The Real Turquoise Waterfalls at the Grand Canyon

Havasu Falls, adjoining Grand Canyon National Park.

I got my first “incomplete” in third grade, failing to properly answer a grammar school essay explaining how our favorite color made us feel. I wrote blue because it felt calm and green because it felt alive. No, snapped the teacher with what seemed even then to be the appropriate first name of Olga, ” It’s blue or green, not blue and green, Rewrite it.”

I consulted my mother. Delighted to discover we shared the same favorite colors, she fluttered in her quizzical riddle-talk, “Keep both and you’ll have one!”

First seen in my mother’s eye.

“What does that mean Mom?!”

I didn’t have time for this. It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown was about to start it’s annual broadcast. If you weren’t on NASA-like split-second countdown, you’d miss it and have to wait an entire year to catch it again.

“You combine them,” she said, closing one eye in a slow wink and pointing to her metallic eye shadow. “It’s called turquoise.”

Olga gave me a unique dual-grade on the turquoise rewrite, A for “imagination,” but D for “execution of assignment.” As if I’d outfoxed her or something, she put on a miserable pill face, cawing, “Turquoise isn’t a color found in nature!”

From that day on, Olga’s jeer of illegitimacy fortified turquoise into my combatant color. Even after learning that there is a world of natural gemstones the same name as the color, however, I always felt the need to argue turquoise off the D List of Colors.

Daybreak by Maxfield Parrish.

This all came back in early June after seeing a friend’s posted photographs of bodies of water the likes of which I’d only glimpsed in those lavishly-colored idyllic dreamscapes by illustrator Maxfield Parrish, with his Quaker vision of Mount Olympus. My friend’s photos were magical tableaux of falls that just naturally blended blue and green water.“Where is that – does it really exist?!” I texted him.

Yes, it really does exist. Located in Arizona, it is part of the contiguous Grand Canyon National Park but within the native Supai people’s tribal land, the only American Indian tribe to have remained on their original land. Non-tribal people are permitted to camp on lower canyon valley, and fully enjoy the series of falls, lagoons, and  pools where the turquoise water flows.

Reveries by Maxfield Parrish.

Anyone can technically go there – if they can get through to then get a reservation many months in advance and willing to navigate steep switchbacks in the black of night, then hike four hours through rocky desert terrain, then a long, narrow valley between a cathedral of mammoth red sandstone walls.

I had to go. Somehow, someway. I wasn’t a camper. I didn’t have the gear. I have  a fifty-year old classic car that doesn’t like going ten miles from home. Well, yes, put it on the Someday list.

Who couldn’t wonder about some larger force of good at work when, nine days later,  I was included in a group message from a different friend. a Fearless Leader of camping: “I’ve got an open space to camp Havasu Falls. Anyone want to go?” Unequivocally – yes.

So it was that on the late morning of August 9, I sat beside that intrepid Fearless Leader with one of his friends who I’ll call New Friend,  in the back, and we drove out of Los Angeles, headed into Arizona.

On the Road to Arizona. Me, New Friend and Fearless Leader.

Despite its proximity, Arizona had oddly remained one of the few states I’ve never visited. While a day’s drive through part of it hardly gives one the full measure of local culture, taking old Route 66 certainly offers an abstract sense of it. Fascinating especially for an historian of national culture were the remnants of a bygone nation, mixed in with a cheeky nod to late 20th century alien conspiracy conspiracy and the curiosities of remote desert existence.

Crossing the border.

No place to rest. Let alone swim.

Proof of Aliens in a store that sold homemade beef jerky.

Desert living.

Fearless Leader in an old car graveyard where, in the background, the allegedly original Herbie the Lovebug rests forever.

About to drive a classic red Ford pickup, off into the imagination of a land long gone.

We dared not get off that exit.

A rather wide selection of books about one road.

New Friend captures Fearless Leader mirthing on yet another ‘Zona curiosity.

Finally, the landscape began to dramatically change, first with a clear, endless view of the open western sky and then, gradually, an increasing number of rock formation fingers slicing through it, soon enough coalescing into distant, undulating mountains.

