• Susanna Nilsson

Nature's Healing Powers

havasu fall women water hiking travel

I laid awake. I usually don’t check the time in the middle of the night, but instead try to fall back asleep. This night was different. I was waking up at 3:45am to finish packing and catch a Lyft to the airport. It was 11:50pm. Perfect. I rolled over and fell back asleep.

When my alarm buzzed in my ear, I still didn’t feel rested. However the excitement of what was to come overpowered my fatigue and I shuffled my luggage down the elevator and into the Toyota Yaris that was transporting me through the darkened city toward the airport. A blood red sunrise greeted me through the windows as I approached my gate. I grabbed a coffee and a scone and waited patiently for Group 6 to begin boarding. A high school girls’ soccer team was also on my flight. I hoped that they wouldn’t be rowdy because I wanted to doze off on the plane. Thankfully, I was able to sleep most of the flight.

The desert landscape rushed toward us during the descent. My love for the mountainous deserts of Arizona bubbled up as I thought of saguaros and road runners and various memories from my childhood visits to Tucson and Phoenix. After landing, a shuttle and another patient wait were in my immediate future as our group slowly assembled in the hotel lobby where we were meeting our guide. As we congregated, we introduced ourselves and chitchatted through our anticipation. Finally, a few minutes behind schedule, a petite smiling woman approached us with a binder. “I’m Whitney! Does everyone have water and all of their luggage?”

mooney falls outdoors water hiking picnic

After piling into the van and helping ourselves to drinks from a cooler and a few snacks, we alternated from dozing off and quietly talking for the next several hours. As we made camp in the Arizona desert, the blue shades of dusk faded to black. Whitney cooked us a hot meal of chili, followed by cheesecake and a roaring campfire. She reviewed our 65 liter packs – how to pack them and how the group gear would be distributed.

Exhausted from the long day, I happily climbed into my sleeping bag. But despite wearing long underwear, a fleece bag liner and a silk one, I could not manage to warm myself up. I knew that I was keeping my tent mate up, but somehow I didn’t think putting a pair of wool socks on my feet would be helpful. When I finally decided to try it out, it did the trick and I was able to sleep the remaining hours until dawn.

We broke camp early and began the last leg of our drive. We took out gear out of the van and started to prepare for the 10 mile descent into the canyon, toward our next campsite. The canyon was dusty and red. Helicopters departed every few minutes carrying various human, gear and product cargo. After a quick review of how to adjust the packs to our bodies, we hoisted the 30-40 pound packs on our backs and snapped a few photos before we began the hike. With our boots (or Chacos, if you were Whitney) laced, we began our 2000 foot descent into the canyon. Within a quarter of a mile, my hip flexors were screaming at me. Every few minutes, we stepped off to the side of the trail to allow for the pack mules to ascent the trail – allowing a wide berth for the working animals. Their sweat gleamed through their coats and I thought about how I would feel on the ascent out of the canyon.

women hiking backpacking arizona havasu falls

Once we had descended to the bottom, our pace quickened due to the trail’s relative flatness. We took side trails through the dust as often as we could to get out of the uneven rockiness of the canyon wash. We paused frequently, partaking in group snacks and adjusting our packs. None of us seemed particularly comfortable in our boots or in the heat, but we had no choice but to press on. At mile 5, the halfway point, we stopped and had a nice picnic lunch along the trail. Whitney shared a legend from the Havasupai Tribe pertaining to some of the rock formations visible to us. We were still excited about the upcoming sights and the prospect of encountering a true paradise in the middle of the desert.

We plodded on, trying our best to ignore swollen feet, bruised hips, aching backs and general discomforts. An hour or two passed and the landscape slowly shifted before our eyes. Water sprung from the canyon as if by magic and the cactus and agave turned into aspens and cottonwoods. A gorgeous and unbelievably clear blue-green creek started to snake alongside the trail and we could sense that we were gaining on our destination.

“Welcome to the Village of Supai!” Whitney cheered us on as we passed a few village buildings. In the village, we were given our permits and a chance to refill our water from a spigot, as well as a bathroom. I knew this would be my last chance to wash my hands for a couple of days. I greedily splashed water on my face and relished the feeling of walking around without my pack attached to my hips and shoulders. Another two miles, 8 down, 2 to go – those last 2 miles seemed daunting. With a fatigued determination, our group plodded on through the ultra-fine desert dusty trail.

