Here is a sorta acceptable, but fairly subpar guide to Havasu Falls – located on the Havasupai Reservation – with a toddler.1
The Permit/Mule Fiasco
So, as you probably already know, you have to be waiting by your computer on February 1 each year to even get a permit. But, before that date, it’s very important to go and create an account here. Be prepared for the incredibly unprepared system/server(s) to crash and possibly result in you not even get your permit and this may result in you punching some things in your house. In other words, don’t even read what’s below unless you get the permit. The permit is the key since you can no longer just hike in and out same-day to the falls.
Now, what’s crazy is that all the annoying Instagram people who stand with their backs to the camera while flashing peace signs in the air and staring at a magical waterfall have all driven up the prices. What used to be $40/night per person is now $100-$125/night per person with a mandatory three-night stay. But, if you’re researching this, I’m sure you’ll be happy to pay that money in exchange for a permit.
However, once you get your permit, you’re almost immediately bullied into getting onto a waitlist for a mule or else you’re told that you probably won’t get one. If you’re like me, planning on doing the hike with a toddler, you opt for the mule. After all, it’s just a waitlist you’re getting on and the timer to complete your purchase is ticking.
But, if you look closely at the language, it says, “you will not be charged unless/until this Waitlist Request is approved – and you can cancel this request at any time prior to that with no charge.” However, what you aren’t told is that you will never receive an approval and you certainly won’t get a chance to respond to any pending approval. They’ll just charge your credit card and that’s that. AND THE PACK MULE IS $400!!!
Now, again, I was going with a toddler (four years old), and he was almost guaranteed to be needing me to hold him some unknown amount of time during the hike. So, I suppose I needed the mule. However, multiple times before the trip I thought I didn’t and tried to cancel my mule reservation. The problem is…no one will ever answer your phone call(s) nor reply to your email(s). At least, this is what I experienced when I tried over 50 phone calls and numerous emails in February. Ugh.
Kids are Free? Huh?
Oh, and, this is something you’ll find important. Even though it’s not advertised…KIDS SIX YEARS OLD AND YOUNGER DO NOT NEED A PERMIT! Yeah, that would’ve been nice to know when I was purchasing the permit. This information isn’t listed anywhere really but on the official Facebook Group (I technically understand why…the reservation doesn’t really want you to bring your toddlers for safety reasons) you’ll see people talking about it.
It’s true. Six and under are free, which is great news but would have been even greater if I knew this was a sure thing before I got to the Supai office eight miles into the hike. However, “knowing” this information beforehand allowed me to bring a friend (hell, I could’ve brought my wife and three kids (all six and under) if my wife could’ve missed work like I could).
Packing and Preparing
Anyway, permit in hand, with, in my case, only a week to prepare, I had to start preparing. Here is some of what I packed:
Yeah, you’d think this would be pretty straightforward. But Google Maps doesn’t list the location on its map program. So, basically, you’ll want to head to just east of Peach Springs off the famous Route 66 in Arizona. There will actually be a sign leading you to the reservation (Indian Road 18). See below.
After driving for about an hour on Indian Road 18, you’ll arrive at the trailhead. Other than swerving pickup trucks with no license plates, the trailhead will be the first time you see cars. Parking may be limited but just go ahead and move some cones like we did and make your own parking space. There are decent public bathrooms there so, yeah, great, use them.
More Mule Issues
Here is the slight catch if you use the mules – you have to get there by 10am. This didn’t happen in my case. As a quick aside, my advice to you would be, don’t drive for eight hours roundtrip to see family members right before you have to quickly pack, get two shitty hours of sleep, and then drive eight-and-a-half hours in the middle of the night to hike 10 miles in the freezing cold. This may be obvious advice. But, as usual, I’m an idiot who does idiotic things.
Since we (my buddy Nate and I) arrived after 10am, the “official” office was closed. Even though I had a mule reservation, I prepared to carry my bag anyway. But I’m typically a man of infinite resources and sagacity, so I went wandering to see who I could cajole to honor my reservation. Behind the office I soon found two of the Havasupai members – both clearly intoxicated and drinking out of a 22oz. Budweiser can just past 10 in the morning. The more inebriated gent of the two told me just to leave my bags in front of the office and he asked what my last name was and if I had a mule reservation. No more instructions given.
Finding this instruction to be lacking, I soon found another gentleman riding up with a pack of mules and wearing a marijuana-leaf hat. This guy asked me what my last name was and if I had a mule reservation. Then he told me to just leave my bags by the mules. Thinking this to be the preferable option to leaving my bags in front of the office, I chose to do this. When I brought my bags back from the car, the marijuana connoisseur again asked me what my last name was and if I had a mule reservation.
Now, I did not receive a tag and I had no real assurances that our bags would make it onto the back of a mule, but I took my chances 2 and I now felt that my four year old (incidentally, my best hiker) would probably not make the 10-mile hike, leaving me to carry him and my backpack (~70lbs. total).
Off on the trail we went, a moderate decline consisting of switchbacks and epic views. Now, what smart people do, we observed, is store some beer or water on the path for their return trip. It lightens their load and is a nice reward, I’m sure, on the way back up. Once you get past the modest switchbacks by the way, the rest of the hike is pretty much flat.
