Scouts from Albuquerque Troop 166 hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and camp in a tropical paradise set between towering waterfalls.
Dominic Gomez finished his peanut butter and honey sandwich and then went straight for the high-carb energy bar. It was lunchtime deep inside the Grand Canyon, and the 12-year-old First Class Scout needed a power boost.
“This is my first real backpacking trip,” admitted Dominic, as he and other Troop 166 Scouts rested beneath a pinkish sandstone overhang.
Deep within the Grand Canyon, Boy Scouts and leaders from New Mexico bask in the warm sun and swim at the foot of Havasu Falls.
The lunch break followed a knee-crunching 1,100-foot descent from the Hualapai Hilltop, trailhead for the Scouts’ 10-mile hike to the Havasu campground.
“I’m not worried about hiking down,” Dominic insisted, “but I keep asking myself, ‘How am I ever going to climb back out?'”
BACKPACKERS’ ‘TO DO’ LIST
Located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, which borders Grand Canyon National Park to the south, the Havasu Canyon Trail is on the “To Do” list for many serious backpackers. Why? Two spectacular waterfalls—Havasu and Mooney.
Havasupai translates as “people of the blue-green waters,” and it’s the incredible hue of the falls’ terraced, travertine pools that makes them world famous.
Troop 166 schedules the Havasu hike every other year for spring break. Scoutmaster Curtis Rosenberg believes it’s a great confidence builder for young Scouts.
“It’s a fun trip,” he said. “Afterward a boy can say ‘I made it down and back out again.’ That kind of success sets him up to accomplish a lot more in the future.”
Assistant Scoutmaster Sergio Restaino agrees.
Scouts cross one of the travertine ledges at Havasu.
“The Havasu trip is tough enough that the younger boys feel they’ve done some real high adventure hiking, but it is not so tough that they can’t do it with the right preparation.”
A HIKE IN THREE SECTIONS
The hike breaks down into three distinct sections. The trail starts with a series of steep switchbacks that zigzag alongside limestone cliffs for about a mile and a half.
Here, and all along the trail, backpackers share the path with horse trains that ferry tourists, supplies, and mail to and from Supai village. The Scouts quickly learned to heed wranglers’ orders to stand still on the inside of the trail while the horses passed.
Close to where the Scouts ate lunch, the trail eases into a loose-gravel wash straddled by skyscraping red cliffs. It gradually descends like this for the next 6.5 miles. The walking isn’t difficult, but a record high of 89 degrees for this March date took a toll on the Scouts’ water supplies.
Just before Supai, the Indian village of 450 residents, the canyon floor widens and is filled with trees and other green growth. Spring-fed Havasu Creek, source of the famed waterfalls, soon comes into view. A bridge crossing was the Scouts’ first opportunity to purify water and guiltlessly consume it.
Finally, past Supai, the trail takes yet another steep drop for the final two miles to the campground.
THE WONDERS OF HAVASU
The boys took a long break at Supai while the leaders checked in at the camping office, paid fees, and collected campsite permits. Some of the Scouts ducked into the general store and parted with precious sums for a cold soft drink or ice cream. A couple of Indian boys, perhaps 4 or 5 years old, made great sport of playing tag around and through the tall legs of assistant Scoutmaster Paul Eichel.
The Albuquerque Scouts leave the cool shade of a sandstone overhang after a lunch break.
Then it was show time, time to view one of the crown jewels of the Grand Canyon. The Scouts hitched up their backpacks and walked out of the village.
The roar of Havasu’s rushing waters announced its presence. Conveniently, the trail passed an overlook and provided a breathtaking photo op of the 100-foot cascade.
“It’s like something out of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie,” said Scout Jason Hickey.
Definitely not what you would expect in the middle of a desert, added Jason’s mom, Jan, a troop committee member. “It’s a miniature paradise,” she said.
Light was fading, so the troop decided to pitch their tents in the campground and save the visit to Mooney Falls for the next morning.
Scouts and adults divided into eating groups and began cooking dinner. Troop chaplain Tom Baltes and his wife, Louise, proved how well you could eat on a backpacking trip.
