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Chocolate Falls in Arizona: Photographing a Flash Flood on the Little Colorado River

I've lived in Flagstaff, AZ, since 2003, where I'm an active member of the Coconino County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and an avid hiker.

grand-falls-really-does-run-photo-of-a-flood-on-the-little-colorado-river

Grand Falls Goes from a Trickle to a Raging River

The Little Colorado River, which begins high on Mt. Baldy in eastern Arizona and runs -- sometimes just barely -- 315 winding miles to its junction with the mighty Colorado in Grand Canyon, is a very moody river. One minute, you might step over the wee ribbon of water and, the next, step back! You don't want to get caught in that boiling, muddy torrent.

Nowhere can the Little Colorado River (also known as the LCR) be as dramatic as it is where it drops down the huge natural stairway at Grand Falls, otherwise known as "Chocolate Falls," located 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. And that's where I was in August of 2005, when I took this photo. That's my red truck up there by the overlook, not far from a spot where you can sometimes drive right across the river. Not so on that day!

And I've been there many other days since, during other flash floods and even when not a drop was flowing where the falls had just recently been and would soon be again. I've been to this hidden, remote desert beauty as a regular outdoor enthusiast and as a Search & Rescue team member on a missing person search, which you can see and read about below, along with other information about visiting Grand Falls.

About these photos: All photographs on this page were taken by me, Deb Kingsbury. If you'd like to use one on your own web page, please credit me,with a link back here. Thank you!

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About Arizona's Grand Falls

An amazing site to see in the Painted Desert

Grand Falls is located on Navajo Nation land, at the southwest corner of the Reservation about a 45-minute drive from my home in Flagstaff. It's often referred to as "Chocolate Falls," for the reason you'll see in the photos and videos on this page: MUD!

When Do the Falls Run?

At 185 feet tall, Grand Falls is actually higher than Niagara Falls. And unlike Niagra, which is a major torrent year-round, Grand Falls runs the gamut from bone dry, like you see in my photo here, or merely a trickle during some winter and summer months to a raging force of nature during spring runoff from the snowy mountains to the east and after heavy monsoon season rains later in the year.

I can't give you exact dates or timeframes for when the water will be running high. The best I can do is point you to the USGS website to see the current conditions for the Little Colorado River near Winslow, AZ. As mentioned, your best bets for catching the falls at flood stage are in late spring and during monsoon season (roughly early to mid-July through late August / early September), but you'll want to check the USGS site to be sure before you go.

Update: It's March now, and Grand Falls is at its peak from snowmelt. See Fleeting Falls, the Area's Biggest Waterfall is Flowing Again from the Arizona Daily Sun.

The Formation of Grand Falls

This impressive waterfall was formed about 150,000 years ago, when lava from a nearby volcanic eruption from what is now Merriam Crater flowed into the canyon and blocked the river. The water then had to find a new course around the lava dam and back into the canyon, creating this cascade in the process.

Be Cautious and Respectful of the Land When You Visit

Grand Falls is quite isolated but well worth the long and sometimes dusty drive from Flagstaff or points east. Regular passenger cars can and often do make the trip to the south side of the river, but once the road turns to dirt, it can get washboardy. So drive slowly and don't attempt to actually drive across the LCR in a passenger car. Don't attempt it at all, high-clearance 4WD or not, when the river is running fast and high. (You can see what the road out to Grand Falls looks like in this photo.)

There's no charge to enter the Navajo Reservation and visit Grand Falls, but there are no services for many miles either. Be sure to keep the area clean, pack out your trash, be on the lookout for roaming cattle and desert wildlife, and don't get too close to the edge. There are some big cliffs with unstable rock and slippery mud along the banks. And there's no cell phone service to call for help if someone runs into trouble.

That slippery mud I was talking about? This guy got a bit too close to it and needed a few hands out.

grand-falls-really-does-run-photo-of-a-flood-on-the-little-colorado-river

More Photos from that Day - I was covered with muddy spray after taking these pictures....

Grand Falls Flood

Grand Falls Flood

You could hear the sound of large boulders being moved by the incredible force of the water.

Grand Falls Flood, 2005

Grand Falls Flood, 2005

Grand Falls on a Very Different Day - I returned to Grand Falls when the LCR was running much, much lower and took these photos....

Grand Falls just a trickle

Grand Falls just a trickle

A Gentle Brown Cascade of Chocolate

Grand Falls running light

Grand Falls running light

Walking on Grand Falls - Find out why we did this below....

Walking on Grand Falls

Walking on Grand Falls


Search and Rescue teammates and I searched different levels of the falls soon after a flash flood, when the falls were once again just a trickle. We were looking for a missing person who may have gone over the edge.

