[Trip Report] Havasupai and the Sublime

- 21 minute read

tl;dr: New Year, New Goal

There are 61 National Parks in the United States. Visiting three to four a year will take 15 to 20 years to see every one of them, and that’s not even counting any National Monuments or other protected areas in the country. While out on a climbing road trip last year, Shan and I got a taste of America’s vast beauty through Utah and Colorado, and we realized that we needed more than just a small dose of it. So we decided to begin a journey of visiting every national park and doing a significant hike, climb, or camping trip at each of them.

This post goes over the first of the parks that we visited, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where we spent three nights in the Havasupai Indian Reservation at the bottom of the canyon. I’ll go over how we prepared for the trip, our gear list, and I’ll share some photos of the canyon and the waterfalls. Also, being immersed in the park evoked a certain feeling, and so I’ll also share some thoughts on that along with research I’ve come across on the sublime, awe, and transcendentalism.

National Parks Map

An Opportunity to Connect with Grandpa

On our dresser sits a photo of Shannon’s Grandpa on a snowy trail, decked out in backpacking gear, overlooking a section of the Grand Canyon. We had visited the park once before, where we stopped by the Visitor Center on the South Rim and witnessed the enormity of the canyon. This itself is a fantastic experience, but Grandpa’s photo inspired us to seek out a more meaningful hike into the canyon. Hiking into the canyon and experiencing it as he did could could serve as an opportunity to connect with our lost loved one, and offer another piece of closure for us.

Grandpa at the Grand Canyon Grandpa at the Grand Canyon

Making the Havasupai Campground Reservation

There are many options for hiking the Grand Canyon, and we knew Grandpa had done a few of them. Shan and I have always dreamed of visiting the impossibly blue waters of Havasupai, and at the time we decided to start our National Park journey, the campground reservation window happened to be opening soon. So we opted to try our hands at getting a spot.

On February 1st at 5am PST, the online reservation window for the Havasupai Campground opens to the public, and it is up to fate whether you’re able to connect through to make a reservation. We, miraculously, were able to land a spot at the beginning of March. We had barely any backpacking gear though, so we would need to spend the next six weeks getting prepared to travel to and stay in one of the most remote places in the country.

Gear List for Four days, Three Nights

This was the first backpacking trip that the two of us would embark on where we would need to depend on ourselves. This is a gear list with recommendations that we followed pretty closely and it ended up working pretty well for us with a few adjustments:

Gear List

Gear notes

An endorsement for hammock camping

Instead of a tent, Shan and I opted for a double hammock, and a double sleeping bag. We also brought a sleeping pad for increased insulation and a hammock tarp to keep dry, since there was some drizzle during the night.

We adored hammock camping. It was really comfy for us and an amazing way to spend the trip. The setup was really light for backpacking, it was easy to set up and teardown, and again, so comfy. Havasupai also provides a unique opportunity for this as there’s a huge amount of trees in the area that are well-situated for hammocks, and most of the sites are right along a creek that runs through the campground. I will now absolutely recommend this style of camping over tent camping any chance I get.

My first camera

I’ve never owned a nice camera and have always relied on my phone for photography. This trip called for an upgrade, and we decided to go with Sony’s Alpha a6000. It’s a mirrorless camera, which fit our needs for a more compact and updated model. With such little time before the trip, I wasn’t able to take a course in photography or learn about all the features of my new camera, but I was able to read a primer on composition that was informative and helpful.

Getting to the Canyon

We flew into Phoenix, Arizona, but Las Vegas is another option. After getting our rental car, we drove three hours out to one of the closest hotels to the trailhead, in Peach Springs. The hotel was called Grand Canyon Caverns Grotto, and it had some great character to it that I would recommend to others. There is a mini putt course with some big dinosaurs on it, and a little gas station that looks like the one in the movie Cars. There are also some themed rooms, our room was themed like a diner.

Our Itinerary

We need the tonic of wildness… at the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. – Henry David Thoreau

Day One: Hike in

Start of the hike Start of the hike

From Peach Springs we set out before sunrise to the trailhead, about 60 miles away. At the trailhead there’s a station for signing up to have a pack horse take your gear down to the campground for you. There’s also a helicopter pad with an option to take a helicopter down. We opted for the simplest option, our own two feet, with our packs on our backs.

The first mile of the hike features a 1,000 ft descent down a series of switchbacks. My hiking poles came in handy here, especially because one of my knees is weak. After the switchbacks, the canyon narrows to provide some nice shade.

The village of Supai

After about eight miles of hiking, you reach Supai, the capital of the Havasupai Indian Reservation. With a population of 208, the village is considered “the most remote community” in the contiguous United States. There is a post office, a school, a police office, and a couple of churches. After checking in at the tourist office to confirm our reservation, we set out to the campgrounds.

Waterfalls, at last

Just outside the village is where the creek began to intersect the trail. About 1.5 miles beyond the village, we encountered the first of our waterfalls, Little Navajo Falls. The water was unbelievable; all throughout the area the water picks up minerals from underground, and these minerals reflect sunlight to create a particular and prominent turquoise color that is such a joy to behold. We could never get enough of seeing the blue color.

