Terra Galleria Photography

Photographer’s Guide to Havasu Canyon – Now and Then


The Havasupai Indian Reservation, home to the “people of the blue-green water”, is located in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon out of the way from the South Rim. The oasis with waterfalls dropping over red rock into turquoise pools is a uniquely enchanting location in North America with a Shangri-La quality reinforced by the significant effort necessary to get to, as the main waterfall and campground is 10 miles from the trailhead. In this article, I provide current 2019 logistics updates and contrast them with my experience of 20 years ago.


The highlight of the canyon is 100-feet Havasu Falls, located 2 miles downstream of the village. The classic elevated side view cannot be missed as it is found along the trail, and from the base, you can photograph the falls with beautiful travertine terraces in the foreground. From time to time, flash floods rearrange the configuration of the falls. A particularly big one occurred in 2008, after which Havasu falls lost its distinctive two separated parts, as well as many travertine terraces.

Mooney Falls, 0.5 miles farther down, is twice as high (200 feet) and a starker simple ribbon enclosed in a steep bowl. After the two tunnels, there is a high view from the trail with travertine stalactites as foreground. To photograph the fall from the bottom, you’d need to go down a nearly vertical section using ladders and chains, so good footwear and free hands are necessary. Keep in mind that Mooney Falls is named after a prospector who died while trying to find a way down to the bottom of that waterfall.

The waterfalls are in the shade in the early morning and in the late afternoon. As often with waterfalls, shade provides the most foolproof conditions for photography. They are sunlit from late morning to mid-afternoon, with the most even light at midday. During the warm months, you are likely to see many people in the water at the base of Havasu Falls except early and late in the day.

There are a total of 5 waterfalls. Less than a mile downstream from Supai village, Upper and Lower Navajo falls are on your way to the two main waterfalls. 2.5 miles downstream from Mooney Falls, Beaver Falls is wide and drops in several tiers. With the 2019 mandated 4 days/3 nights campground stay, a good plan would be to hike in the first day and out the last day, and devote each of the full days to Havasu/Navajo Falls and Mooney/Beaver Falls.


The creek’s flow doesn’t vary much during the year, but the deciduous vegetation of the canyon does. Trees turn green in April and May. Spring and summer have verdant vegetation, and the greens add to the visual appeal of the canyon. However, they are also the most popular times. In warm weather, people are likely to be found hanging out in the pools at the base of Havasu Falls for most of the day. Summer (June, July, August) temperatures can reach 100F-115F and there are risks of flash floods during the monsoon season, which extends to September.

Autumn is quieter and brings moderate temperatures and fall colors in October and November. Winter is the quietest season, during which overnight freezing temperatures are possible, which is not an impediment for photography. Although many trees are bare, I still found some remnants of autumn colors in the canyon.


Getting a permit

As detailed in the final section, back twenty years ago, I just showed up at the campground. Since then, regulations and fees have steadily increased. At one point, you were allowed to come to the campground without a reservation, but you’d pay a double fee. Since 2016, you must come with a reservation either at the lodge or the campground, and it doubles as a permit. You need to present a photo ID and reservation at the tourist check-in office to obtain a wristband, and nobody is permitted to proceed past the village without a wristband. Reservations are highly competitive and fill up quickly after the opening time, so be sure to keep current with the latest registration process and mark the relevant date in your calendar.


The lodge is located in Supai village, requiring a 4-mile roundtrip hike to the falls, but in addition to not having to carry camping gear, you can find food and restaurants in the village. In 2019, reservations opened on June 1, 2019 for the year 2020 with a price of $440 per room per night (for up to 4 people), plus a permit fee of $110/person. All reservations were processed by phone only. See the official site for details.

