Backpacking to Havasu Falls

March 16, 2020

On February 1 this year, I got a permit to backpack Havasu Falls in Arizona with three friends. A month later, we set out on a road trip in my Subaru, then hiked 35 miles in three days in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

The hike to Havasu Falls begins at the aptly named Hilltop Trailhead. From there, you can look down on the trail that runs through the canyon below you. 

Before our trip, we had read a lot about how the mules and horses that transport goods on this trail were abused. We actually didn’t see anything like abuse ourselves, just pack horses doing their jobs. But I still highly encourage you to pack in your own backpack if you want to visit Havasu. It’s a fun challenge to hike with a pack, and you’ll feel even more badass when you get there. (Not capable of hiking with a pack, but still want to go? There’s a helicopter you can take to the lodge!)

After two miles of switchbacks and downhill hiking, the next six miles of the hike run through a dry riverbed at the bottom of a canyon. This is the easy part, so enjoy the views!

Eight miles after leaving Hilltop, you’ll get to the Havasupai Reservation village. This is where you check in for your backpacking reservation and get your wrist bands and tent tag. There’s also a small store, but it’s cash-only. From the village, it’s another two miles of downhill to the campground. You’ll start to hear the sound of rushing water, then turn a corner, and bam – there’s the view you hiked in for!

Havasu Falls backpacking trip in Arizona

The campground is spread along the river, and stretches about a mile in length from one end to the next. There are composting restrooms at the top, middle, and end of the campground. The prettiest campsites were on the bottom half of the trail, but you might want to prioritize a campsite on higher ground, further away from the river. We were evacuated in the middle of the night because of flash flood warnings, while campers at higher ground sites could stay in place. 

The hike from the campground to Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls, and if you’re feeling brave – the Confluence – is a must do. The trail to Mooney Falls is an almost vertical down-climb on slick rock, through two caves, down multiple ladders, and with rusty old chains as hand grabs. Make sure you have grippy shoes (no flip flops!), and prepare to get muddy on the way down. 

From Mooney Falls, the hike keeps going along and across the river to Beaver Falls. There are multiple river crossings, so water shoes (like Keens or Chacos) are really handy. At 5’9″ I never got my shorts wet, while my shorter friends hiked across in bikini bottoms. 

This trail is nothing like your normal hiking trail. With river crossings, caves, ladders, climbs, and planks across ravines, the hiking is slow going at times. But there’s also none of the elevation gain us Coloradans are used to, and so it never felt too challenging. 

Beaver Falls is the perfect place to hang out and swim. It gets more sunshine than Mooney Falls, and none of the cold mist from the high falls, so the water is warmer. The air temperature was around 62 when I swam here, but the water felt nice – especially when coming from Norwegian fjords and Colorado alpine lakes. 

Now this is where I was supposed to have more photos from our final day of hanging out at the campground and Havasu Falls, before hiking back out again. But after being woken up in the middle of the night, and having to move our tents and all our stuff to higher ground in case of flash floods, and barely getting a few hours of worried sleep after that, we all decided to hike back out a day early, rather than risk staying the final day and dealing with heavy rain and floods. 

After a grueling 10 mile hike back up to Hilltop (that final 1.5 miles of switchbacks is rough), we got back online again, and were immediately bombarded with news of how the coronavirus had escalated while we were off the grid.

Much has changed in a week, but I’m glad I have these photos to remind me of our three days in paradise.