Shannon Castellano and Travis Methvin should have spent this weekend seeing world-famous waterfalls on the Havasupai Tribe Reservation in the southwestern U.S. state of Arizona.
Instead, the two friends from San Diego spent Friday night along with 40 other hikers camped out on a helipad. But sleep was elusive because tribal members warned that an emergency services helicopter could potentially land anytime during the night.
“Yeah, so we didn’t really sleep,” Castellano said Saturday while driving to a hotel in Sedona. “I just kept one eye open really and one ear open … You just do not expect any of that to happen. So, I think I’m still in shock that I’m not even there right now.”
Tourists hoping to reach the breathtaking waterfalls on the reservation instead went through harrowing flood evacuations.
The official Havasupai Tribe Tourism Facebook page reported Friday that flooding had washed away a bridge to the campground. An unknown number of campers were evacuated to Supai Village, with some being rescued by helicopter.
The campground is in a lower-lying area than the village of Supai. Some hikers had to camp in the village. Others who weren’t able to get to the village because of high water were forced to camp overnight on a trail.
But floodwaters were starting to recede as of Saturday morning, according to the tribe’s Facebook post.
Visitors with the proper permits will be allowed to hike to the village and campground. They will be met with tribal guides, who will help them navigate around creek waters on a back trail to get to the campground.
Tourists will not be permitted to take pictures. The back trail goes past sites considered sacred by the tribe.
Meanwhile, the tribe said in its statement that it has “all hands on deck” to build a temporary bridge to the campground.
Abbie Fink, a spokesperson for the tribe, referred to the tribe’s Facebook page when reached for comment Saturday.
Methvin and Castellano decided to leave by helicopter Saturday rather than navigate muddy trails with a guide. Despite losing money on a pre-paid, three-day stay, Methvin says they can still try to salvage their trip. Having only received permits last month, he feels especially sad for hikers they met with reservations from 2020.
“They waited three years to get there,” Methvin said. “At least we have the ability to go do something else versus having that whole weekend ruined.”
From Supai to Sedona, several areas of northern Arizona have been slammed this week by storms. The resulting snow combined with snowmelt at higher elevations has wreaked havoc on highways, access roads and even city streets.
The flooding of the Havasupai campground comes as the tribe reopened access last month to its reservation and various majestic blue-green waterfalls — for the first time since March 2020. The tribe opted to close to protect its members from the coronavirus. Officials then decided to extend the closure through last year’s tourism season.
At the beginning of this year, President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration initiated by the Havasupai Tribe, freeing up funds for flood damage sustained in October. Flooding at that time had destroyed several bridges and left downed trees on trails necessary for tourists and transportation of goods into Supai Village.
Permits to visit are highly coveted. Pre-pandemic, the tribe received an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 visitors per year to its reservation deep in a gorge west of Grand Canyon National Park. The area is reachable only by foot or helicopter, or by riding a horse or mule. Visitors can either camp or stay in a lodge.
Castellano is already planning to try to get a permit again later this year if there are cancellations. “We just want to see i in all its glory, not muddy falls,” she said.