Although almost five million people visit GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK every year, the canyon itself remains beyond the grasp of the human imagination. No photograph, no statistics, can prepare you for such vastness. At more than one mile deep, it’s an inconceivable abyss; varying between four and eighteen miles wide, it’s an endless expanse of bewildering shapes and colours, glaring desert brightness and impenetrable shadow, stark promontories and soaring sandstone pinnacles. Somehow it’s so impassive, so remote – you could never call it a disappointment, but at the same time many visitors are left feeling peculiarly flat. In a sense, none of the available activities can quite live up to that first stunning sight of the chasm. The overlooks along the rim all offer views that shift unceasingly from dawn to sunset; you can hike down into the depths on foot or by mule, hover above in a helicopter or raft through the whitewater rapids of the river itself; you can spend a night at Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor or swim in the waterfalls of the idyllic Havasupai Reservation. And yet that distance always remains – the Grand Canyon stands apart.
The vast majority of visitors come to the South Rim – it’s much easier to get to, it holds far more facilities (mainly at Grand Canyon Village) and it’s open year round. There is another lodge and campground at the North Rim, which by virtue of its isolation can be a lot more evocative, but at 1000ft higher it is usually closed by snow from mid-October until May. Few people visit both rims; to get from one to the other demands either a tough two-day hike down one side of the canyon and up the other or a 215-mile drive by road.
The Havasupai Reservation really is another world. Things have changed a little since a 1930s anthropologist called it “the only spot in the United States where native culture has remained in anything like its pristine condition”, but the sheer magic of its turquoise waterfalls and canyon scenery makes this a very special place.
Havasu Canyon is a side canyon of the Grand Canyon, 35 miles as the raven flies from Grand Canyon Village, but almost two hundred miles by road. Turn off the interstate at Seligman or Kingman, onto AZ-66, then follow Arrowhead Hwy-18 to Hualapai Hilltop. An eight-mile trail zigzags down a bluff from there, leading through the stunning waterless Hualapai Canyon to the village of SUPAI. Riding down on horseback with a Havasupai guide costs $70 one way, $120 return and there’s often a helicopter service as well. Hiking is free, but all visitors pay an entry fee on arrival at Supai.
Beyond Supai the trail leads to a succession of spectacular waterfalls, starting with two dramatic cascades, New Navajo Falls and Rock Falls, created by a flash flood in 2008. Beyond those lie Havasu Falls, great for swimming, and Mooney Falls, where a precarious chain-ladder descent leads to another glorious pool.