The Brown Family's Havasu Falls Adventure 2023 by OE Partner, Joe Brown
Voice outside the tent at 11:07 pm Thu night: Hello. Hello. Anyone in there? (am I dreaming of Pink Floyd?)
Us inside the tent: Yes (hesitantly, but thinking who the heck is waking us up in the middle of the night and why)
Voice outside the tent: We need you to pack up your camp and move to higher ground as soon as possible.
What? Really? How is this happening? We chose the “higher ground” for a reason. Adrenaline starts to surge…
Well, let me jump back a little to fill you in on the whole story.
On Sunday March 5, as we were sitting in church waiting for services to begin, I saw a news feed on my phone and happened to mention to my wife Angela that Havasupai is accepting visitors this year. She told me she has always wanted to go to Havasu Falls. No way. Hiking down and seeing the amazing turquoise waters has been on my bucket list for a while. However, permits are difficult to come by. Angela mentioned there is a site where people can resell their permits. Hmm.
After we got home from church I decided to check things out. I logged in (Click Here) and what did I see? A 3-person permit for the week of Spring break (my wife is a teacher) when we had already planned a UT park road trip. I enjoy planning trips and usually would have had our road trip all mapped out with campgrounds booked and all that. For some reason, I just never got around to those details and simply blocked off the time and had a rough loop planned. That was it. Things happen for a reason I guess. So, we pivoted and booked the 3-person permit before it was gone. Havasu here we come.
Less than two weeks later we started our road trip by driving out to UT to see our kids and grandson. After a wonderful couple of days of visiting we headed down to AZ with our son Shem. We stayed Tue night at an old Route 66 motel called the Ramblin’ Rose, a classic old motel, complete with a bottle opener screwed into the wall next to the bathroom. Classic. No frills, but the room was clean and comfy.
Wed morning we got all packed up and checked out. Shem treated us to a yummy breakfast at Ma & Pa’s Hot Rod Café, a great local joint in Kingman, AZ with down home friendly service. Thumbs up for sure. We then drove about an hour to Grand Canyon Caverns Inn to check in for our Havasu hike. After getting our wrist bands and paperwork, we drove the last hour to the trailhead, passing through a checkpoint about 4 miles before the parking lot. After finally finding a place to park and using the toilets, we headed on down the canyon.
After we passed through the village we continued hiking for another couple of miles. A little before the campground we crossed a temporary bridge over the river, one at a time, since the heavy rains during the previous week washed out the permanent bridge (see picture later on down). On the way we passed Lower Navajo Falls and Fifty Foot Falls. Awesome, and a great warmup for what was to come.
When we got to the campground, I casually mentioned that maybe we should make camp up top and relieve ourselves of our gear so we could explore unencumbered. Angela convinced us to continue down past Havasu Falls and closer to Mooney Falls (which, she reminds me, if she hadn’t we would not have had the same, marvelous adventure). We found a great site, close to the last set of composting toilets. The toilets didn’t even stink – bonus! We were in the “higher ground” area just a little higher than the permanent toilet structures, so we should be totally safe. We even snagged a picnic table from the lower camps that were partially flooded. We started setting up camp, paused for dinner, and then finished setting up in the dark. By then we were certainly ready to hit the hay...
“Hello. Hello. Good morning.” Who the heck is going around waking people up at 6 am Thu morning, especially after hiking down 11 miles carrying all our gear? It turned out to be our first evacuation of the trip. We were told to grab our valuables and get to higher ground, but we could leave our camp where it was, on “higher ground”. Water was being released from the dam upriver and we were to hang out at higher ground near Havasu Falls for the morning. We found a great spot, right in front of the Falls and relaxed and waited. And waited. And waited. We were told the water surge should hit around 8 am. The surge finally came at around 10.30 am. It was pretty cool to see the water levels increase and soon the water coming over the Falls looked like a giant chocolate fountain. We dubbed them “The Chocolate Falls”. Prior to the Falls turning brown the water was a hazy bluish green, not the brilliant turquoise color we hoped for, due to all the rain the prior week (the same stuff that washed out the bridge). But hey, most people don’t ever get to see the Chocolate Falls, so we counted ourselves lucky.
After watching the heavier-flowing Falls for a while and getting some yummy Havasu Fry Bread and Havasu Tacos, we headed back down to camp. We had to take off our boots and roll up our pants to cross the stream, in our bare feet, that was once dry trail. No problem. Kinda fun actually. Our socks and hiking shoes were still dry, so no problem. Well, Angela’s and my shoes were dry but Shem, who stayed up top for a little while longer, decided to just trudge on through the stream, so he came back with soaked shoes, socks and pants. Normally hikers are not allowed to make fires, but the rangers relaxed the rules given the wet conditions. So, we made a nice little fire and roasted some socks and watched tons of steam rise from Shem’s boots that were next to the fire. The water continued to rise, but we were safe on higher ground. The rest of the day was spent exploring Mooney Falls and the lower part of the campground. Absolutely beautiful. We made a nice Mountain House dinner and ate it as it was getting dark. We then settled down for a good night's sleep.
