It seems counterintuitive, but if you want to see a pretty bad-ass waterfall, head to arid Arizona.
And no, we’re not talking about Havasupai Falls. Lovely as it is, it’s kind of hard to get to, being part of a 20-mile round-trip hike on the Havasupai tribe reservation, where they only give out a few camping permits a year to see it.
The one that we have in mind is less of a destination that you go through an ordeal to see, and more of a cool thing to check out when you’re in the Flagstaff area in the northeastern part of the state. It’s a place to take photos and gaze in awe, but not go swimming or whatever it is you do at Havasupai. But to see it at all, you have to be either lucky or smart in the planning department.
At 185-feet-tall, Grand Falls outclasses not just Havasupai (100 feet), but even Niagara Falls (167 feet). Also known as Chocolate Falls — for their color, not their flavor (trust us) — they’re fed by the Little Colorado River and located about 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff, near the town of Leupp.
If you go at the wrong time, though, all you’re going to see is a trickle, if anything at all. In fact, the falls only exist when snow is melting in the early spring and late in the summer during monsoon season. Luckily, you can guesstimate whether the falls are going by checking out data gathered at the U.S. Geological Survey river gauge (viewable at https://on.doi.gov/3allNMz) in Winslow, Arizona, which the river flows past on its way to the falls. Most of the year, the Little Colorado flows past the gauge at a measly 10 cubic feet per second or less. But during those aforementioned times, its flowrate skyrockets into the thousands. If that’s where it’s at when you look at the data, go within a day or two — it takes that long to flow from the town to the falls.
As spectacular as the falls can be, the event that created them was probably cooler to behold, but you would have had to be around 100,000 years ago. That’s when an eruption at Merriam Crater, a volcano a few miles to the southeast, sent lava flowing across the river. The lava solidified into a dam and forced the river to change course into the area that now forms the falls.
The falls are located on the Navajo Nation and the area around the falls is not very developed. A gravel road, Indian route 6910,leads to the head of the half mile trail, a rotunda overlooking the falls, a picnic area, and a waterless restroom.
As the crow flies, Grand Falls is only a few miles southeast of Wupatki National Monument, a collection of archaeological sites including a multistory Sinagua pueblo dwelling with over 100 rooms. However, to get to the monument from the falls, you have to drive back out onto the highway, making it about a 70-mile trip. Though you may see dirt roads heading north from the falls, don’t take them — they’re not for tourists and unless you’re Navajo, you’ll be bumbling around someone else’s land.
Also, if you’re reading this in Summer 2020, maybe don’t head over there at all. Like most of the things on the Navajo Nation, it’s closed due to COVID-19. And with our luck, the monsoons have already come and gone. Wait until spring 2021 at least.