About Grand Falls
Grand Falls was certainly one of the most attractive waterfalls that we’ve seen in the US (let alone the American Southwest region).
What made this proclaimed 181ft waterfall so attractive was its width combined with the multiple terrace-like drops before plunging in at least two taller leaps.
In addition to the waterfall’s dimensions, the surrounding scenery seemed to be a microcosm of the mighty Grand Canyon itself as we were literally looking into a mini-gorge with intriguing Grand Canyon-like cliffs.
And like the extensive Colorado River, the Little Colorado River possessed a muddy color which gave this waterfall its chocolate-like appearance (especially when it flows during the monsoon).
With some imagination, this waterfall could’ve appeared in Willy Wonka’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie given its “Chocolate Falls” characteristic.
So when we considered all the rather memorable and unusual aspects about this waterfall, it was no wonder why Julie and I found this waterfall to stand out.
We even included it on our Top 10 Best USA Waterfalls List at one point in time (before our waterfalling survey expanded to more states)!
Conditions for Grand Falls to put on a show
Now while we’ve hurled a bunch of superlatives at the Grand Falls, there are a pair of caveats that you really need to be aware of to avoid disappointment.
First, we had to time our visit because the Little Colorado River has a narrow window for it to flow well enough for this waterfall to put on a show.
Second, we had to know how to find this place because in years past (which was especially the case when we first came here in March 2009), Grand Falls was not well signed (see the driving directions below).
It certainly helped us to have a detailed topographic map of the area (I used Gaia GPS as that additional aid).
As for timing a visit to this waterfall, there are a couple of “seasons” providing a greater chance of success at experiencing Grand Falls in good flow.
The first narrow window typically occurs around the March through April time frame (and possibly May), but even this depends on how much snow had accumulated in the White Mountains further to the southeast.
One lazy indicator about whether you can expect snow runoff to flow into the Little Colorado River is to visually look to see if there’s snow in the San Francisco Peaks, which rises just north of Flagstaff.
However, in some drier years, this window may never open at all for the season, and this was exactly what happened to us when Mom and I witnessed this waterfall not flowing in late March 2018.
The second narrow window typically occurs during the monsoon (mid- to late Summer and sometimes into early Autumn), which is when this region of Northern Arizona gets most of its rain in the form of pop-up afternoon thunderstorms.
Unlike in the Spring, where the flow of the Little Colorado River more or less has continuous flow, the monsoonal flow typically comes in waves of flash floods.
Therefore, the timing of a visit during the monsoon needs even more precision because the water can come and go within a matter of a couple of days after the last major flash flood event.
There is a USGS (US Geological Survey) stream gauge indicator monitoring the flow of the Little Colorado River at Winslow, Arizona, which you can see for yourself here.
The general rule of thumb is that Grand Falls should have enough water to put on a show if the flow is above 200 cubic feet per second.
From what I’ve noticed when looking at the historical data at the Winslow gauge, you generally have about a dry two-day window following a major flash flood event before the river flow is too low.
Of course, if you are trying to time a visit and be there during a flash flooding event, you must be cognizant of the road hazards, especially if parts of the unpaved road to get there become flooded.
Finally, I want to mention that there is a difference in the appearance of Grand Falls in its Spring snowmelt flow versus its monsoonal flash-flood flow.
If you look at the photo above (which took place during the monsoon), you can see that Grand Falls had a muddier and more “chocolate” appearance compared to the photos taken in the Spring of 2009.
I attribute this to how flash flooding tends to scour the riverbanks and bedrock thereby making the river siltier compared to the more steadier flow from snow melt.
Experiencing Grand Falls
So once managed to find the parking area (see directions below), we were essentially at the top of the Grand Falls.
Actually, this was the upper parking area, and there’s a lower one almost directly opposite the Grand Falls itself.
However, I wouldn’t recommend taking a low-clearance passenger vehicle down to that spot.
Personally, I’d recommend leaving the car up at the upper lot because it allows you to walk along the head of the gorge down to the lower parking area while experiencing all the lookout gazebos along the way.
During our visit in October 2022 (especially given the post COVID-19 pandemic outbreak hype in recent years), I noticed many people drive right down to the lower lot and not bother checking out the intermediate gazebos along the way.
I think those people really missed out because it’s only a short walk (maybe 15 minutes or less without stops) between the two parking areas.
In fact, the attractive profile views where the Grand Falls can be seen together with the outflow of the Little Colorado River could be had from the second or third cliff top lookout gazebo!
Now if Grand Falls is in high flow, there’s inevitably going to be mist thrown up by the waterfall itself.
One thing about this mist, which we found out the hard way, was that it tends to leave behind sticky muddy deposits that’s hard to get off.
So that’s one thing to keep in mind should you decide to go into the waterfall’s mist zone.
Finally, perhaps even more amazing to me about the Grand Falls is that of all the people I saw coming and going to the lower parking area, no one went to the bottom of the falls.
I think the primary reason why is that the route to the bottom is unsigned, and it’s an unsanctioned scramble.
Accessing The Bottom Of Grand Falls
While the scramble to the bottom of Grand Falls is not as sketchy as you might think, there are a couple of key things to remember.
