Imagine hiking for hours through a dusty brown landscape of rocks and cacti. The sun overhead is blistering and bright. The air is hot and dry. Rock walls rise higher and higher as you continue your descent through a mazelike canyon. Eventually, the narrow canyon opens into a wide plain shaded by cottonwood trees, a sure sign of water, and within a few minutes you hear the sound of a babbling stream. The water, when you finally reach it, is cool and crystal clear, a pleasant surprise. Following the stream, you pass through a dusty Indian village of small homes. Not surprisingly, in a village 8 miles beyond the last road, every yard seems to be a corral for horses. Passing through the village, you continue along the stream.
As the trail descends again, you spot the first waterfall. At the foot of the falls, the creek's waters, previously crystal-clear, are a brilliant turquoise blue. The sandstone walls rising above look redder than before. No, you aren't having a heat-induced hallucination -- the water really is turquoise, and it fills terraces of travertine that form deep pools of cool water at the base of the canyon's waterfalls. Welcome to Havasu Canyon, home of the Havasupai tribe, whose name means "people of the blue-green waters." For centuries, the Havasupai have called this idyllic desert oasis home.
Together this canyon's waterfalls form what many claim is the most beautiful spot in the entire state. I'm not going to argue with them. The waterfalls and the pools that form below them are the canyon's main attraction, and most people are content to go for swims in the cool waters, sun themselves on the sand, and gaze for hours at the turquoise waters.
In August 2008, a massive flood roared through the canyon, gouging out a new creek channel that created two new waterfalls but bypassed one of the former falls. Then, in 2010, there were two flash floods that stranded campers in the canyon and prompted a closure of the canyon. There is speculation that the flood of 2008 has made the campground more prone to flooding, and while floods have occurred here regularly over the years, the canyon has always been quick to hide the scars caused by flooding. That said, be sure to check current conditions when planning a trip to Havasupai, and if possible, plan your visit in the spring when flash flooding is less likely. Also, keep in mind that the water, when not in flood, is still that amazing turquoise color.
You must have a reservation to enter Havasu Canyon. There is no entrance fee as such; instead, fees are structured around camping and lodging. Staying at the Canyon’s one motel, such as it is, costs a staggering $175 per night—and a $90 tribal fee on top of that. Reservations for campsites for 2018 opened in February and were quickly booked for the entire year. Plan to jump on it as soon as the season begins. A 1-night stay at a campground costs $140.56 per person; 2 nights are $171.11, and 3 nights (the maximum stay) are $207.67. If you’re staying on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, add $18.33 per night per person. This weekend fee, instituted in 2018, is a response to supply and demand: There are thousands of people clamoring to come in, and room for only a few, who must then pay premium—underscore premium—prices for the privilege. Reservations are prepaid and nonrefundable, and altering them in any way costs an added $100.
If you plan to hike down into the canyon, start early to avoid the heat of the day. The hike is beautiful, but it's 10 miles to the campground. The steepest part of the trail is the first mile or so from Hualapai Hilltop. After this section, it's relatively flat.
Through Havasupai Tourism (www.havasupaitribe.com; tel. 928/448-2121), you can hire a horse to carry you or your gear down into the canyon from Hualapai Hilltop. Horses cost $264 round-trip for four bags weighing a total of 130 pounds. Many people who hike in decide that it's worth the money to ride out, or at least have their backpacks carried out. Be sure to confirm your horse reservation a day before driving to Hualapai Hilltop. Sometimes no horses are available, and it's a long drive back to the nearest town. There are also pack mules that will carry your gear into and out of the canyon.
If you'd like to hike into Havasu Canyon with a guide, Arizona Outback Adventures, 16447 N. 91st St., Ste. 101, Scottsdale, AZ 85260 (www.aoa-adventures.com; tel. 866/455-1601), leads 3- to 5-day hikes into Havasu Canyon and charges $995 to $1,645 per person (plus $400–$475 tribal fees). Discovery Treks, 28248 N. Tatum Blvd., Ste. B1, no. 414, Cave Creek, AZ 85331 (www.discoverytreks.com; tel. 888/256-8731 or 480/247-9266), offers similar 3-day trips for $847 per person, plus $400 tribal fee. Wildland Trekking (www.wildlandtrekking.com; tel. 800/715-4453), which operates out of Flagstaff, offers a 3-day trip for $1,015 per person, plus $420 tribal fee.
Grand Canyon West
Located on the Hualapai Indian Reservation on the south side of the Colorado River, Grand Canyon West (www.grandcanyonwest.com; tel. 888/868-9378) overlooks the little-visited west end of Grand Canyon National Park. Although the view is not as spectacular as at either the South Rim or the North Rim, Grand Canyon West is noteworthy for one thing: It is one of the only places where you can legally take a helicopter ride down into the canyon. This is possible because the helicopters operate on land that is part of the Hualapai Indian Reservation. At this point, the south side of the Colorado lies within the reservation, while the north side of the river is within Grand Canyon National Park. The tours are operated by Papillon Helicopters (www.papillon.com; tel. 888/635-7272), which charges $254 per person for a quick trip to the bottom of the canyon and a boat ride on the Colorado River. Tours booked through the Hualapai Tribe (www.grandcanyonwest.com) are somewhat less expensive, running between $99 and $147. Because this is the closest spot to Las Vegas with access to the Grand Canyon, busloads of visitors come and go throughout the day, and the air is always filled with the noise of helicopters.