“Hello. Hello. Anyone in there?” Who the heck is waking us up at 11:07 pm Thu night? We are tired and want some sleep. The rangers were back, once again asking us to evacuate. But this time, it wasn’t just our valuables. We were to pack up our whole camp, in the dark, in the rain, and get to higher ground. The rain and snow up top had filled the reservoir and they needed to release even more water from the dam. We were now officially under a flash flood warning. Inconvenient? Sure. But it is better safe than sorry. So, we were surprisingly quite efficient in packing up our camp. Our packs were strung up on our Charlotte’s Webbing and covered by a Near Zero tarp, so they were clean and dry thankfully. Tents? Not so dry. We got all our gear packed up, put our water shoes on, rolled up our pants and headed out (much quicker than those around us thanks to our great camp organization with the OE Charlotte’s Webbing – sorry, shameless plug, but true). What was once dry ground with a few small stream crossings was now anywhere from ankle deep to knee deep water that we hiked through, in the pitch dark and rain, with two headlamps between the three of us.
We reached the high ground near the ranger station at the top of the campground, about ¾ a mile up from our original camp site, and proceeded to find a nice little spot, next to a big rock and some cactus, to set up our new makeshift camp, still in the rain. We had enough room to set up just one tent and didn’t want to bother setting up the second tent anyway. We put our packs down next to the trees with a tarp over them. The three of us then crammed into our Near Zero two-man tent at around 1 am. At least we were now out of the rain. After we fell asleep for a little bit, Angela wakes us up to shift our sleeping pads. We were only using two pads and they had separated, causing her sleeping bag to now be directly on the cold, wet floor of the tent preventing her from getting to sleep. With the pads now scooted together we were able to all be warm and get a few more hours sleep.
Thankfully, by the time we woke up in the morning the rain had stopped. Since the lower campground area was now under water, Mooney and Beaver Falls both closed, and more rain coming, we decided there wasn’t anything more for us to see and we packed everything up again (it was mostly all packed anyway) and headed out. We started our hike out around 8 am Fri morning, crossing the makeshift bridge and heading into the village to wait for our guide. The main trail on the other side of the village was flooded and not passable, so we had to be shown an alternate way out on the back side of the village. Once again, that was an experience that most hikers to Havasu don’t get. Sweet.
During the midnight evacuation we forgot to fill our water bottles at the natural spring near the beginning of the campground. Fortunately, we had our Sawyer micro filter and filled up at the stream about a few miles past the village, before we got too far and there was no longer any water. What seemed like a pretty flat hike on the way down was now a steady, gradual incline on the way out. We stopped for lunch, some snack breaks and some breathers, but otherwise we made good time until the switchbacks. Shem, being young and strong, headed out ahead of us to get the truck ready. Angela and I took our time and didn’t push too hard. It was right around 1 pm by the time we reached the top and took advantage of the toilets there. Not bad, about 5 hours to hike out. We did hike out a day early, but we were safe and dry and still had a wonderful experience.
On our drive out, as soon as we got reception we called our motel in Blanding,
The next day we drove up to Green River to meet our daughter for lunch. She drove from BYU to pick up her brother and let us treat her to lunch. We then had a pleasant, uneventful drive home to Colorado where we promptly spread our gear all throughout the house to let it dry.
Good times. Great experiences. Quality time with family. I wouldn’t change a thing. We will someday go back to Havasu to catch the turquoise waters, but for now we count ourselves lucky to see what most people don’t get to see, “The Chocolate Falls.”
Mooney Falls before and after:
Campground under water (see picnic table where arrow is pointing), just above Mooney Falls:
Camp (before we evacuated):
Who needs marshmallows? We roast socks (with a side of hiking shoes):
Check out that awesome fire ring we built.
Some notable gear that we used:OE Charlotte’s Webbing for great camp organization
Chairs bought on Amazon – fabric and poles great, but little plastic plugs keep breaking
Note: no affiliate links here, just highlighting great gear that I use and recommend including a range of Outdoor Element gear so you too can "explore with confidence". Also included is gear from our great friend, Scott, at Near Zero who has mastered the art of lightweight backpacking, as well as trusted gear from PNWBushcraft, Ursack and Sawyer.