We were almost too tired to appreciate the falls as we happened upon them. Fifty-Foot Falls and Little Navajo were the first we encountered. The blue-green creek was now a full-blown river - emerald and aquamarine instead of quartz-like. Around each bend, the Havasu Creek greeted us, cheering us on with its bubbling waters and seemingly magic qualities. We finally rounded the bend toward Havasu Falls and Whitney asked us to pause. One woman was celebrating her birthday over the weekend and Whitney wanted the birthday girl to go first. Havasu Falls looks exactly as every photo on social media makes it seem. No filter necessary, this place was as vibrant as any filter could make it. People below were hollering and splashing around in the water. A picnic table sat at the base of the waterfall, a playful gesture, asking the campers to be a part of the falls and not to be afraid to wade through the water.

After one final descent, we encountered a couple of Fry Bread stands – we were finally at our campsite. Whitney showed us the spring, where we could fill up our bottle straight from the side of the canyon – water filtered naturally by rock. We selected a campsite and then paired off to set up our tents. Whitney immediately began cooking dinner for us and we gazed longingly between the choice of hot food and our comfortable sleeping bags and pads. A delicious curry warmed our bellies and we crawled exhausted into bed. I don’t think any of us were still awake past 8pm.

A hot breakfast greeted us at 7am. I awoke early to stretch and saw the stars fade to sunrise over the canyon walls. After breakfast and dishes, a spark appeared in Whitney’s eye. She explained our days itinerary and that it would be an adventurous and hike filled day.

We started the day by a steep descent to Mooney Falls. Tunnels and ladders, slimy from the mix of desert dust and waterfall mist took us down 200 feet to the bottom of the fall. We couldn’t take our eyes off the water. The gleaming, bright color of the water contrasted with the red dirt and canyon walls. We were in awe. As much as we could’ve spent all morning gazing at the fall, we knew that this was just the beginning of what to expect for the day. Our expert guide led us wading through the water, scrambling over rocks and balancing on logs. A remote section of the creek was ours and we had small waterfalls all to ourselves. We played all morning in the water, letting the cool creek calm our calves and ease the swelling of our feet from the previous day’s hike. Whether you wanted to take photos, soak in the creek or just be present alongside the water, everyone in our group was able to spend the morning bonding with the water and taking what we needed to rejuvenate our spirits.

The chutes and ladders descent to Mooney Falls was also our ascent back up to camp and our lunch. We took a break midday to lay in the sun and dry off, as well as eat a meal. We then took off back toward the village to revisit the previous falls from yesterday and get more intimately acquainted. As a guide, Whitney had expert knowledge of the area and took us to remote and exciting places. The gleam in her eye as she asked us “Are you ready for an adventure?” kept us light on our feet and ready to explore throughout the day. We went where no other campers had ventured and we knew that we were getting a unique and intimate experience.

With only 300 permits issued per day, Havasu Falls is managed and monitored for crowding and overuse. The weekend we visited, only 100 campers were staying, we were able to explore the canyons without encountering almost anyone else. We really were getting the best experience possible on this trip.

Every woman signed up for the Havasu Falls trip for their own reasons. One woman wanted to commemorate her birthday by being outside and active. Another woman was hoping for a connection to nature as a means to aid her through grief and loss. The trip was Number One on the bucket list, or a way to train for another, more intense trip. One woman was seeking an opportunity to rediscover herself after spending three decades raising a family. Whatever the reason to go on the trip, we were able to share the water, the views, the food and the experience together. Our spirits were united, forming our own river of connected woman to move forward in life together. While we would all go our separate ways after the trip, we are forever bonded in the shared experience of healing of growth, of overcoming both personal and physical challenges and becoming stronger, more capable women together. A women’s adventure trip is about so much more than just visiting a place. It’s an opportunity to build links with each other and nature, to create a support system for ourselves and to give or take what we need from each other. It’s about strength and sisterhood and sharing the joys and challenges of adventure together.

As we broke camp before dawn and began our ascent out of the canyon, our fatigued determination that allowed us to plod down toward out campground had completely shifted. We emerged from the depths of the canyon strong, resolute and restored women. The earth had healed us of our fatigues and the water of Havasu Creek was giving us the strength we needed to push ourselves forward in our lives. As we took our packs off for the final time at the trailhead, we knew that we were changed by this experience and that it was only a matter of time before we would find ourselves on another adventure – full of challenge and self-discovery. Each new adventure a chance to be bolder than we ever thought possible. An opportunity for us to welcome more women into the movement of healing through nature, support through sisterhood and being unapologetically feminine, wherever we find ourselves.

#havasufalls #womenwhohike #outdoors #health #travel #backpacking #arizona

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