Outdoors

Mooney Falls: Adventure and Lore at the Mother of Waters

8 minute read
by Jake Case

mooney falls

Of all of Grand Canyon’s waters, Mooney Falls is perhaps the most impressive.

At a place where Havasu Creek cascades straight off a 196-foot cliff, Mooney is a perennially-flowing free-falling behemoth. At this convergence of earth, water, and gravity — grace meets power and danger meets beauty.

Barring a helicopter ride into Supai Village, reaching Mooney Falls is no cakewalk. From the trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop, it’s a ten-mile hike one way to reach the overlook facing the fall’s grand tumble.

Even after passing numerous other world-famous waterfalls along the way, including the 115-foot Havasu Falls, reaching the lip of Mooney is a one-of-a-kind experience. And to complete the nerve-wracking scramble down the neighboring cliff face and stand at the foot of the falls is equal parts terror, exhilaration, and satisfaction.

Mooney falls Havasu canyon
Image: Mike Venidis (@mikeyjv)

Mooney’s Fate

Daniel W. Mooney, a rancher turned prospector from Williamson Valley, Arizona, came to Grand Canyon in search of riches in 1879.

After finding lead and silver in canyon’s depths, Mooney and four others established one of the earliest mine claims in Havasu Canyon. Unfortunately for the miners, extracting the precious metals proved difficult, so the party searched for more deposits downstream.

However, a then-unnamed 196-foot waterfall and its accompanying cliff served as a major barrier between the men and their presumed fortune. Unable to climb down, Mooney unveiled a plan to rappel down the sheer wall.

A former sailor, Mooney felt confident enough in his knowledge and experience with ropes to take the plunge himself.

On January 20th, 1880, Mooney slung a rope off the top of the waterfall and his partners lowered him down. Historical accounts offer conflicting information on the details: either the rope was too short or it broke under Mooney’s weight.

One way or another, Daniel W. Mooney separated from the rope and fell approximately 100 feet to his death. The waterfall is named Mooney Falls in his honor.

mooney falls edge
Image: Tony Nickolas (@travelin_az)

Life on the Edge

After a warm and dusty 10-mile hike to the Havasupai campground, a swim sounded perfect. A touch over 90 degrees, the sunny October weather leant itself to taking a dip.

Just an hour earlier, the trail led us past Havasu Falls, a stunner to say the least. Before that, Fifty Foot Falls and New Navajo Falls took our breath away.

Already awe-struck by the upper waterfalls, we had no idea a sleeping giant waited for us just a few hundred yards downstream.

Dressed only in swim trunks, Dustin and I jumped waist-deep into the mellow and refreshing stretch of creek next to our campsite.

In the mood for some light-hearted exploration, we half-walked half-waded downstream through the mineral-charged waters. The going was carefree. Floating in the light current evoked memories of a waterpark’s lazy river.

After a few twist and turns, large boulders choked the streambed. Here, we walked the creek instead of wading, and in hindsight, this decision proved lucky. In only a few more steps we realized the land soon fell away into oblivion.

Suddenly we heard the rumble of crashing water. A big rumble. A deep rumble.

Just a few yards downstream, the creek dropped over a precipitous cliff. If we had continued wading instead of walking, we might’ve washed right over the lip of Mooney Falls to a certain death.

Here, a strange feeling struck me. I realized the previously idyllic creek morphed into a dangerous beast. For fear of accidentally falling into the grip of the current, we climbed out of the surging creek. Curious just how big of a waterfall preceded us, we inched our way out toward the cliff’s edge.

Peeking over the drop, a rush of adrenaline hit my bloodstream. My hands and legs shook in fright as I looked down at Havasu Creek free-fall almost 200 feet into a deep blue pool: one little misstep and I too could fly off the dizzying drop.

mooney falls arizona
Image: Jake Case

Ladder of Terror

A great place to view Mooney Falls is from the trail leading out from the campground. And it was along this track I once saw an old wooden sign announcing what lied ahead. “Mooney: Mother of Waters.”

I loved that sign. Alas, it was nowhere to be found the last time I went by.

Then the path approaches the drop directly across from the falls where a curve in the cliff face forms a spectacular amphitheater.

However, this spot isn’t without danger. Peering over the wall to see the whole waterfall almost always means getting a little too close to the edge.

