Would you believe there is a set of waterfalls in the arid desert landscape of North Central Arizona that is taller than the famous Niagara Falls?
It’s true. At a spot about 15 miles from the nearest paved road on the Navajo Reservation, the Little Colorado River makes an abrupt dogleg turn and disappears from view. Just over the horizon, the water cascades 185 feet over a series of falls that create a magical display of sight and sound.
I went to check it out one week after the epic snowstorm of 2019 blanketed Arizona with record snowfall. I arrived at around 9 a.m. and walked about a half mile from the road that leads to the area. It wasn’t long before I could hear water running. As I continued my walk, I was struck with the awesome sights and sounds of Grand Falls.
It was an experience like nothing else I’ve ever seen. I have seen pictures and video of Grand Falls, but you have to experience it in person to really get a sense of how spectacular the falls are.
In this post, I’ll answer these and other questions:
- How do I know if there is water flowing at Grand Falls?
- Is a permit required to visit Grand Falls?
- When is the best time to visit Grand Falls?
- How do I get to Grand Falls aka Chocolate Falls?
Grand Falls facts:
- Formed when lava from a nearby crater flowed into the Little Colorado River, creating a lava dam
- At 185 feet (56 meters) tall, it is taller than Niagara Falls
- Known for its extremely muddy flow
- Highest flow months: March, April, May
- No permit required to visit the falls
How Grand Falls earned the nickname Chocolate Falls
Upstream from the falls, the Little Colorado winds its way from the White Mountains in eastern Arizona through the rugged, dusty terrain of the high Arizona desert. The river picks up loose dirt particles en route to the falls, arriving with a thick, chocolaty appearance before heading downstream to the Grand Canyon where it flows into the Colorado River. Even the rocks in and around the falls possess a chocolate appearance because of the brown mist from the falls that settles on them.
Typically, when the water is flowing enough to go over the falls, it’s because of rain or snow runoff from points east of here. Because of all the silt in the water, it looks like chocolate milk as it cascades over the rocks. That’s why many people refer to Grand Falls as Chocolate Falls.
Because of all the silt in the water, it looks like chocolate milk as it cascades over the rocks.
How do I know if there is water flowing at Grand Falls?
The best way to know if there is water flowing at Grand Falls is to check the water flows on the USGS website for both Winslow (upstream) and Cameron (downstream). If the reported flows are registering at 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) or more, there is a very good chance that water is flowing over the falls.
Is a permit required to visit Grand Falls?
Short answer: No. I’ve seen conflicting answers on different websites, however there is no signage indicating you need a permit to visit the falls and there is no mention of Grand Falls needing a permit on the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation website.
When is the best time to visit Grand Falls?
Timing is important: You have to go there when you are sure there’s going to be water running in the little Colorado River. That means after snow melt in the White Mountains has made its way down the river, or after a rainstorm. Generally speaking, the most reliable months to find water running at Grand Falls are March, April, and May.
If you want to take the chance of seeing Grand Falls in action any other time of year, your best chance would be in the summer months. Within a few hours after a heavy monsoon rain storm has fallen between the location of Grand Falls and Winslow, Arizona. This is very tricky to forecast.
Time of day isn’t critical, however I’m sure sunset at Grand Falls would be spectacular.
In the video below, you’ll get a glimpse of the road that approaches and insights on how to see the falls. Plus, watch my amazement swell as I experience Grand Falls for the first time.
How do I get to Grand Falls aka Chocolate Falls?
DO NOT FOLLOW THE GOOGLE MAP DIRECTIONS TO GRAND FALLS!
Important: Google maps will not take you to the best spot to see Grand Falls. It will take you a whole bunch of extra miles out of the way and you’ll end up frustrated that you’re on an upper stretch of the falls that afford virtually no view of them.
Since there is little to no cell phone service in this rural area of Arizona, make sure you have your game plan down before you head up there.
Step by step driving instructions from Flagstaff:
- Take I-40 east to Exit 211 (Winona)
- Go north (left) 2.3 miles
- Turn right on to Leupp Rd
- Travel about 15 miles on Leupp Rd and look for a sign that reads “Grand Falls Next Left“
- Take an immediate left on to Navajo Road 70 and head north about 10 miles
- As you approach the river, look for a small road that goes left to the falls about 100 yards before the river crosses the road
Use the map at the bottom of this post to get you to Grand Falls Church. As you approach this location on Leupp Rd, slow down and watch for a sign that says GRAND FALLS NEXT LEFT. It’s about 30 yards east past the driveway for the church.
The road you want to take to the falls is Navajo Road 70. It’s dirt (not gravel) and has several sections that are pretty rough, but most vehicles can make it safely down this road.
Go north on Road 70 about 10 miles. Look for a small road that goes left about 100 yards before the spot where the river crosses the road. This road winds around to the falls. (High clearance is recommended for this section of the drive.)
Grand Falls vaulted right into the top 5 of my AZ Wonders top ten list the moment I first laid eyes on it. Follow the guidelines above to time your visit and find the falls. You’ll be glad you did.
Tip: If you’re into native cliff dwellings, take an extra hour or so to check out Walnut Canyon National Monument, just minutes off I-40 on the way back toward Flagstaff.