SUPAI, Ariz. — Framed by pitch-black canyon walls rising monumentally on either side of the rushing, rain-swollen Havasu Creek, the night sky burst with snow-white stars and Milky Way swirls.
It was the last night of a grueling three-day Havasupai Trail round trip to the waterfalls in northern Arizona's Havasu Canyon, an offshoot of the Grand Canyon.
The hike offers bliss by way of blisters, far from the crowds.
I'd promised myself that I would complete the hike ever since a dangerously under-planned attempt 13 years earlier ended barely 2 miles in. On horseback, a member of the Havasupai tribe, which administers the area, spotted my vermillion face and half-bottle of water on a torrid summer afternoon, and ordered me to go back.
On my second attempt, I left the planning to six tireless students from Northern Arizona University's Outdoor Adventures. All I had to do was show up at the crack of dawn with my backpack on the pine-scented Flagstaff campus. (Many universities around the country offer trips to a variety of outdoors destinations, open to the public at a steal: My $360 fee covered pricey permits, exceptionally caring guides, most gear, all food including luxuries like cookies baked on the spot and fresh avocados and sprouts, and the eight-hour round-trip drive to the trailhead.)
Even though the mesa-top Hualapai trailhead is less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) as the eagle flies from tourist-thronged Grand Canyon Village inside the national park, it is 191 miles (307 kilometers) away by car, most on deserted roads. Tribal members heading home and hikers, not day-trippers spilling out of buses, embark on this trail.
The vistas into the red and white infinity of rock formations, punctuated by unexpectedly green desert brush, are breathtaking. The first couple of miles of switchbacks, dropping 2,000 feet (610 meters) to a wash at the canyon floor, take away what little breath you might have left.
Mercifully flat, the next 7 miles (11 kilometers) snake through gauntlets of orange-to-salmon smooth ledges, along a cottonwood-lined stream, through tiny Supai village and its corrals of pack mules and horses - for the hikers who prefer not to stagger under a 30-plus-pound backpack.
About 2 miles (3 kilometers) after the village, I dumped my pack with a yelp, tore off the steaming boots midstride, and waded into cooling waters right below Upper Navajo Falls, the first of multiple waterfalls cascading from red rocks into layered turquoise pools toward the Colorado River a few miles away.
Woken up the next day before dawn by a ranger warning of flash floods, but undeterred by rain, we splashed in the pools below Havasu and Mooney Falls, which bookend the long canyon campground.
A student leader talked me down nearly 200 vertical feet (61 meters) through slick rock-hewn tunnels and steps to the Mooney pool. The swim under the powerful spray was worth the limb-shaking panic, followed by my first afternoon nap in years.
On the last day, it was out by the same trail, from the shady creek-side paths to the unforgiving, and awe-inspiring, climb up the canyon walls back to the trailhead.
There, screaming calf muscles prevented me from standing upright - but not from marveling one more time at the kaleidoscope of shades and colors unfolding in all directions, now under a full-blast sun.
If You Go... HAVASUPAI TRAIL: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/havasupai.htm . Located in northern Arizona. The trailhead for the hike to Supai is four hours by car from Grand Canyon Village (South Rim). Supai village can only be reached by helicopter, on horseback or on foot. If walking, it is not a day trip; stay at the campground by the falls or village lodge. Area prone to flash floods. Permits required from Havasupai Indian Reservation, http://www.havasupai-nsn.gov/ . Northern Arizona University trips at http://nau.edu/Campus-Recreation/Outdoors/Trips-Classes-Offered/ .