Dozens of hikers sickened while visiting waterfalls near Grand Canyon

SUPAI, Ariz. — Dozens of tourists visiting a popular destination near the Grand Canyon this summer have reported an unidentified sickness, including some who became so ill they had to be flown out of the gorge by helicopter.

Fox 10 in Phoenix reported that the hikers fell ill while visiting Havasupai Falls, located on the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Coconino County. The spot, also known as Havasu Falls, gets thousands of visitors each year.

Mary Blair and her family were visiting from Colorado for a once-in-a-lifetime trip that took years to plan, she told the news station. They were among a group of 11 people who hiked the 8 miles through the desert to camp together and enjoy the crystal blue waters of the falls.

They ended up in an area where she said hundreds of people were camping in close quarters, with sparse access to sanitary bathrooms.

Blair said her son was the first in her group to show signs of illness.

“He was throwing up and having diarrhea all night long,” Blair said. “I got him in the river. We were in there at midnight, 1 (a.m.), just to lower his body temperature.”

Others in the group were also getting sick that same night. When it came time to leave a couple of hours later, they struggled to reach a helicopter pad more than 2 miles away, Fox 10 reported.

“This kid is a four-star athlete. He is the strongest out of all of us,” Blair said. “He was using hiking poles, and he could barely walk.”

Madelyn Melchiors, 32, of Kingman, Arizona, was in similar shape after becoming sick Monday evening, according to The Associated Press. After a bout of vomiting and fever, she had to brave the scorching heat to hike to her car.

“I said, ‘If someone can just pack out my 30-pound pack, I think I can just limp along,” Melchiors said.

A mule carried her pack several miles to her vehicle, she said.

Blair told Fox 10 that the hike out was the first time she realized her group was not the only one suffering from the same illness.

“On the way up, all of us were passing people who are throwing up and that’s when I was like, ‘What the heck is going on?’” she said.

Melchiors said she drank during the trip from a spring that is regularly tested and labeled safe, along with other water sources filtered for bacteria and microscopic organisms, but not viruses.

The AP reported that the Havasupai Tribe Tourism Office last week tested a spring that visitors rely on for drinking water. It was safe for human consumption.

Indian Health Services officials said that its clinic has been treating people who became ill while visiting the reservation. Health officers were also sent to Havasupai to investigate the cause of the outbreak.

“Our priority is the health and well-being of the Havasupai residents and visitors, and we are working closely with local health authorities and other partners to manage this situation effectively,” the agency said in a statement.

About 500 Havasupai tribal members live year-round in the village of Supai, located along the route to the falls, the AP reported.

IMPORTANT REMINDER: The Havasupai Tribe requires ALL visitors to wear a mask while in the Village and in all public...

Posted by Havasupai Tribe Tourism on Monday, February 20, 2023

While the reservation falls outside local jurisdiction, Coconino County health officials said hikers should take precautions to prevent the spread of illness.

“Watch for early symptoms of norovirus, such as stomach pain and nausea, before the trip,” they said in a statement. “Norovirus spreads easily on camping trips, especially when clean water supplies can be limited and hand washing facilities may be non-existent.”

Melchiors said the trip was not a pleasant one.

“I definitely have a literally bitter taste in my mouth right now,” she told the AP.

Blair expressed similar sentiments, according to Fox 10.

“Kind of crazy. But yeah, I mean, I probably won’t go back down there again,” Blair said. “I’ve checked it off the list. I don’t need to do that again.”

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