

Roughly 5 million people visit the Grand Canyon each year, the vast majority of whom cluster around popular sites in its eastern half. In a quest to take the road less traveled — and lured by photos of waterfalls plummeting into pools of the most luminous aqua hue — I’d signed up for one of AOA Adventures’ multiday Havasupai trips. Havasu Canyon, a paradisiacal spot, sees only 20,000 folks annually in comparison.

The tour company’s website promised memorable hikes, hidden waterfalls and tasty meals. The trip would also afford me the chance to experience, in a tiny way, the Havasupai lifestyle.

Elbert and Kloepping tell our group about the tribe’s history as we crunch along the gravel path. The name “Havasupai” means “people of the blue-green water,” a reference to the exquisite color of the creek slicing through Havasu Canyon.

The 600-member tribe first came here about 1,000 years ago. Nomadic, they lived on the canyon floor during the spring and summer, tending crops, then moved back up top during the fall and winter to hunt and gather. In 1882, the U.S. government snatched about 500,000 acres of their ancestral land, relegating them to a 518-acre plot on the canyon floor. The tribe acclimated to year-round life inside the canyon, and chose to remain there even after the government returned 185,000 acres of their lost land in 1975. It was a gutsy decision.

To make a trip to the nearest town, Kingman, Ariz., the Havasupai must make the 8-mile ascent to the canyon rim, then drive two hours. A round-trip can take more than a day. Most residents leave the canyon only every other week; some haven’t left in years.

How do the Havasupai make a living? Tourism. The tribe operates a lodge in Supai, plus the campground where we’re headed. They also offer horseback rides into the canyon and luggage-toting services.

“Always be respectful of the Havasupai and their land,” Kloepping tells us. “They’re letting us into their home.”

Darkness is falling as we reach Supai. Set in the first sizable clearing we’ve seen on the canyon floor, it consists of a smattering of tiny, worn homes, a grocery store, post office, two churches and a school.

Dogs trot along the dirt roads, kicking up little puffs of dust. Shaggy horses blink at us from front yards. Handmade signs advertise fry bread and cold water. In the town’s center, I spy a square of concrete next to a small cafe. The helicopter pad. As if on cue, the chopper suddenly appears and lightly touches down. Two families are waiting with wheelbarrows to ferry their purchases home.

As we head out of town, Kloepping points to the red canyon wall on our right, now tinged with a dusky purple hue. “Lorin W Manakaja ‘85’ ” is printed high up on the wall. “Lorin’s a character,” Kloepping says with a chuckle. “Maybe he’ll stop by camp tomorrow.”

Exploring the canyon

Our tents are lined alongside Havasu Creek, which feeds the area’s famous waterfalls and eventually flows into the Colorado River, some 8 miles northwest. I hear the rushing water on and off all night, and am amazed when I finally get a good look at it in the morning. As advertised, its waters are an eye-catching aqua, warm and crystal clear.

Before setting out to explore, we fill our water bottles with H2O gushing from a pipe sticking out of the canyon wall. This is Fern Spring, the guides say, some of the cleanest water around. Tests indicate it fell as rain some 800 years ago, and has been slowly filtering itself through the canyon walls ever since.

As we fill our bottles, a group of young Havasupai men walk by, on their way to chop downed trees into firewood. Most Havasupai leave the reservation after eighth grade to attend one of several boarding schools that serve Indian youth.

Once exposed to life outside the narrow confines of the canyon, aren’t they tempted to stay up top? Not Delbert Rogers, 21. “I missed the beauty of the canyon walls around me,” he says, gesturing to the towering, jagged sandstone surrounding him. “And their colors — these beautiful reds.”

We leave the men and hike to Mooney Falls. At about 200 feet tall, it’s some 20 feet higher than Niagara Falls. The waterfall was named after explorer James Mooney, who met his demise in the early 20th century when he tumbled off the top of the falls. His companions spent six months chiseling tunnels through the adjacent rocky travertine, a variety of limestone, then hammered metal pins into the walls as hand- and footholds so they could scramble down and retrieve his body. Today, 100 years later, we have to take this same route if we want to admire the falls from their base. So we slouch through the tunnels and carefully pick our way down the outer cliff wall, now additionally equipped with crude wooden ladders and chain railings. Everything is wet and slick from the falls’ spray, but the view from the bottom makes the heart-pounding descent worth it.

Next we hike over to Beaver Falls, first wading across Havasu Creek twice, then drifting through a waist-high field of wild grapes. This picturesque waterfall marks the end of Havasupai territory and the start of the official Grand Canyon National Park. We could hike another 4 miles to reach the Colorado River, but we opt to return to camp. Lorin Manakaja might be waiting.

Becoming Havasupai

Manakaja does pop into camp that night. He offers to play some traditional Havasupai songs. We gather around a crackling fire — technically illegal in the campground, but allowed since it was started earlier by a Havasupai — and Manakaja begins beating his drum. The soft, slow rhythm gets our bodies gently swaying. As Manakaja sings in a low, smooth voice, I suddenly realize his drum is actually an old plastic water can, while the drumstick looks like a mini Louisville slugger with an old rag wrapped around the tip. But it doesn’t matter. The song is authentic. So is Manakaja.

Between songs, he fields questions from our inquisitive group.

Do today’s Havasupai kids like to play soccer? “Our kids play basketball and football. Very few play soccer, because soccer is for Brazilians.”

Do the Havasupai celebrate Thanksgiving? “Yes. We eat turkey and all the fixings to celebrate Christopher Columbus discovering America.”

How fast can someone hike the 8 miles from Supai to the rim, a rocky, uphill trek our group hopes to complete in four hours? “One of our guys once ran it in 45 minutes.”

Then Elbert leans over and whispers, “The Havasupai have a really dry sense of humor.”


Melanie Radzicki McManus writes about health and travel for a variety of publications. She lives near Madison, Wis.