First, you’ll want to be wearing shoes with good grip like legitimate hiking boots or at least grippy trail runners.
This is especially when you consider how muddy the terrain can be as well as the fragility and instability of the cliffs surrounding the Little Colorado River.
Moreover, you’ll certainly want to be patient and not giving into making hasty decisions because forcing a false move can be fatal given how high up the cliffs are.
Heck, even if you don’t go to the bottom of the falls, you’ll still need to be cognizant of the hazards presented by the cliffs both at the gorge’s head and directly opposite the Grand Falls (all of which are sheer and unstable).
However, the further downstream you go, the cliffs become less steep and more manageable (though they can still be fatal if you’re not careful).
I’ve noticed lots of footprints and worn informal use-trails helping me to identify where the best descent spots would be.
And if we recognized that we might have gone the wrong way, then we’d backtrack and find a more sane path instead of forcing a leap of faith down a dropoff.
Nevertheless, with all that said, the path wasn’t as scary as say the Mooney Falls descent in the Havasupai Reservation when we did it back in November 2002.
Granted, the authorities may have improved the ladder-aided descent over the years, but the Grand Falls descent shouldn’t be as vertical as that.
In fact, the final descent involved going down a rocky slope between the Little Colorado River’s cliffs and a protrusion jutting out into the Little Colorado River.
Once at the bottom, you’ll find yourself sandwiched between the muddy banks of the Little Colorado River and intriguing basalt rocks supporting the cliffs that you were standing on earlier.
You can then scramble further upstream along the banks of the river until you’re satisfied with the view and/or experience.
On our first visit in March 2009, I did notice one guy who managed to scramble across the muddy mist zone before going up behind one of the side tiers of the falls.
However, I generally try to avoid the muddiness of the spray zone at the bottom, and I also tend not to linger down at the bottom because of the possibility of flash flooding.
This scramble should be no more than about a quarter-mile in each direction or so.
Finally, despite the unsigned nature of this attraction, it was still quite popular as we shared it with at least a half-dozen carloads of people or so.
We suspected many were locals though (either from Flagstaff or from the Navajo Reservation), or they were tourists who looked for gems like this off the internet. 🙂
Grand Falls resides in the Painted Desert near Flagstaff in Coconino County, Arizona. It is administered by the Navajo Nation. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, you can visit their official government website or the Navajo Tourism Department website.
It turns out that we could have taken a couple of different ways to reach the Grand Falls.
We’ll first describe the more obvious signed route using Flagstaff as the starting point.
Then, we’ll then describe the alternate route, which may be a little less bumpier than the first route.
The Signed Route to Grand Falls
Starting from Flagstaff, we drove east on the I-40 until we reached the exit 211 for the Winona Road (near the town of Winona).
From there, we turned left to go over the bridge, then followed the Winona Road for about 2.2 miles before turning right onto Leupp Rd.
We then followed the Leupp Road for about 14.5 miles.
On our visits in 2018 and 2022, there was a sign indicating that Grand Falls was the next left turn (which can be easy to miss given how fast cars can go on the Leupp Road).
On our first visit in 2009, that sign wasn’t there and we took the unsigned turnoff shortly after the pavement changed (indicating we were now on Navajo Tribal Lands; there was a Grand Falls Bible Church sign near this turnoff).
At this point, we were now driving on the unpaved Indian Road 70 (also referred to as Bia-70 on maps).
It was a fairly wide but bumpy washboarded road, which we kept on for about 8 miles.
Something you’ll want to keep in mind, especially if you’re trying to time a visit for maximum flow during a flash flood event, is that flooding can occur on this road.
In fact, if the road does get flooded or too muddy, there might be an alternate detour going around the trouble spot.
That said, I suspect you’ll probably need a high clearance 4wd vehicle to ensure you don’t get stuck in the mud or bottom out.
Anyways, note that about 7 miles after leaving Leupp Road, there was a junction with the Bia-6910 Road coming in from the right.
There was an unsigned turnoff on our left that led the final 0.4 miles to the parking and picnic area for the Grand Falls.
Overall, this drive took us about 45 minutes or so.
If you happened to miss this turnoff and reach the ford of the Little Colorado River (roughly another 0.4 miles past the correct unsigned turnoff on the left), then that’s a good indicator that you went too far.
Returning via the slightly longer but less bumpier route to Grand Falls
On the return route, instead of taking the Indian Road 70 back to Leupp Road, we kept left at the fork and gave the Bia-6910 Road a try.
Although this route was a little bit longer than the Bia-70 Route (by about a mile), the Bia-6910 Road had a harder, packed surface and thus was not as subject to bumpy washboards as the Bia-70 Road.
We would eventually make it back to the Leupp Road roughly 5 miles east of the Bia-70 Road turnoff.
We didn’t notice any signage suggesting that the Bia-6910 Road was just as valid as the Bia-70 Road leading to the Grand Falls.
So if you’re unsure, you can do as we did and follow the signs leading us to the Bia-70 Road, then return via the Bia-6910 Road.
Contextually, Flagstaff was about 29 miles (45 minutes drive) north of Sedona, 145 miles (over 2 hours drive) north of Phoenix, 148 miles (over 2 hours drive) east of Kingman, and 129 miles (over 2 hours drive) south of Page.
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