The Havasupai Indian Reservation is home to some of the most spectacular waterfalls you’ll ever encounter. Roughly 40 miles west as-the-crow-flies of the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is a side canyon called Supai Canyon. It’s about as dry and arid as any high-desert environment you’ll encounter. Massive, sandstone canyon walls surround a sandy desert floor decorated with cottonwood trees and prickly-pear cactus. What makes it so unique, however, is a brilliantly, bold turquoise creek that actually flows more like a river cutting through the desert, creating a true desert oasis as unique as any sight on Earth.
People of Blue-Green Water
Havasu Creek gets its name from the Native-American tribe that’s inhabited the land for hundreds of years. The word Havasu means ‘blue-green water’ and Havasupai means ‘people of blue-green water.’ The water gets its unique, tropical color from various minerals found in the water that are deposited much higher up before it heads into the canyon. Because of the amount of minerals found in the water, the creek erodes its surroundings much faster than traditional spring water. In its wake it leaves travertine deposits all along its path whether it borders pools or adds to the drama on the cliffs that the waterfalls pour over.
Turquoise Water & Red Canyon Walls
Havasu Falls is definitely the most recognizable and visited of the falls, achieving the status of being one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world, despite requiring a 10-mile backpacking trip in. It’s a 100-foot spectacle with cascading pools at its base, the turquoise water creating an unparalleled beauty contrasting against the red canyon walls. With the water at a year-round temperature in the upper 60s, it can be a bit chilly at first, but warm enough to get used to, which people are quick to take advantage of in this desert oasis.
Following the downstream from Havasu Falls is the Havasupai Campground. For roughly one mile along the creek is a primitive campground where you’re completely free to set up your tent anywhere. Whether you want to be right next to the water or up against the canyon cliffs, there’s always space available, even in the busiest time of the year — the spring season.
Just beyond the campground is Mooney Falls. While not as widely recognized as its counterpart just upstream, Mooney Falls is certainly just as, if not more dramatic than Havasu Falls. Mooney Falls pours over an immense 200-foot cliff into an even deeper part of the canyon. To reach the bottom, a hike down the cliff is required. This is definitely not a hike for anyone with a fear of heights. Mist from the falls dampens the cliffs that you’re scaling down adding to the intensity of climbing down. After climbing through a couple of steep tunnels, there are a couple of ladders that descend straight down before reaching the floor where you can stand in amazement at the turquoise waters falling 200 feet into a large pool at your feet.
An optional day trip involves going about three miles downstream from Mooney Falls to a small set of cascading falls called Beaver Falls. Beaver Falls cascades down 30 feet of smaller cliffs just outside the Grand Canyon National Park boundary. The hike there brings you through natural grapevines, up and down steep, sandstone cliffs and even through an almost tropical grove where you think almost for a few seconds, that you’ve accidentally stepped into Hawaii.
Photographing these amazing treasures in a new way can be difficult. Roughly every ten years a catastrophic flood winds up completely changing the landscape, so you could always wait for that and then be the first there afterward. That’s not very practical, however, and so you might want a better tactic. The waterfalls of Havasupai are very high on peoples’ bucket lists and thus, receive a lot of attention. They appear in magazines all the time, making photos of the falls with people in them in high demand as well. It’s very tempting when seeing a sight like this to get it in its purest and undisturbed form, leaving people out of every frame. The downside to this, though, is that it’s extremely difficult to accurately capture a sense of scale of the grandness of the falls. Having a person or a few people in there can help to capture the drama and scale of the falls.
Also keep in mind that while Havasu Falls may be one of the most photographed waterfalls in the world, easily 99% of those shots are taken in the middle of the day. Try a different time of day, or even not during the day at all! One of my most successful shots was capturing Havasu Falls after dark. It’s something nobody had ever seen, a fact I was just as surprised to discover.
Photographing the falls is a great reason to spend more than one night down there. It’s almost impossible to not want to get the pristine, natural shots upon first seeing the falls because of the impact of seeing them for the first time. Once you’ve let it all sink in though by the end of that second day, then your creativity can begin to flow. You start to see people as helping the scene out rather than interfering. You’ve most likely already captured the quintessential shots during the day, so you’re a bit more ambitious in capturing more unique shots. Both of my trips were for two nights and it was a perfect getaway to a land that still ranks as one of my favorite places on Earth. There’s literally nothing like it anywhere!
Mike Cavaroc shoots with a Canon 5d.
“I love (the 5D) but I’m also going to upgrade to a 7D soon.”