How and when to see this seasonal, “chocolate” waterfall near Flagstaff, Arizona – keep reading for driving directions and more.
PERMITS: no permits or fees are required
DESIGNATION: Navajo Nation (not a national or state park)
BEST SEASONS: spring
DISTANCE: It’s a half-mile walk, one way from the parking area to the falls.
ACCESS: washboard gravel/dirt road to the trailhead – passenger vehicles are generally okay
DRIVING DIRECTIONS: From Flagstaff, drive east on Interstate I-40 for about 15 miles. Take exit 211 toward Winona, turning left to travel north on Route 394. Turn right on Leupp Road (route 419). After about 15 miles, turn left on the gravel Indian Route 70. After about 9 miles of bumpy driving, the parking area for Grand Falls will be on your left. If the road continues into flowing water, then you’ve gone too far!
LOCATION: Getting to the Falls is a 41-mile drive from Flagstaff. The waterfall is located about 30 miles northeast of the city, as the crow flies.
WEATHER: For local weather conditions you can look up Winona, AZ. Conditions are generally similar to Flagstaff, but slightly warmer and windier.
Located on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, Grand Falls is an ephemeral waterfall that runs only when the flows of The Little Colorado River are high. Throughout otherwise dry periods, the Falls are often little more than a trickle.
The source of the Little Colorado River is in the remote White Mountains of eastern Arizona, at Mount Baldy. The flows are most reliably high in the spring, when melting snow comes down from the mountains. Not every winter sees significant snow, so some years are better than others.
The high amount of silt carried by the River gives it a muddy appearance – especially at peak flows – hence the nickname of Chocolate Falls.
Once it was somewhat of a local secret to the residents of Flagstaff, but now residents and tourists alike flock to see the Falls in the spring, when the flows are at their highest.
At a height of over 180ft tall, Grand Falls is in fact higher than New York’s Niagara Falls.
Are You Sure I Don’t Need a Permit?
Yes. The Leupp Chapter of the Navajo Nation explicitly states here that no permits are necessary. With this in mind, you must adhere to the following regulations:
- Don’t litter.
- No off-roading
- No ATV’s
- No camping
- No alcohol
- Don’t harass the livestock
The dirt road leading to the Falls is especially sensitive, since families live along here and tire of the detritus that comes with increased traffic. Watch your speed, and be especially conscious not to disturb homesteads and kick up dust.
In the past there has been some confusion about permits, since exploring Navajo land generally requires a native guide and/or hiking permit. Otherwise, you’re trespassing.
More information about backcountry permits for other parts of Navajo land can be found here. The best and most convenient option in most cases is to stop by a Parks and Recreation Office, like the one in Cameron, AZ.
Safety & Services
Remember – you’re in a remote area, and help is far away!
The vicinity of the Falls is full of hazards – particularly unprotected cliffs and unstable rock near the edges.
Services are also few and far between out here. Bring food and water in your vehicle from Flagstaff, and be aware of the potential for getting a flat tire from sharp rocks on the roadway. Pit toilets are located near the falls, but that’s all you’ll find here.
Here’s the local USGS quad map that shows Grand Falls. You can right-click on the image to view a larger version or download it.
For a map with driving directions, simply look online at Google Maps.
How do I know when the flows are high?
Timing is the key to visiting Grand Falls.
Knowing when it’s flowing is simply a matter checking the current flow rate of the Little Colorado River, which can be found here. The information through the provided link can be a little technical and confusing, so I’ll describe it below.
Once you go through to the USGS page, you’ll see a chart that looks like this:
This graph shows the flow rates of the Little Colorado for the entirety of 2019 (a good, high-flow year) as measured in nearby Winslow, Arizona.
The key figure that you want to check is listed on the left, as cubic feet per second, or CFS. Once you get above 400 or 500 CFS, that means that the Falls are flowing really well, and you should go.
You’ll see that spikes occur during monsoon season, particularly in July and August, but the most consistent and reliable flow occurs from March into April.
The winter months can go either way – there may be a nice flow, or it could be quite dry. It depends if there’s been recent storms, and if they’re actively creating snowmelt.
If you’re interested in visiting in November, December, January, or February, it’s certainly worth checking on the flow rate. Just be aware that recent storms can create wet, difficult conditions on the dirt access road.
May, June, September, and October are most likely to have disappointing flows, but you never know – it’s always worth a look.
Remember, the current flow rates from the USGS are found here through this link. You’re looking for 400+ cubic feet per second, as shown on the left. Anything less may be mildly disappointing.
Here’s some more images from my visits to Grand Falls.