Sunday, January 30, 2011

Grand Falls - Ephemeral Grandeur

What makes the western landscape so visually appealing are geological marvels shaped from the very bones of the Earth, apparently timeless monuments that appear unchanged over the lifespan of humans. It is rare that processes creating such splendor become the attraction, however Grand Falls is one such exception.

When people think of mighty torrents plunging into the depths, places like Niagra, Victoria Falls in Africa, or maybe Venezuela's Angel Falls come to mind. But longtime northern Arizona residents know another name - the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River. This amazing natural wonder is not familiar outside the region primarily because it only occurs for a short while, and only after an especially snowy winter.

The Little Colorado is a tributary of the West's most famous waterway, the Colorado River. With headwaters forming in the higher elevations of the White Mountains of Arizona, the Little Colorado gathers snow melt in the spring, and transports it from east to west across the relatively flat Painted Desert. Where the river approaches the San Francisco volcanic field near Flagstaff, an ancient lava flow from Merriam Crater filled the river channel, forcing the water from the original bed.

After the diversion the river eventually reentered the natural drainage, resulting in the falls. Over the last several thousand years water has continued to erode the underlying Kaibab limestone resulting in a stairstep cascade. Overall there is a drop of more than 185 feet to the base of the falls, making Grand Falls taller than Niagra.

When the flows are near or at their peak, the spectacle is truly amazing. The river picks up enormous amounts of clay and silt from easily eroded badlands upstream, and this results in a muddy brown torrent. As sediment laden water plunges into the cataract, it is easy to see why earlier visitors dubbed the feature Chocolate Falls.

Finding the falls can be somewhat of an adventure, especially for the directionally challenged. The remote area is located on the Navajo Indian Reservation northeast of Flagstaff. While the initial approach uses paved roads, a significant portion occurs on primitive and poorly marked dirt "highways". I think the directions found on the Navajo Nation Parks site are the most accurate, although it suggests using four wheel drive. I have found a high clearance vehicle to be adequate, but the road is frequently very rough and washboarded.

The spectacle only lasts as long as the snow, and dry years often mean little or no water in the river. It is possible a heavy summer rain will generate enough flow for a decent display, but this lasts an even shorter period of time and it can be difficult or impossible to reach the site if roads are washed out or muddy.

If you find yourself visiting northern Arizona in the spring after a heavy winter, the falls are definitely worth checking out. To find out if there is enough water to make the journey worthwhile, check the stream flow data from the U.S. Geological Survey website here. In general flows above 1000 cfs mean the river is running high enough to justify a visit. If your timing is right you will witness a sight that is both awe inspiring and unexpected in the high desert.

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