Little Navajo Falls Little Navajo Falls

Havasu Falls

After nine miles of hiking, we came upon a stunning sight, Havasu Falls. Being in the presence of this place was difficult to express with words, so we just enjoyed the moment and basked in all the feelings, thankful for the chance to be in this place and for the sweet reprieve after our descent.

Havasu Falls Havasu Falls

The Campground

Not far from Havasu Falls, we finally arrived at the campground. There was open camping within about a mile stretch, so we searched a bit for a nice spot that suited us. A lot of the campsites were right along water that flowed through the campground, some spots quite literally submerged, possibly from recent diversions in the river. The camp was pretty filled when we arrived, but we were able to find a spot in a tucked away corner of the grounds across one of the larger river crossings. We presumed that it hadn’t been taken yet because its bench was older and only partially intact, but it suited our needs just fine.

Hammock Camping Hammock Camping

After happily pitching our hammock and fixing some dinner, we were sufficiently tired from the day. We took some time to reflect in our journals, and simply relaxed in the presence of the creek and the canyon. The large river crossing provided the gentle sound of water flow which drowned out the noise of other campers, offering an even deeper sense of seclusion and privacy. Here, sleeping under the stars in a comfy hammock by a stream in the Grand Canyon, with my loved one, is a memory I’m certain I’ll always cherish.

Day Two: Active day

In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, – he is my creature, and maugre all his impertinent griefs, he shall be glad with me – Ralph Waldo Emerson

After 12 hours (!) of sleep we popped out of our hammock, sufficiently rested for another big day of hiking and exploring. We had been told by friends that we should definitely head out to a place called Beaver Falls, about five miles downstream from the campground.

Just beyond the campground is a massive ledge where a glorious waterfall drops nearly 200 ft into a lower canyon. Nearly double the height of Niagra Falls, Mooney was absolutely breathtaking from this point of view. Eager to get to the bottom of the falls to witness them properly, we soldiered on.

A precarious descent

There is no easy way to get down to the base of the falls. There is a nearly sheer drop, peppered with rebar to hold onto, and wet, wooden ladders to climb down. Being climbers, Shan and I trend towards redundancy in our safety, which amplified the lack of safety for this downclimb. Nevertheless, with sure steps and careful plodding we made our way down to the magnificence of Mooney Falls.

Mooney Falls

Havasu Falls was enough to stop us in our tracks, and Mooney was enough to completely consume us. It’s here that I truly gained a sense of the sublime that so many writers speak of when witnessing greatness in nature. We experienced pure delight, a forgetting of ourselves, of time, and of our pains. The joy we felt at Mooney Falls will last us a lifetime.

Mooney Falls Mooney Falls

The hike to Beaver Falls

After pulling ourselves from Mooney, we started on our way to Beaver. There’s no way we could have imagined the beauty of the hike. The entire five mile journey runs alongside the river, and there are several times where you need to wade across the water to continue the hike on the other side. The seclusion and peacefulness of the canyon, the bright-orange of the walls, the vibrant green of the trees standing over the turquoise river, the happy chatter of the birds, all made for true contentment. About halfway through the trail, the landscape turns into a massive, overgrown grapevine jungle that is such a delight to walk through.

Hike to Beaver Falls

Hike to Beaver Falls

Hike to Beaver Falls

Hike to Beaver Falls

Hike to Beaver Falls

Beaver Falls: An oasis

There is literally a sanctuary in the Grand Canyon and it’s called Beaver Falls.

A log sat right in the center of the pools and we took some time to just sit there and bask in the glory of this place, and a sense of peace and awe enveloped and took hold of us here.

Beaver Falls Beaver Falls

Beaver Falls

Day Three: Relaxed day

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. – John Muir

Havasupai tacos

We decided to take this day easy and made the trek back up to the village to try some of the local tacos that we heard some ravings about. And I’ll certainly agree that they’re great, but we also really appreciated the frybread with nutella and banana.

More waterfalls

There are three significant waterfalls in between the village of Supai and the campgrounds, and we saw two of them on our first day during the hike in, but we decided to seek them out again and enjoy them a little more. They included Fifty Foot Falls, Little Navajo Falls, and Havasu Falls:

Fifty Foot Falls Fifty Foot Falls

Little Navajo Falls Little Navajo Falls

Havasu Falls Havasu Falls

Pools at Havasu Falls Pools at Havasu Falls

Then we returned down to the base of Mooney Falls to relish in its wake one more time:

Mooney Falls Mooney Falls

Day Four: Hike out

The time came to pack up our things and set out. We started our hike right about when the sun was coming up in order to avoid as much of the day’s heat as possible. The hardest part of the entire trip is the last mile of the hike out, where you climb 1,000 ft in about a mile. We reckon this would be extremely difficult in the summertime, and I’d advise extreme care and caution before attempting it. A satisfying part of the hike was all the snacks we left in our car at the trailhead that we scarfed down once we arrived.

