Havasupai Reborn

After a number of massive weather-related changes reshaped this iconic location, Kerrick James reflects on the past and the future of Havasupai

This image was shot in the mid-1990s, after a flash flood but before the 2008 and 2010 floods that changed the falls slightly and lowered the pool underneath Havasu Falls. All images: Havasupai Reservation, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

The landscape of the Colorado Plateau is ephemeral, a changeling, although to beings with short life spans, this land seems immutable, a constant. But in canyon country, stunning changes can occur in a single afternoon, altering the course of a stream, stranding a waterfall, even creating a new unheralded cascade. Thus, it has always been in Havasupai, named for the people of the blue-green water.

Havasupai, the mythic side canyon hidden well to the west of the South Rim summer mayhem and adjoining Grand Canyon National Park, has always been near the top of my favorite locations to photograph. I’ve been lucky to shoot this desert Shangri-la a dozen times since the late 1970s, with a progression of cameras from a large-format 4×5 to a Pentax 6×7 to a variety of DSLRs. For years, I blithely assumed that the interwoven terraces of travertine below each of the three great falls, Havasu, Navajo and Mooney, would always be there to compose as one of the most artistic foregrounds imaginable.

Left and middle: Rock Falls and Havasu Falls. Right: Kayaking below Havasu Falls.

In the mid-’90s, a major flash flood swept the canyon, ripping out the majestic travertine, and though they grew again over the years, they never regained their prior perfection. In August 2008, a nearly catastrophic flood changed the course of Havasu Creek, turning secluded Navajo Falls to dust. But the perennial waters are yet lovely beyond belief, turquoise except during storms, and paradise has slowly been reborn.

My Spring 2013 hike to Havasupai was a desire to see how the fabled canyon had recovered, how the familiar waterfalls had fared and to explore the two new falls gifted us by that epic event, five years past. What I found was still pure magic, with scenes both grand and intimate, and wondrous beauty to photograph everywhere you turn. Of course, being an adventure shooter, I had to spice it up, so I brought a kayak. Really.

We all grow as photographers over the years, seeing more acutely and sharpening our technique. But Havasupai seems somehow to offer the gift of extra time. Here, the hours feel slower, richer and allow for reflection. In several languid days, you can shoot the falls from dawn shadow light throughout the long day into starlight, as I did. And then you can do it again and again, doing variations of exposure to fine-tune the action and detail of the flowing waters, discover new compositions and so much more.

For example, I had always dreamed of shooting Havasu Falls under the stars lit by moonlight. But on this trip, the tight canyon walls blocked the half moon, so I combined my warm LED light with a standard cool LED wielded by a friend, and over three nights finally made the images that had haunted my dreams. Patience is key with light painting. I liken it to burning and dodging in the darkroom, adding to and withholding light from your canvas of pixels, only you’re playing in real time and space. The exposure equation is complicated by fast-diminishing light in the twilight sky above the falls, and by the constant adjustment of both ISO and actual exposure time.

Starry night over Havasu Falls.

My favorite Havasu Falls star images were shot in the range of 45 to 60 seconds at ƒ/5.6, at ISO 800, with 12-14mm focal lengths on my Pentax K5IIs. You can shoot from the trail above the falls or beside the falls, but be wary. When shooting near the falls, the spray can precipitate calcium carbonate on your front lens surfaces, and your eyeglasses, too. I use older UV filters to protect the delicate lens coatings and bring a hand towel to wipe off the persistent water blowing my way. An ounce of prevention is worth, well, you know the rest. And, obviously, this requires a quality tripod matched to the combined weight of your camera and lens, plus a release to do long exposures. LED lights and extra batteries complete the kit, and all you need then is a clear night sky to make some magic.

Just left of old Navajo Falls was a green, misty, watery groove we called the Grotto. A small, but realistic slice of Hawaii concealed in the parched Southwest, it was overwhelming in both beauty and mystery, and is now forever gone. Luckily, fate gave us Little Navajo Falls and Upper Navajo Falls (also called Fifty-Foot Falls), and these are actually the first waterfalls you’ll see as you hike the dusty trail down from the village of Supai. Upper Navajo Falls is well off the trail, but has a decided edge in grandeur over Little Navajo, which is more approachable and easier to shoot. Plan to spend early morning here, catching the warm reflection of the dawn light off the sheer canyon walls on the cool blue waters of Havasu Creek, with intensely green water plants adding to the color palette.

Havasu Falls in spring storm light, Havasupai Reservation, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

After exploring both of the new Navajo Falls and the gem that is Havasu Falls, cinch up for a bit of adventure, the cliff trail down to Mooney Falls. This winding, steep path descends 200 feet through travertine passages, and then you hold on to the steel cables the last 70 feet to terra firma. A midsized photo backpack will fit through the maze, but don’t forget your tripod as you’ll need it for the intense falls experience below. I’ve shot Mooney Falls as a pure scenic many times, so this time I carried down my inflatable kayak and drafted my friends to paddle the pool below the falls. Not for the faint of heart, but on a hot summer afternoon, you’ll never be cooler or more invigorated!

I photograph cities and destinations for many clients, but my heart truly lies in showing friends who are exploring the natural world, and the challenge I made to myself was to get the wild spirit of the place and the kayaking into some key images. Never have I heard of someone kayaking the waterfalls of Havasupai and Havasu Creek, and many questions were posed as to where we were going from here. I was tempted to say down the Colorado River to Yuma, but that was too tall a tale to spin, even for me!

Truth is, whether you hike or ride horseback or in a helicopter (yes, you can) into the wonderland of Havasupai, plan to stay at least two full days. Four is better, as you won’t want to leave. Bring plenty of camera batteries and memory cards, as there’s nowhere to tank up on electrons unless you stay in the Havasupai Lodge in Supai. It’s a long two miles from the village to Havasu Falls, and the campground is well sited as a base to photograph the major falls. For reservations, go to www.havasupaifalls.net.

The water in Havasu Creek is a constant 72 degrees, perfect from mid-spring to mid-autumn, but chilly to cold in the winter. Summer afternoons are warm to hot, but the creek is always there, as it has been for countless millennia, to cool your body, thrill your soul and create future wonders in a faraway canyon in the high desert of the Southwest.

See more of Kerrick James‘ work and sign up for workshops at kerrickjames.com.