This vantage is surely photogenic, especially when mother nature brings dramatic weather. On a stormy morning in December, I approached the edge only to see a beam of sunlight pierce the clouds and illuminate the mist, fog, and autumn-colored Cottonwoods at the lip of the falls.

Even under clear skies, this classic view of Mooney’s teal waters is accentuated by the deep blue overhead. It’s easy to sit nearby on a bank of red rocks and get lost in the beauty.

Inevitably, a taste of the view will entice an adventurous visitor to venture below the wall. The trail leads to an exposed scramble carved into the travertine encrusted cliff.

mooney falls ladder
Image: Melissa Gomez (@macydc_g)

The route begins with a pair of tunnels cut into the bedrock. Once again, inconsistency in historical accounts makes for fuzzy details. The most likely explanation: late-1800s prospectors discovered caves in the travertine and carved them into the present day tunnels.

Dropping through the tunnels is a blast, with a stunning view of the falls stealing the show in between the two shafts. Just be aware the tunnels are basically one-way traffic only, so if you try to descend late in the day when the mobs of day hikers ascend from below, it’s usually impossible to squeeze through against the flow of traffic.

Below the tunnels, the real fun starts. The route becomes a true scramble down a break in the cliff, supplemented by a haphazard series of chains, wooden ladders, and rock stairs.

For most hikers, the exposure here is no joke. With copious holds to cling onto, a careful climber won’t fall, but it’s still scary as hell.

Even with numerous Mooney-cliff traverses under my belt, I once froze in terror when I mistakenly looked down in the middle of the climb. I nearly went into a panic attack before regaining my composure some thirty seconds later and continuing on.

But it’s not just the exposure making for trepidation. Nowadays the route is always crowded, and the hectic atmosphere adds extra pressure to frayed nerves.

To boot, the impact zone of the falls itself creates tons of mist, blasting a moisture-saturated breeze directly at the climbing route. As a result, the rocks and chains are always wet and slippery, adding an extra layer of uncertainty to the already dangerous trek.

mooney falls hike
Image: Jake Case

Welcome to Paradise

To stand at the base of Mooney Falls is a surreal and overwhelming experience, especially for first-timers. Getting to the bottom is an accomplishment in itself — even more so for the acrophobes among us. But to survive the harrowing descent and immediately look up to see such a stunning sight is enough to overwhelm anyone’s emotions.

It’s not hard to fall into a trance staring at the point of impact. The falling river splashes into its collecting pond with power, yet its frothing mist dances into the air with delicacy.

It’s not just about the physical beauty, either. The rumble of the falls is overwhelming, and it’s at its loudest right at the base. It’s nearly impossible to even think about anything other than the roaring water itself in the space of the continuously blasting, low-frequency white noise.

To step out into the teal pool and feel the push of the waves radiating from the falls is a whole ‘nother experience. The lagoon is wide enough to swim out and still maintain safety. It’s here a person can most intensely feel the power of water’s constant fall to earth.

The most dedicated in the pursuit of knowing Mooney’s secrets will bring a pool floaty and relax in the mist amid the oscillation of constant waves, gazing up at the falls and the towering canyon walls.

mooney falls pool
Image: Mike Venidis (@mikeyjv)

Beyond the falls is a wonderland to be explored. Just a few steps downstream, an array of travertine dams, graceful cascades, and riparian plants make for plenty of other scenes to take in.

Less than a quarter mile downstream, a side canyon enters Havasu Creek in dramatic fashion. Fed by a small spring, a trickle of water leaks out of Watahomigi Canyon only to tumble off a hundred-foot-tall cliff into the blue-green waters below.

A side trip up Watahomigi only takes a couple minutes. This slot canyon rewards the curious with a short but impressive section of narrows decorated with ferns, clear pools, and terracotta sandstone walls.

Beyond the Watahomigi confluence, the wonders of Havasu Canyon continue. Another two miles downstream, the stair-stepped travertine dams of Beaver Falls are yet another wonder to check off the bucket list.

But to me, Mooney Falls and its features — the view from the top, the dangerous climb, the beauty within and surrounding — make it the crown jewel of Havasupai.

To me, this is the essence what makes Havasupai so special.

The first time I took in the view from the bottom, I momentarily convinced myself it was all fake. Beauty this overwhelming and so perfectly executed usually only reveals itself in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel or at a resort on a faraway island in the South Pacific.

To find it out in nature, and in a desolate corner of the Arizona desert seemed almost too good to be true.

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