The campground is located 2 miles downstream from Supai village and is very conveniently situated between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls. Campsites are not designated, but one should minimize the impact by using existing sites. The cost has increased dramatically over the last few years. Back in 2017, there was a permit fee of $60 and a camping fee of $25 per night for each person. In 2018, the permit fee rose to $110. In 2019, this changed to $100 per night (+$25 for weekends) inclusive of the permit fee, but with a new minimum stay of 3 nights. The price hike hasn’t lessened the demand. Reservations opened on February 1, 2019 at 8am for the entire calendar year, and I read that they sold out in just a couple of hours. All reservations are now processed online only at havasupaireservations.com. Creating an account is necessary to access the detailed and useful information available on the site and to make a reservation.

Getting there

Havasu Canyon is situated outside the limits of Grand Canyon National Park and far west out of the way from the South Rim. The trailhead, called Hualapai Hilltop is a 3.5 hours drive from Las Vegas or Flagstaff. Hualapai Hilltop is located at the end of Indian Road 18, 60 miles from the turnoff from Route 66, 7 miles east of Peach Springs, Arizona, which is the nearest town. Even lodging there fills up fast.

From Hualapai Hilltop, the trail descends about 1,000 feet in the first 1.5 miles, and then the other 1,400 feet in the remaining 8.5 miles to the campground and main falls. There is no water and little shade along the way. The well-used trail is easy to follow and as scenic as classic Grand Canyon National Park trails. Hiking early in the morning is a must in warmer months, but note that per current regulations, night hiking is prohibited.

Unlike for most locations 10 miles from the trailhead, there are options to make the journey easier. Helicopters are used as a means of transportation for tribe members, and after they are done giving rides to them, they offer rides to visitors ($85 one-way) on a first-come, first-serve basis. Signing up early in the morning is enough to guarantee a ride later in the day.

The pack animals issue

Pack animals are also available, either in the form of horse rides or mule trains which can carry bags. Given the general poverty of the area, it is not entirely surprising that compared to the strict NPS standards under which the national park concessionaires must operate, the animals work in conditions that have been described as abusive by some witnesses. This appears to have been going on for a long time, but it is only recently that a group has documented and publicized the abuse, presenting a compelling case for not using pack animal services in Havasu Canyon. Hopefully, they may have effected some change, judging from the site havasupaireservations.com that now handles pack mule reservations. They mention “New in 2019: […] significantly higher standards for Pack Mule care and welfare”, as well as limitations on sizes, weight, and prohibitions of hard-sided items (such as coolers) that could help.

Although not exactly welcome, an attentive look at the village’s dwellings reveals third-world living conditions, unfortunately all too frequent on Indian reservations. Those seem to get less attention on social media than the animals. As the pack animal services provide much-needed revenue to the tribe, the site linked above recommends hiring pack animals as a way to enhance one’s experience. There is a delicate balance to be struck between economic development and conservation there. Having seen at other places the degradation caused by over-visitation, I would have to disagree with the approach of trying to make the place accessible to many, especially given the social media fueled explosion in popularity of Havasu Canyon. People who have acquired the ability to visit a location 10 miles from the trailhead unassisted are more likely to have also learned to be more respectful of the environment and to be more aware of “leave no trace” principles.

My Experience then

Twenty years ago, packing camping gear and my large-format photography equipment, I was planning to buy food at the village, but by the time I got there at dusk in the short days of winter, I was disappointed to see all stores and restaurants closed. At the campground, I didn’t see anybody else, and as a result, became the prime target for one of the many stray dogs that wander around. It was so aggressive that to keep it quiet, I had to give it one of my few energy bars, the only food that I had left.

I spent the next day photographing the falls on an empty stomach. After the morning session, I waited until the afternoon for soft reflected light. By the time I got back to the village, stores were closed again. Out of food, I decided to hike out at night, but a few miles from the village, I encountered a man and an elderly woman who were having trouble on the trail because their flashlight had died. Since I had only one light, I couldn’t give it to them. I retraced my steps with the villagers to Supai before hiking out, arriving back at Hualapai Hilltop well after midnight. Although shorter than I wished, it was quite a memorable experience!


  1. Beautiful images! Interesting and useful info on a place I would love to go to one of these days. Probably when I retire unfortunately. Thanks for sharing.