Tom fried pork loin steaks, called Schwenkbraten, bought at a German butcher shop and frozen for the trip. Louise took care of the vegetables, and Curtis Rosenberg used his Backpacker Oven to bake sweet bread on top of a fuel stove. Darkness came early in the canyon, and no one had trouble falling asleep, despite a croaking chorus of frogs down by the creek.
A BACKPACKING TRADITION
Chartered to Albuquerque’s Faith Lutheran Church, Troop 166 has 90 Scouts and 70 registered adults. The breadth of its youth and adult leadership makes possible twice-a-month camp-outs and a variety of high adventure opportunities. Two other groups, for example, were on spring break camping trips in addition to the Havasu hikers.
“Our troop’s specialty is backpacking,” said Sergio Restaino. “This year we’ve challenged ourselves to complete 4,000 hiker miles.
“We require every Scout and leader to complete an annual qualifier hike before they sign up for one of our longer trips.”
The qualifiers, Restaino said, are usually 10-mile day hikes, in full pack, on trails in the nearby Sandia Mountains.
Others credited the Albuquerque troop’s success to a boy-led program and its enthusiastic Scoutmaster.
Alex Jenks, Jacob Fox, and Daniel Eichel give directions to other Scouts making the tricky descent to the base of 200-foot Mooney Falls.
“Mr. Rosenberg is an awesome guy,” said Paul Eichel. “He knows all the boys by their first name. He’s the one who brings popcorn on camping trips, and he’s the one who can produce a cherry cobbler on a backpacking trip in the middle of the Pecos Wilderness.
“He’s got this laid-back personality, but his focus is always on getting the kids to participate, having a good time, and learning something in the process.”
All that requires a good delegator.
“Curt is smart enough to use the troop’s adult resources so he can concentrate on the program,” Eichel said. “That’s what he’s really best at anyway.”
WORTH ALL THE EFFORT
It turned out that Havasu was a mere warm-up for the grandeur of Mooney Falls. Getting there, however, required caution and surefootedness.
The route led through two narrow tunnels set next to the falls, their slick, smooth floors soaked with spray. Scouts grasped spikes and a heavy metal chain anchored to the cliff wall to descend the steepest parts. Wooden ladders gave final access to solid ground.
The water thundered as it plunged nearly 200 feet. Folds of travertine, formed by mineral deposits, hung like tattered curtains on either side of the falls.
The boys spied a rope swing on the pool’s bank and, after making a safety check, were soon splashing into the cold blue-green waters.
The Scouts spent their last full day in the canyon exploring, swimming, and relaxing.
A group of older boys and adults hiked to Beaver Falls, several miles below Mooney. The trail tested the group’s mettle with several crossings of Havasu Creek and some scrambling over large boulders.
The remaining crew was content to enjoy the serene beauty of Havasu Falls’ turquoise pools.
Curtis Rosenberg never grows tired of the view or the reaction of a Scout who sees it for the first time.
“When a boy comes down here on his first trip and he looks up at the falls, you can see the ‘Wow!’ in his eyes. That’s worth all the time and effort you put into the program to see just one boy say, ‘Wow!'”
Scott Daniels is the executive editor of Scouting magazine.
Plan Your Trip to Havasu Falls
Advance reservations and camping permits are required for all trips to Havasu Falls. A limited number of campsites are available, and these are scarce on holidays, weekends, and during most dates in the spring and fall.
Make a reservation.
You should plan to spend at least four days and three nights. That gives you a day to hike in, two days at the campground near the falls, and a day to hike out. Two books with detailed information about the hike are: Hiking the Grand Canyon’s Geology, by Lon Abbott and Terri Cook, The Mountaineers Books, 2004, and Hiking the Grand Canyon, by John Annerino, Sierra Club Books, revised 1993.
Fees and permits.
No provisions are available after turning onto Indian Route 18. Be sure you have plenty of water for your hike and gas in your vehicles before arriving at the trailhead.
The store stocks a small quantity of groceries: fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables, as well as cold sodas and ice cream. Transactions are on a cash only basis. Also for sale are color postcards of the waterfalls.
Next door is the post office, and for the price of a first-class stamp, you can mail yourself one of the best souvenirs from the region. This is the only place in the United States where letters are still carried by pack train, and each piece of mail has a special hand-stamped postmark to prove it.