The gigantic waterfall called Grand Falls in Arizona is actually higher and wider than Niagara Falls in New York, yet this majestic destination is not nearly as famous. Flying under the radar may be a good thing in this case, because there will be no large crowds to deal with and the beautiful landscape remains pristine. Part of the reason why Grand Falls is not heavily promoted in local motel lobby tourism brochures is because Grand Falls is a seasonal event that only occurs during the early spring season mountain snow melt. For a brief few weeks each year, the Grand Falls do come to life in full glory as the Little Colorado River overflows with life giving water!
The Little Colorado River headwaters can be found in eastern Arizona near the border of New Mexico. The headwater region is located in a moderately high elevation on the Colorado Plateau that consists of small mountain ranges and eroded mesas. From here, the Little Colorado River snakes its way west through the Painted Desert and the Navajo Nation to the Grand Canyon. Inside the Grand Canyon, this long desert river merges with the mighty Colorado River in a sacred place called the Confluence. There is a lot of tribal heritage associated with the Little Colorado River in this region because of the life giving waters and there is an interesting geological story to tell as well.
Over eons of time, the Little Colorado River cut a clear path to the Grand Canyon. This river meanders in flat areas across the desert and is some places this powerful river cut deep canyons of its own that are every bit as breathtaking to gaze upon as the Grand Canyon itself. As the Little Colorado River nears the tall snow capped mountains next to Flagstaff, the river enters the Sunset Crater Volcano field, where many old cinder cones and baby volcano mounds can be seen.
The dormant Sunset Crater volcanic field last saw a great eruption about 1,000 years ago and the gigantic chunks of lava that were blasted through the air can still be seen on the earth surface for miles around the Grand Falls area. One of the ancient lava flows from this volcanic field actually flowed into the Little Colorado River, which formed a lava dam that blocked the river. Eventually the natural lava dam caused the river to veer north over the plateau and a new path was created that dodged the obstruction. By doing so, the river had a chance to once again cut through fresh layers of sedimentary rock on the way back to its old original path through the canyon. Massive amounts of erosion have since occurred and the powerful river water carved a gigantic staircase shaped waterfall on the new ground. On a geological time scale, Grand Falls actually is as fresh as it gets because this waterfall has fairly recent beginnings!
The Grand Falls eroded rock formation is a gigantic ascending staircase composed of dozens of individual layers of ancient ocean bottom sandstone. This waterfall staircase is a few hundred yards wide, so the chocolate color water is a spectacular sight to see as it cascades down to the bottom of the deep gorge. Because the Little Colorado River carries so much brown desert soil during the spring snow melt season, the river water looks like milk chocolate. In fact, during the peak of the spring snow melt overflow season, most visitors describe Grand Falls as looking like a gigantic chocolate fountain! Chocolate Falls is the nickname for Grand Falls and this moniker certainly is apropos.
During the peak of the mountain snow melt overflow, the entire gigantic staircase can be covered with deep water roaring down and this is when this waterfall looks the most like a chocolate fountain. As the snow melt season nears an end, the flow of water lessens and several different waterfalls can appear at one time on the unevenly eroded sandstone staircase. If there is no rain to keep this river flowing strong, the Little Colorado River will dry up for the summer and only a trickle of water can be seen at Grand Falls.
There are no exacts dates to refer to when trying to find out when the spectacular Grand Falls event will occur from year to year. The meteorological conditions required for Grand Falls to happen do not always reliably occur in the desert either, so there will be years when very little water flows over this picturesque waterfall staircase. On the flip-side, after a winter of heavy rain and snow, like in early 2019, the Grand Falls event will be as spectacular as ever and the gigantic waterfall may continue to flow for an extended time. Even so, the entire event only lasts for a few weeks before this river goes back to sleep till the next big snow melt occurs.
The basic rule of thumb for picking the best possible time to view Grand Falls is to just watch the Arizona weather map during the months prior to spring. As soon as the last big snowstorm becomes a thing of the past and the temperatures start to rise near Flagstaff, that is the perfect time to go to Grand Falls! By past standards, the range for viewing Grand Falls runs between early March till early April, but once again, a wet winter will allow the water to flow for a few weeks longer. The pictures of Grand Falls for this article were photographed on April 9, 2019, so the waterfall was already slowing down, but more rain and snow hit this region overnight.
There are two good ways to get to Grand Falls that have starting points in Winona or Winslow on Route 66 (I-40). Modern GPS or smart phone mapping systems usually guide visitors to the wrong side of the waterfall, so it does pay to take a close look at a map. The south access point for Grand Falls is the spot to look for and this is where the campground is located.
After starting in Winona or Winslow, aim the vehicle toward the town of Leupp, which is close to Grand Falls. The paved road to look for near Leupp is Indian Road 70. Once on Indian Road 70, there will be a choice of two dirt roads that head northwest to Grand Falls. Both of these dirt roads have washboard bumps, but a regular passenger can do the trek by going extra slow. Anybody driving an SUV or 4×4 will definitely have a softer ride. Once there, it is just a matter of parking the car and walking to the Grand Falls overlooks. There are facilities, shaded picnic areas and there is even a campground on site, so the level of comfort at Grand Falls is rather nice!
Grand Falls is place like no other waterfall on earth and it is very easy to be mesmerized by the chocolate color water flowing over the gigantic staircase as it splits into several beautiful waterfalls. The setting is as picturesque as can be with the silhouettes of the nearby volcanoes, the clear blue skies and the endless Painted Desert that stretches out to the horizon. The spectacular Grand Falls event only happens for a few weeks each spring season, so one must be prepared to get up and go on short notice, in order to not miss the big chocolate waterfall show!
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