Getting permits to hike in and camp at Havasupai (translates roughly to “people of the blue- green waters”) is challenging, to put it mildly. This is mainly because of the scarcity of available permits due to the overwhelming popularity of the place. The main attraction is the iconic Havasu Falls, but I knew there were other gems down there as well and I can’t say that I blame everyone and their brother for wanting to go! Merely seeing photos of the area online would make anyone want to check it out, photographer or not.
After literally hundreds of unsuccessful calls to the permit office, my girlfriend, Nika, stumbled upon a website that, unbeknownst to us, had gone live only several hours earlier and had permits available. Wanting to make sure that the site was legitimate, we did some checking and finally came to the conclusion that the site and permits it was offering were indeed the real deal. We had initially hoped to secure permits for sometime in June or July but given the high demand and limited availability (300 permits/day), the only permits left were for mid-February – three weeks away! We jumped at the opportunity, figuring that we’d work out the particulars of how we’d make it all happen once we’d locked down our permits. To our delight, we got the permits and would be descending into Grand Canyon National Park in less than a month!
Once we’d ironed out the details and logistics, four of us (Nika and I and another couple) hopped in an RV and drove for ten hours through the night to make sure we reached the trailhead at the Hualapai Hilltop bright and early to embark on the ten-mile hike in (20 miles round-trip) to Havasupai. Because of the time of year, the weather was perfect for hiking and the trek in was pleasant and effortless, even with the large packs on our backs. The beginning of the trail dropped us about a mile downhill into the canyon with about 2,000 feet of elevation loss and was a very undemanding way to start our adventure.
Eight gorgeous miles later, we got into the village of Supai, which has a population of approximately 208 and is quite fascinating in its own right. The village is only accessible by foot, horseback or helicopter and is the only place in the United States where mail is still carried out by mules.
At around mile nine, Fifty Foot Falls, the first of the five incredible waterfalls in the canyon, came into view. This waterfall and surrounding pools (as well as the other four) have an average temperature of 60-70 degrees year-round and made for a perfect place to take our first swim.
We came around a bend at about mile nine and a half and could see the incredible Havasu Falls directly below us. Since I was the only photographer on the trip, I was stopping every couple of feet to snap photos while the others were making their way quickly down the trail, eager to drop their packs and unwind. After I got what I considered to be a few keepers, I picked up my pace and caught up with them as they proceeded into the campground area. But I just couldn’t shake the beauty and grandiosity of the falls we had just passed, and was preoccupied with it the entire time Nika and I were setting up our tent.
After camp was set up, we filled our water bottles from the freshwater spring that flows out of the hillside in the campground and then I convinced the others to follow me over to the falls. It had rained lightly earlier in the day and had remained muggy and cloudy since then. While we had been unpacking and getting our campsite situated, the weather had started to change and some of the dense clouds that had been covering the sky were starting to open up. We made our way down to the shore in front of the falls and everyone settled in to relax and take in the view. I followed suit for a minute but then got up and started to assemble my gear to take some long exposures of the falls.
Before I had even mounted the camera up to the tripod, I noticed a rainbow in the sky, directly above the falls. Then another rainbow. Oh.my.gosh. A double rainbow over Havasu Falls! Knowing that the rainbows were likely to be fleeting, I was almost shaking with excitement (read: I was) as I retrieved all the necessary equipment from my F-Stop Tilopa bag, wanting to ensure that I got at least one decent shot off before they vanished.
The Gear and the Shot
As quickly as possible I connected my Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM to my Canon 6D and mounted it to my Really Right Stuff (RRS) BH-55 ballhead, which was attached to my RRS TVC-33 tripod. Knowing that I wanted to achieve a longer shutter speed to smooth out the flowing water, I attached my Formatt-Hitech 3-stop neutral density (ND) filter to the front of the lens, and then added my LEE 3-stop soft-edge graduated ND filter over that to control the light in the sky and gain a balanced exposure. Obviously, the rainbows were the emphasis here, but I felt like they’d be nothing without the properly exposed foreground and it is important to me to get things right in-camera rather than in post.
With little time to waste, I engaged my camera’s live view mode so that I could quickly dial in the proper settings by getting real-time feedback from the camera’s LCD screen – I hastily set my ISO to 100, chose an aperture of f/11 and adjusted the shutter speed until the screen reflected a nicely-exposed scene, which ended up being 0.6 seconds. Lastly, I fine-tuned the position of the graduated ND filter to darken only the uppermost portion of the sky and then let ‘er rip! I ended up having just enough time to make five exposures before the rainbows disappeared. I didn’t find a pot of gold but I walked away with this shot:
And that was just day one! Does the fun ever stop?!
The morning of day two would find us hiking a half mile from camp to explore Mooney Falls and its amazing (and somewhat precarious) system of natural cave passages that lead down to the bottom of the falls.
In the afternoon of the second day we had lunch and went swimming (I know what you’re thinking and yes, of course we waited 30 minutes in between the two!) at Beaver Falls.
After hiking the four miles from Beaver Falls back to camp, Nika and I prepared the trial run of our experimental dinner: chicken and stuffing... it ended up being the best backcountry meal we’d ever had and set a precedent for all backpacking trips to come! Feel free to email me if you’d like our “proprietary” recipe for this extremely practical, packable and satisfying backpacking dinner!
The ten-mile hike out of the canyon and back up to the Hualapai Hilltop on day three was easy and fun, again largely due to the cool weather and well-timed PB&J lunch we stopped to enjoy. The only part we found challenging was the final mile, which involved gaining that 2,000 feet of elevation we’d lost on the way in and it was definitely a haul. If you go during the summer bring LOTS of water (there aren’t any clean water sources between the trailhead and the village of Supai) and plan on the hike taking anywhere from 4-7 hours each way and feeling like every bit of 20 miles. 28 miles if you make the eight mile round-trip day-hike to Beaver Falls and back from the campground like we did. Well worth it!
Nika and I on the hilltop after finishing the hike out:
Oh, and one more thing, this place isn’t half bad for astrophotography either!