So, my best hiker, my four year old named “Ran”…um…didn’t really want to hike, per se. Maybe a half mile in and he was done. And in my crazed packing haste, I decided against packing my toddler hiking pack. I sorta assumed I’d have to carry my own pack so there’d be no need to bring it. But since I had the mule, I could’ve totally brought it. Instead I was left with a Tula baby infant-carrier-wrap thingy. In other words, not meant for a four year old. But secretly I’m fairly masochistic so this ended up being delightfully difficult. I managed to make due with the outstanding views were were treated to.
Kids are Just Bad Hikers
Now, the child that I decided to bring is also ridiculously underweight. This is good for me hauling him everywhere, but it’s bad for his general comfort-level as he’s very much prone to the adverse effects of cold weather. And, well, it was 30 degree Fahrenheit at night with a high of 5o Fahrenheit in the day. And most of the hike takes place in a slot canyon, meaning shade cooling down the already cool temperature. So, since my boy refused to walk and get the blood flowing, he decided to freeze on my back.
On a good note, the Havasupai gent with the marijuana-leaf hat did pass us on the trail and – after asking me what my last name was and whether I had a mule reservation – told us that our bags were on the mule train behind him. Not long after…say, 45 minutes…we saw another mule train. The Havasupai guy leading the mule train asked me what my last name was and whether I had a mule reservation. I took comfort in seeing our bags on the back of a mule, meaning we would have shelter during the night. Often underrated, shelter in below-freezing weather is “nice” I’d say.
The Village of Supai
After eight beautiful miles of hiking, you’ll reach the village of Supai. It’s a village with a school, church, an unusual amount of basketball hoops, loads of pre-fab homes, kids wrestling in the streets, graffiti (I just don’t get this one), guys with neck tattoos (I totally get this one), and a crazy amount of “stuff” just sitting outside on peoples’ lawns. There’s also a helipad, which explains how all the stuff got there (though I am still confused about the giant trampoline).
Speaking of the helipad, this is a good time to note that you can pay only $85 per trip (provided the helicopter is running that day) to take the helicopter out and back. Kind of a steal considering how expensive the mules are.
The village will have the office where you check in. At the check-in you’ll get a wristband and everyone except for us will get a tag for their tent (maybe people got this at the office by the trailhead?). In the village we took a wrong turn and got yelled at by a local. She asked me what my last name was and whether I had a reservation before politely pointing us in the right direction.
Photography is strictly verboten in the village since they don’t want all us white people acting like a documentary film crew. Smart.
About a two-mile hike from the village you’ll hit the first major waterfall – Havasu Falls – which is probably the reason you went on this hike.
Yeah, it’s great. Water stays pretty warm year round. Not a lot of people (seriously, I went to this waterfalls about five times and never saw more than three other people there. Typically, we were alone.).
We made it to the campsites just before dusk and grabbed our bags waiting for us by a fence. When we grabbed them some guy came out and told us that we need to pay for our reservation. I told him we already had a reservation and he asked what my last name was. I think I could’ve said anything and he would have been fine with it.
The campsites themselves run along Havasu Creek in between Havasu and Mooney Falls. There are plenty of spots (at least in February) to choose from. You might want to position yourself by a bathroom (us guys have this easier…not gonna lie) or a spring. We stayed right by Fern Spring where there was warm, fresh, potable water coming out of the rock by a bed of ferns. There are no campfires allowed (unless you’re a local it appears), so there is absolutely nothing to do at night. Meaning, we went to bed very early each night.
Now, the canyon itself is fairly narrow. So, being February, it stayed fairly cold most of the day with only a few hours of direct sunlight. Prepare accordingly. And, well, nights were windy with sleet. Again, prepare accordingly. Hand warmers were clutch for us as my skinny toddler was practically non-responsive in the times he wasn’t clutching his warmers.
At the far-end of the campsites sits (stands? lies? is?) Mooney Falls. Mooney Falls, named after a miner who died there in the 1800s, is accessible via a narrow, slippery hike with chains to hold onto. I cannot tell you how many people told me not to go there with my toddler. Naturally, I went there. And, I’m here to tell you that it’s not that scary. See my video, below.
Beaver Falls is, apparently, about four miles past Mooney, weaving back and forth across the creek. There are some epic shots to be had there…but based on the weather and having to trudge waist deep into water…I just had to pass on this bit with a toddler. Ugh. Well, I suppose that’s a reason to go back.
From everything I read, and from everyone I spoke to, this was supposed to be a difficult hike. I’m a decent hiker and I’m here to say, this was not difficult at all. I’d say about 8.5 miles of the hike is flat. Yeah, it’s usually too cold or too hot on the hike, but you won’t be strained by the trail’s grade.
Naturally, I had to carry my child the entire way. We were lucky, again, that we had the mules I suppose. And, importantly, we ACTUALLY WATCHED OUR BAGS BE PLACED ON THE MULES. That’s in all-caps because it’s important. I’m not a very trusting guy and therefore I made sure to see our bags onto the mules and confirm multiple times that the Havasupai guy understood that we were on the list. We never received our tags for the bags, so this was important.
Why is this important? Oh, because two other groups that hiked out with us never got their bags…that’s all. They had to go to a hotel and wait until the next morning to get their bags. So, the lesson is, don’t trust that your bags will get back up to the trailhead.
- But what more would you really expect from me?
- This completely contradicts what I write later on. But, at this point, in sub-freezing temperatures, I thought there was no way that we would literally be left out in the cold. And if I had to carry my kid, there’d be no way for my to carry my 40lb. pack. Ugh.