You can read about this SAR mission and see more photos from Grand Falls and further down the Little Colorado River in my blog post, Searching for Justin.

This may be a no-brainer, but PLEASE don't attempt this -- "walking on Grand Falls" -- when it's running. Just, you know ... sayin'.

Hiking to the bottom of Grand Falls

Hiking to the bottom of Grand Falls

Hiking to the Bottom of Grand Falls

You've driven all the way out there, so explore some more if you're able.

As you're facing Grand Falls, if you walk along the rim to your left -- to the west -- you'll come to a short, rough trail that leads to the bottom. That's where we're going in this photo here.

The trail from the overlook leads to the Gauging Station, then turns to the right and takes you to the bottom of Grand Falls.

Watch your step as you descend. There's one short downclimb along the way, but you'll be fine if you take it slow and use your hands.

Please don't go down there when the falls are running high. We don't want to have to look for you downriver.

At the bottom of the Little Colorado River Canyon, hiking towards Grand Falls

grand-falls-really-does-run-photo-of-a-flood-on-the-little-colorado-river

There's lots of cool exploring to be done at the bottom of the LCR canyon and base of the waterfall when the water is low, but you're sure to also see an interesting variety of flotsam and jetsam that's been washed downstream and caught by rocks, mud and vegetation. Be careful of broken glass and other sharp objects. On the other hand, you might just find some treasure too!

Running Dry - Not too many people shoot video here when the water isn't actually flowing.

I haven't either (yet). And I searched and searched for footage showing a dry, still or barely flowing Little Colorado River at Grand Falls. This is the only video I found that shows -- briefly on fly-by -- a dry waterfall.

You'll also see footage as the helicopter flies downstream above the LCR, which still has water in it.

Dry, cracked mud at the base of Grand Falls

Dry, cracked mud at the base of Grand Falls

Dry, cracked mud at the base of Grand Falls

Grand Falls at a Moderate Flow (March, 2011)

Video: When the Chocolate Water Runs High - A Grand Falls Flood

This video, taken during first week of August 2010, shows the Little Colorado River at Grand Falls when the water flow was about 1800 cubic feet per second. The flow was even greater a week earlier, the flooding due to a large amount of monsoon season rainfall in Eastern Arizona.

How High or Low is the Little Colorado Running?

More Reading About and Photos of Grand Falls

Driving Directions

Dusty and flat, but you don't need 4wd

From Flagstaff

  • Take US 89 north, 1.8 miles past the Flagstaff Mall, and turn right on Camp Townsend-Winona Road.
  • Drive eight miles, then turn left onto Leupp Road. Follow Leupp Road northeast about 20 miles.
  • Just past the Navajo Reservation boundary, turn north -- left -- between Mileposts 5 and 6 on unpaved Indian Road 6910. (There may still be a Grand Falls Bible Church sign near this turnoff.)
  • From here, drive 9.4 miles, and after passing Indian Road 70, a series of side-by-side dirt roads veer off to the left before reaching the Little Colorado River. Take one of these to the picnic area at the top of the falls. (If you come to the Little Colorado River crossing, you've gone 0.4 mile too far.) You'll need to park, get out and walk a short distance to actually see the falls.

From I-40 East

Take Winona Exit 211, 14 miles east of Flagstaff, and drive two miles on the Townsend-Winona Road. Then turn right on Leupp Road to the Grand Falls turnoffs, following the directions above.

  • From I-40 Exit 245, 46 miles east of Flagstaff, take AZ 99 to Leupp Road.

From Kykotsmovi on the Hopi Indian Reservation

  • Take paved Indian Route 2 southwest, 49 miles to Leupp Road and follow the rest of the directions above.

A Map to Grand Falls - Zoom in at least three time to actually see some very rural roads between Flagstaff and the Falls

You'll need to click on the map and drag it up to see the roads you'll take from Flagstaff, once you zoom in far enough.

Yep, there's a lot of wide open country out there!

© 2012 Deb Kingsbury

Have You Ever Seen Grand Falls, the Chocolate Falls of Arizona? Or any of the Little Colorado River?

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on March 23, 2015:

Sounds like a fun trip, Deb. I never heard of Chocolate Falls. Great photos and a nice travelogue article. Voted up!