We soon enough reached what is likely the nation’s most breathtaking view from a parking lot. Before the sun had entirely vanished, I had a chance to take in the canyon so deep, one had to lean over the edge to spot the bottom, all flanked by cathedral walls of red sandstone. I took a moment to sit alone, and take in the air, quietly grateful: I was finally seeing the Grand Canyon (technically, the “Grand Canyon” is a property of the National Park Service, while this canyon entrance area is privately owned by the Supai tribe).

Post-kitsch, entering the Nature zone.

Not in Kansas anymore.

The setting sun over the entrance to the Supai tribal lands, from the parking lot.

We three would figure some way to simulate sleep from the moment the sun disappeared, for several hours, until about three-thirty in the morning when New Friend and I listened closely to Fearless Leader as he loaded and balanced our backpacks  with camping gear and freeze-dried ice cream.

Then, in the black of the wee hours, we began our descent down a steep switchback trail, eventually reaching the canyon floor, and slogged over millions of stones that all but prevents flat walking, followed by loamy soil and eventually, a smooth pathway of red rock dust powder.

Fearless Leader, emboldened by our approach to the village of the Supai tribe, jaunted off a bit ahead as New Friend and I took our time observing the shifting landscape. We not only heard water, we went to see it. Not quite turquoise yet.

Another half hour and we finally reached the village, only to learn that it would be another hour further to the actual campsite. Via walkie-talkie, Fearless Leader alerted us from ahead that he’d already staked a campground for us.

Morning arrives as Fearless Leader leads fearlessly.

The first sign of water, a modest creek that would eventually lead to the falls.

A composite of the full canyon view.

More than halfway there.

Just outside the Supai village, the creek grew wide and the water ran more rapidly.

New Friend and I nearing the Supai village and, eventually, the campgrounds.

Once in the village, Fearless Leader was checking us in with the Native people who managed the reservations. Further down we went, rocks, sand, now the heat of the western summer sky, and heavy backpacks that made it feel as if one’s hip bones were about to snap.

Finally, one turns a corner and makes another descent. And there it is….

The first of several of the dreamland waterfalls, the biggest and best (I think) Havasu Falls. It really was  aquamarine. We went past it, trudging into the campgrounds. would return later that day, after setting up camp and eating.

The campsite was perfectly situated on a spot just feet away from the now wider, deeper creek. Campfires are not permitted, so meals meant boiling water and choosing from a wide variety and delicious range of freeze-dried camp food. There was even a picnic table in the middle of it, which we promptly waded towards, to rest our weary bones and refresh our sensibilities.

Havasu Falls, adjoining Grand Canyon National Park.

The creek near our campsite.

Our campsite.

Resting at our picnic table in the water.

Fearless Leader cooking it up.

New Friend enjoying the camp food.

Of course, after everything was set up, and we had eaten, there was nothing else on anyone’s mind but slipping  into that turquoise lagoon at Havasu Falls. One can’t get beneath the actual waterfall, its strong enough to drown you but you can jump about from pool to pool of the descending falls.

Fearless Leader hits Havasu.

The next day, it was on to explore the next set of falls further down the streaming water, Mooney Falls and, eventually Beaver Falls. Fearless Leader, ever eager to get a jump on the exploration headed out first, New Friend and I followed a good distance behind.

If I hadn’t quite expected the rigor of a four hour hike into the canyon but survived it just fine, surely the obstacle course one navigates to get down to Mooney Falls would be conquerable as well, though t without a massive amount of treacherous risk.

The two cave tunnels, with a proclivity for instability, was the fun part. It’s not just the slippery stones caused by the Mooney mist that gives you game, it’s what is essentially rock climbing down (and eventually, hopefully up) a sheer wall of red rock, with easy to miss footholds. More exciting is the easily-lost grip of the wet and rather loose chains and ladders that are only partially bolted into the stone cliff. But, like some sort of XPRO Boy Scout, you make it.

Mooney Falls was as cold and shadowed and unwelcoming as the effort to reach it, at least on this day. For us, it only served the purpose of a way station on the longer, winding path to Beaver Falls.