A milestone for long-term goals

I am very much a goal-oriented person. I have long-term goals in all areas of my life, including goals for my physical health, my career, relationships, financials, etc. One of the concepts that I’ve learned about our human minds is that it is very easy to get caught up in short-term pleasures because of how quickly and easily they are felt compared to long-term gratifications. It’s possible for a goal that takes place over several years to never really be realized in the same way that a short-term pleasure is, without proper reflection.

After preparing, experiencing, and reflecting on this trip, Shan and I realized that it is a sort of “milestone” on several of our long-term goals. We could not have done the amount of hiking we did without keeping up with our physical goals. The same holds true for our career and financial well-being too. A long-term goal of maintaining and fostering our relationship with each other allowed us to love and support each other wholly throughout the weekend. While we feel a lot of luck and fortune to have been able to embark on a journey like this, we also feel thankful to our past selves for setting down the roots that would make this trip possible.

I would recommend a similar type of vacation to others for this reason. People always recommend travelling when you can, and I think it’s this milestone marker for long-term growth that really makes this type of trip appealing.

Immanuel Kant’s Sublime

Reflections on the beauty of nature

There’s another concept I’d like to discuss here which is that of the “sublime”, mostly because Shan and I encountered it on several occasions during our trip. The sublime comes from a branch of philosophy called Aesthetics, and it refers to a quality in nature distinct from beauty. There is a wealth of information on sublime in its Wikipedia article, including many interpretations and developments from various philosophers, but to me, Immanuel Kant’s notion of sublime is the one that stands out. He describes it as an experience where we are in or of something bigger than our small size in relation to our surroundings, like a violent storm, volcano, or being in the presence of a mountain or valley that seems to overwhelm us. For us in Havasupai, this describes many of the canyon views, and of course the massive waterfalls.

A contemporary German philosopher, Max Dessoir, describes the experience of sublime as involving “a self-forgetfulness where personal fear is replaced by a sense of well-being and security when confronted with an object exhibiting superior might”.

The New England transcendentalist movement

Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau got to the heart of this feeling of sublime with the transcendentalist movement, a philosophical movement in the early 19th century in the eastern United States. Transcendentalism developed from the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, and adherents believed in an inherent goodness in people and nature. They were particularly enamored with the quality of sublime and encountering it in nature. It seems that transcendentalists attributed these feelings as feeling God himself, and encouraged spending time out in nature as a way to know and understand God. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,

Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental; to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.

This movement and its ideals have inspired many of our country’s advocates for our nature areas and the preservation in them. The most important of which may be John Muir, who admired the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, and often referred to himself as a “disciple of Thoreau”.

John Muir, Father of the National Parks

John Muir was a naturalist and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in America. He was able to deliver such an enthusiasm for nature in his writings that he inspired activism for the preservation of many parks and nature areas. His article on wilderness preservation, “The Treasures of the Yosemite” helped support the push for congress to pass a bill in 1890 that established Yosemite National Park. Muir had a strict, Presbyterian upbringing, so it was not surprising that he would attribute his encounters with the sublime as encounters with God.

John Muir art by Jeremy Collins

The emotion of Awe

Jonathan Haidt has a chapter in his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis”, titled “Awe and Transcendence”. In it he concludes that the emotion of awe happens when “a person perceives something vast (usually physically vast, but sometimes conceptually vast, such as grand theory; or socially vast, such as great fame or power); and the vast thing cannot be accommodated by the person’s existing mental structures.”

He writes, “Something enormous can’t be processed, and when people are stumped, stopped in their cognitive tracks while in the presence of something vast, they feel small, powerless, passive, and receptive. They often (though not always) feel fear, admiration, elevation, or a sense of beauty as well. By stopping people and making them receptive, awe creates an opening for change, and this is why awe plays a role in most stories of religious conversion.”

For me, after spending time in a remote and beautiful place like Havasupai and experiencing the emotion of awe for myself, I can definitely understand and relate to these writings and ideas. For those with a more religious upbringing, I can certainly see how this could be directly ascribed to a spiritual encounter. It also strikes me that in most of the Biblical stories I can remember, when someone encounters God it is indeed at the top of a mountain or similar natural environment.

More than we expected

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. – John Muir

While we certainly had some great expectations for this weekend, we still walked away with more than we could have imagined. Before, I would hear famous reflections on nature and the wild and think, “Of course, nature is pretty and it’s nice to be out there, away from the bustle.” What I didn’t fully realize is the potential for a spiritual experience. It is amazing to be able to connect with the writings of John Muir and the transcendentalists; to understand their words and feelings. Shannon’s grandpa was also enamored by nature and spent a lot of time hiking and exploring, but he was especially moved by the Grand Canyon. When we reached the end of our arduous hike that last day, we walked away truly feeling another place we could connect with him. We will no doubt continue to feel his spirit throughout our journey to the rest of the parks and other remote places that we venture.

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst. – Wallace Stegner, writer

Want me to let you know when I write again?

* indicates required
Ryan Westby

Ryan Westby

Coder, climber, 21st century ghost

comments powered by Disqus
rss facebook twitter github gitlab youtube mail spotify lastfm instagram linkedin google google-plus pinterest medium vimeo stackoverflow reddit quora quora