RinchenChodron on May 20, 2014:

I missed this when I was in the area - too bad. Looks wonderful.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on April 21, 2014:

That was a great tour I just had through this article, I felt as though I was there as I was reading your interesting story. Thanks very nice photos.

zubaer_ahammed on April 16, 2014:

Really charming & hallucinating photos.. I like your photos very much

jetcharterquote on July 21, 2013:

wow. Some stunning pictures. Nice lens

norma-holt on January 01, 2013:

A new blessing on this lovely lens and may you have a wonderful, successful and happy 2013. Hugs

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on December 18, 2012:

@GrandCanyonSandy: Thank you! The last time I was at Grand Falls was during the Search & Rescue mission over a year ago, so I want to get back out there. I'll try to go in the spring when the falls are running again. Except for when I took these flood photos, it's been dry every time I've been there since.

GrandCanyonSandy on December 18, 2012:

I had the privilege of seeing Grand Falls in the spring of 2010. My daughter had seen it years before and kept encouraging me to go. I got some great photos and video that day! Reading your lens brought it all back as if it were yesterday - the roar of the falls, the wind in my face, and the incredible raw beauty of the place! Excellent lens!

BowWowBear on August 30, 2012:

Grand Falls, no; the Little Colorado, yes. What a great lens on the beautiful southwest! I really enjoyed exploring out there when my mother lived in Phoenix and I worked for a company that had some facilities in Flagstaff. Thanks for sharing!

Frugal-UK LM on August 27, 2012:

Everything is just so big in America

nasirislam2010b13 on August 13, 2012:

kike it very much.continue to improve it .i guess you achieve your goal!

kayla_harris on August 13, 2012:

The photos are so beautiful!

Lynne Modranski from Ohio on August 10, 2012:

Thanks for sharing!

Dana Marie from St. Peters, MO on August 10, 2012:

No I haven't seen but I would LOVE to some day!! very cool lens!

anonymous on August 10, 2012:

Not yet, but it's amazing photos !

Mandy Stradley from Riverton, Utah on August 09, 2012:

I have never seen Grand Falls, but you sure have some amazing photos here from the flood! Great lens!

davecurrtis on August 08, 2012:

Not yet, but it's a spectacular view to see. Great lense!

davecurrtis on August 08, 2012:

Not yet, but it's a spectacular view to see. Great lense!

anonymous on August 08, 2012:

amazing lens.

Nightlife-Author on August 07, 2012:

great canyon rocks reminds me - Due Date movie. thanks for sharing such a great information

Tea Pixie on August 06, 2012:

I am presently in Silver City, New Mexico and just drove through the eastern side of the Navajo Nation land. We were sad to encounter Flooding in Window Rock. People were imprisoned in their mobile homes. It was awful. You photos are beautiful and capture the power of nature.

srsddn lm on August 05, 2012:

It is a pictorial feast. Well done.

Lindrus on August 04, 2012:

I wish I would have seen Grand Falls, your photos look amazing!

Hearty Cindy Penaranda from Ormoc City on August 04, 2012:

Really amazing pictures, wish I could also be there..

gibyjoseph on August 04, 2012:

Your breathtaking photographs of Grand Falls show the rage of the river and its natural beauty too. I have not seen the Grand Falls, or any of the Colorado River, but surely wish that I might one day.

kayla_harris on August 03, 2012:

No. But I will go and have a look at them!

lovetolink on August 02, 2012:

Well deserved purple star and LOTD! Thanks for showing us around Grand Falls!

blessedmomto7 on August 02, 2012:

Gorgeous photography! Congrats on LOTD!

Keith Winter from Spain on August 02, 2012:

Great lens and fantastic photos. Congratulations on LOTD.

daniela12 on August 02, 2012:

I never seen the Grand Falls, but by your pictures, it looks absolutely Beautiful!

HouseBuyersOfAmerica on August 02, 2012:

Great lens...all your pictures and videos are wonderful...And congratulations to you on becoming LOD...

Bill from Gold Coast, Australia on August 02, 2012:

This is an awesome Lens! I was in this area in March and I took a photo of the Little Colorado at Cameron, just behind the Trading Post. There was absolutely no water in it, but I could tell by the width of the river bed and the height of the walls that it must pump at times. We were staying at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and were returning from an awesome tour which included a flight over the Grand Canyon and then a four hour boat ride down the Colorado River though Glen Canyon. I would have loved to have seen these falls in full flow. A red waterfall! Amazing!

BestRatedStuff on August 01, 2012:

Not in person, but your pictures bring them home to me literally.

soaringsis on August 01, 2012:

Now I have and what a sight, enjoyed it all. Congratulation on your LotD and your purple star.

Rosaquid on August 01, 2012:

OH! I almost forgot! congratulations on a well-deserved LOTD award!

Rosaquid on August 01, 2012:

Howdy, Neighbor! We drive by the turnoff to GF on our way to town. Grand Falls is truly grand, I must say.

MacPharlain on August 01, 2012:

Looks like an amazing spot at any water level. Beautiful pictures. Congrats on LotD!