That trek, between Mooney and Beaver, was especially interesting. There is every sort of desert plant growing, a scent of montain sage (I think) and the red prickly pear fruits sprouting off acres of cactus. Part of the path to Beaver Falls was through a Oz-like valley of grapevines, and one has to cross the river four times, back and forth, before you reach Beaver Falls

Lo and behold, on that path coming in the opposite direction, we encountered Fearless Leader like our returning hero, proud that his camp trainees had found their way. For a moment, his natural modesty allowed him to hear out our appreciation. He had done all of this for his friends.

And then, passing an outcrop that looked like the head of a lion, he led us to Beaver Falls. There were some deep spots, but we swam across the expanse to rest on a cool broad stone berth, beneath an umbrella of lushly overhanging green plants nourished by the waters, so phosphorous with limestone it changed the color. Right out of freaking Gilligan’s Island.

The cliff to climb if you’re going to do Mooney.

Manuevering into Mooney.

In one of two short caves that lead to Mooney Falls.

Dank Mooney Falls.

New Friend takes in the rather dank and dangerous Mooney Falls.

The cactus plant’s bright red prickly pear fruit seemed to multiply the closer one got to Beaver Falls.

The “magic tree” with exposed roots, yet flourishing.

Beaver Falls, where the aquamarine was more acquamarinish than any falls we saw.

The next day, Saturday, August 12, was our second full day camping Havasu. Early the next morning we were scheduled to be up and out of the campgrounds, making another wee-hours trek in the dark, up and out of the canyon..

Fearless Leader had already announced his final victory march to the Colorado River that day, spiriting up and out early Saturday, and joining some of the adjoining campsite crew back down, even further past Beaver Falls to the boundary between the tribal land and Grant Canyon National Park.

This day, New Friend and I headed in the other direction, back up to the Supai village, taking in a native Peach Festival of music, dance and food. Dozens of  tribe members who didn’t live on the land there were coming in for the weekend events.

Members of the Supai tribe join in a traditional dance.

A young Supai woman danced to a tribal chant and drum song with exert agility.

A visiting tribe perfumed at the Peach Festival.

Taking time to sit still and remember all the senses stirred by Havasu Falls.

That last night there was some here and there between us. Fearless Leader had made it to the Colorado River but not without a bit of leg tension from so much climbing and hiking.

New Friend and I hadn’t quite snapped all the necessary buttons for getting a campsite ready for whatever might happen at night. Not so much the critters going for the food but more lethally, the threat of flash floods.

The camping area of the valley was a dangerous place to be if that creek suddenly became swollen with an unexpected rainstorm. The closer to the creek a campsite is, the more immediately a flaw flood would sweep away not just camping gear – but campers. It rained some that night, but not enough to cause worry.

Early the next morning, we just about made it back to the village when a consensus converged. Lack of sleep, tense legs and a reluctance to make the climb back up quite so fast, led me, Fearless Leader and New Friend to concur about taking the available helicopter service back to the parking lot. Native people have the first right of travel, but by early afternoon each of us, one by one, was called up to take an empty seat and fly over the canyons back to where it all started. I went up first.

About halfway up, the glass chopper window sounded like it was suddenly cracking but the pilot didn’t blink. “Looks like some pretty heavy hail coming in,” he sighed. I landed. Over the next few flights up, New Friend and Fearless Leader would be safely delivered, but not without a bit of powerful wind rocking things about.

Down below, we would later learn, the mellifluous flow of aquamarine water had been violently interrupted by an angry, turbulent, brown raging storm.  As we we helicoptering up, up and away, our campsite was being overtaken by a flash flood.

An escape into the beauty of Nature is made vital and affirming not just by the memorable scenes, challenges and revelations we experience but by the dangerous and unpredictable acts of Nature that fate allowed us to miss, as well.

Before the sun had set on our last full day, Saturday, however, I was determined to return to the first waterfall, Havasu, to metaphorically imbibe the meaning of turquoise.

I went and felt it all: the cold power of the bracing water, the mist of the falls, the golden glow of the sun, the brisk breeze and damp red soil. I sat in silence, etching it all into my sensory memory to be used as that place I could always return for peace, if only in my mind..

The blue because it felt calm and the green because it felt alive.

(For information on making a trip to Havasu Falls, visit the website

Under ominous clouds, Fearless Leader finally choppers down.

Flash flooding turned the tranquil aquamarine at Havasupa Falls a deadly dark brown.

Categories: American Regionality, Native American Indians

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