    • QT Luong says:

      Why wait? It’s a 4 day/3 nights trip (or less if you stay at the lodge), and I assume with all hiking trips, best enjoyed when you have some vigor. With the quick increase in popularity, the place may change quite a bit…

  2. Appreciating the time and effort you put into your website and in-depth information you offer. Absolutely stunning pictures and very well written (as usual) making for another enjoyable read of another remarkable hiking experience. Through your pictures and words I am able to see such breathtakingly beautiful nature that I would not otherwise see if not for your sharing, thanks!

  3. Kelly L Noel says:

    I was able to enjoy this beautiful “wonder of the world” with my church youth group almost 35 years ago! We went at Easter time for a whole week. I remember singing Kansas “Dust in the Wind” as we made our way in the youth bus to this unheard of location/ Change was in the air re: weather-wise for us. So 20 of us divided all the food and gear, split it up each carrying our own share and descended, hiking into the valley at the North Rim. Down, down down we went on the switchback trail to get to the bottom of the mountain. At the bottom there was a sign reminding us that when we left.., this switchbacks could take 6 hours to get up! So we began our hike into the canyon.., which I had only ever seen from the top before. Being a 16 yr. old it seemed like hours until we saw our first little tine creek of water at the bottom. Not even enuf to dip you canteen in. Ate lunch somewhere in the valley and carried on, admiring the tall red spires reaching up to the blue sky dotted with big puffy clouds/ I think we only saw one group of people going out that day, but we kept hiking. That itty bitty creek kept getting a little bigger and bigger as we hiked until now we actually had to find places to cross it. We had about had it when finally we came upon something. It was Havasupai, the Indian Reservation! While it looked dirty, dry, dusty, and not anything like had imagined we carried on. I remember a man coming out on horseback to meet us and tell us the story of the free-standing rock formation. He said the Indians believe that when the upper rock fell, it was there belief that would be the end of all time, for it had been there forever. We hiked for another perhaps hours or so, crisscrossing the creek and getting to see a beautiful sight as we round the corner. There on horsdeback was the silhouette of an Indian looking over the valley by the burieal grounds. Faded plastic flowers covered many headstones in the hot searing dessert. All of a sudden there i hoop-la towards the front. What is it? I run up, rounded the bend and saw the most beautiful sight I had ever witnessed in my life. Upon rounding the bend I saw there, at the bottom of this deep canyou, with the blue dotted skies so brilliant, the dark red, rough spires of rock reaching upwards to the sky, and that little creek that we had been following had become a river . The prettiest river I had ever seen. It was an enormous waterfall splashing down into the most turqoise water I had ever seen or could possibly image, surrounded by a grove of green trees lining the base of the canyou. We ran around down the side and got to the bottom.., our jaws dropping. Standing at the base of this beautiful turquoise waterfall, curling my toes in the grassy sand, we watched kids swing out on a big old rope swing dropping into the falls. Some people we behind the falls. Others were sunbathing in these individual pools of sun heated water. (There are like small pools formed by the minerals in the water to build individual circles all connected and filled with heated water.) There were people walking across the pools to the other side of the river where the was a mine that you could go down in! We got to camp there for the whole week, praising God for this glorious place and our good luck to get to experience it. While there on Sunday morning it actually snowed at the bottom where we were! I am told the snow rarely hits the bottom of the canyon. We hiked and explored the area, followed the river south, witnessed two more waterfalls including Mooney Falls and then onward to where the Havasupai meets the Colorado. What an eye-opener! That beautiful turquoise water meeting the the muddy Colorado river (which is what southern CA drinks from!). I wouldn’t even get into tee Colorado I was so grossed out. It was the trip of a lifetime. That switchbacks outta there took every last second of the 6 hours to get us all out of there. We had hiked the day before to the base of the canyon so we only had that to do in the morning. One of our group had gotten violently ill and had to be helicoptered out due to eating mayonnaise from the village. (There were no businesses or hotels there then.) I hope to be able to get back there before I close my eyes again to be able to show it to my child. Something you don’t want to miss.

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