Grand Canyon West is a self-styled major destination, with plans for a full-fledged resort and airport. The first phase of this development is called the Skywalk, and contrary to what you may have read about this Vegas-style attraction, the Skywalk is not over the Colorado River and is not in Grand Canyon National Park. The horseshoe-shaped glass observation platform juts over a side canyon of the Grand Canyon, and from the deck you can glimpse the Colorado River a short distance away and 4,000 feet below. However, you'll have to cough up a minimum of $82.38 for the privilege of walking out on the Skywalk for a view that is only marginally better than the view from solid ground. For your $71, you'll also get to ride a shuttle bus along the rim of the canyon. The shuttle stops at Eagle Point, which is the site of the Skywalk and a collection of traditional Native American dwellings; at Guano Point, where bat guano was once mined commercially; and at Hualapai Ranch, a faux cow town where there are wagon and horseback rides, cowboy cookouts, and gunfight shows. Tours operate daily throughout the year and start at $49.92 per person (without the Skywalk; $82.38–$94.90 with the Skywalk). A horseback ride can be added for $10.85–$81.38. A helicopter ride down into the canyon and a brief boat trip on the Colorado River can be added for $202. Reservations are recommended (go to www.grandcanyonwest.com).
To be frank, Grand Canyon West and the Skywalk are pretty much the biggest tourist rip-off in the state and can be recommended only as a side trip from Las Vegas for travelers who absolutely must fly into the canyon. However, the 2-hour drive out here from Kingman is one of the most scenic routes in Arizona. Along Diamond Bar Road, you’ll be driving below the Grand Wash Cliffs, and for much of the way, the route traverses a dense forest of Joshua trees.
For adventurous types, there’s another excellent alternative to the Grand Canyon West tourist hub: Drive Diamond Creek Road from Peach Springs to the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon floor. The dirt road—which, though graded, can be rough and slick—is best traveled in a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle; it winds through a series of wide side canyons on the way to the river. The route is idyllic, and to be sure, it’s the only car route other than the one Thelma and Louise took that goes all the way to that brown, chugging river in the Grand Canyon. There’s a $25 tribal fee to drive the 20 miles from Peach Springs to the riverside Diamond Creek Campground; purchase permits at the Hualapai Lodge. The trip takes about an hour each way.
Other Area Activities
If you long to raft the Grand Canyon but have only a couple of free days in your schedule to realize your dream, then you have just one option. Here at the west end of the canyon, it's possible to do a 1-day rafting trip that begins on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. These trips are operated by Hualapai River Runners (www.grandcanyonwest.com; tel. 888/868-9378), a tribal rafting company, and are offered between March and October. Expect a mix of white water and flat water. Although it's not as exciting as longer trips in the main section of the canyon, you'll still plow through some pretty big waves. Be ready to get wet. Raft trips depart from the Hualapai Lodge in Peach Springs and cost $451 per person, including a helicopter ride to the river.
If you aren't interested in (or can't afford) one of these rafting trips, you still might want to consider driving down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. That's right, the Diamond Creek Road leads to the bottom of the canyon. This gravel road is on the Hualapai Indian Reservation and is the only place in the Grand Canyon where it is possible to drive to the Colorado River. Bear in mind that this is a rough road and you'll need a high-clearance vehicle and a permit ($15 per person). Get your permit at the Hualapai Lodge. You can also take a jeep tour to the bottom of the canyon with Grand Canyon Old West Jeep Tours (tel. 800/716-9389; www.grandcanyonjeeps.com), which has its office in Williams and charges $249 per person for a full-day tour that also includes a visit to Grand Canyon Caverns.
Also in this area, you can visit Grand Canyon Caverns (www.grandcanyoncaverns.com; tel. 928/422-3223 or 928/422-4565), just outside Peach Springs. The caverns, which are accessed via a 210-foot elevator ride, are open from Memorial Day to October 15 daily from 9am to 5pm, and other months daily from 10am to 4pm. Admission is $21 adults, $16 seniors, and $14 kids 4 to 12. Explorers' Tours ($80 adults and kids) head off into parts of the caverns that aren't seen on the regular tour. These caverns are unusual in that they are dry caverns that were formed when lava flows encountered limestone. Also, at one time the caverns were a designated fallout shelter and supplies are still stored in one large chamber. Recently discovered side caverns have been added to the menu with the 2 1/2-hour Wild Tour ($100 per person, ages 8 and older only).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.