Jen withFlash on August 01, 2012:

I've never been there but it looks beautiful!!! I would love to check it out someday!

KimGiancaterino on August 01, 2012:

Wow ... wonderful job, as usual. Congratulations on LOTD!

fastpass2disney on August 01, 2012:

Beautiful pictures - thanks for sharing. Never seen Grand Falls but look fabulous:)

montanatravel52 on August 01, 2012:

Wow, looks absolutely stunning, new item on the bucket list, thanks! Congrats on LOTD, well deserved!

anonymous on August 01, 2012:

I've never been lucky enough to see Grand Falls but it certainly looks awesome. Congratulations on getting LoTD!

CMatthewHawkins on August 01, 2012:

Fascinating lens, and the videos helped to give the viewer a feel for what it would be like to be there.

Stephen Lewis on August 01, 2012:

I don't think so. I have been thru Winslow many times and have spent some time on the Navaho Nation a few times, but many years ago.

ismeedee on August 01, 2012:

What is it with Colorado at the moment? Ok, Grand Falls is in Arizona, but the name, 'Colorado' river- I'm sure I'm being called out there! Honestly, even a little known film my son bought in a pound store, looked interesting so started to watch it- hey, filmed in Colorado! Hehe... lovely lens, really interesting and love the photos!!! Poor doggy!!

grannysage on August 01, 2012:

Your photos are amazing. I like the contrast of the dry falls with the raging falls. I love falls of all kinds and this one is very unique.

DLeighAlexander on August 01, 2012:

I have seen the Little Colorado River when I visited the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff many years ago. It is a beautiful area. Your timing was perfect to be there at the right time to get these pictures.

DLeighAlexander on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations on winning Squid Woot and LOTD! Your pictures are amazing. I know you will enjoy your new orange camera ;) Blessings to you

Mussarat J Moghal from Ontario Canada on August 01, 2012:

No. But great pictures. Congratulations on LOTD

Bexley on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations on LOTD! Thank you for sharing this amazing story and fascinating photos.

anonymous on August 01, 2012:

awesome lens! nice photos :)

mussa83 on August 01, 2012:

no , but it is look good

Ruthi on August 01, 2012:

Your breathtaking photographs of Grand Falls show the rage of the river and its natural beauty too. I have not seen the Grand Falls, or any of the Colorado River, but surely wish that I might one day.

mussa83 on August 01, 2012:

@clerana: Beautiful photos and these types of mountains from which types of of sedimentary rocks is thousands of years old Thank you for transfer such images

Kiwisoutback from Massachusetts on August 01, 2012:

Excellent photos, especially considering in 2005 the quality of digital cameras weren't on the level of today's cameras. I was still using a film camera back then, kicking myself for not converting sooner.

These falls must be amazing to see in person. What type of weather conditions preceded the torrential flow, and how often does it occur?

Excellent choice for LOTD, blessed!

Mark Shirbroun on August 01, 2012:

Such great pictures! My wife and I backpacked on the Superior Hiking Trail - after seeing these pictures maybe we will head west for a trip! Wow! Thanks for a great lens!

Faye Rutledge from Concord VA on August 01, 2012:

Amazing! Thanks for the great photos and info of Grand Falls. I've never been there in person, but I can go there through your photos and videos! Congratulations on winning the squidwoot, purple star, and LotD!! Wow! I'm so excited for you!!! :)

anne mohanraj on August 01, 2012:

An amazing lens! Congratulations on LOTD.

Nnadi bonaventure Chima from Johanesburg on August 01, 2012:

Great lens ,the topography is good to behold

Nnadi bonaventure Chima from Johanesburg on August 01, 2012:

Great lens ,the topography is good to behold

Jeremy Richmond from Hubbard on August 01, 2012:

absolutely awesome lens on a great subject!

JoshK47 on August 01, 2012:

Wow - quite remarkable captures! Thanks so much for sharing - congrats on LotD and here's some SquidAngel dust!

writerkath on August 01, 2012:

Wanted to hop over again and congratulate you on LOTD!! Also, I got your comment about coming back to New England for more hiking... John (Hubby) told me to tell you that the section of the trail we see is "Gulfside Trail" from about "Thunderstorm Junction" over to "Airline" - those will be labeled on your maps. Give a shout if you make it to the Gorham or North Conway area when you come back next year! :) Kath

Close2Art LM on August 01, 2012:

a very fine lens, congrats on LOTD, Angel Blessings***

edisonmindset on August 01, 2012:

Spectacular and Informative! Great LOTD!

candy47 on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations on Lens of the Day! Beautiful lens and stunning photos :)

Anthony Altorenna from Connecticut on August 01, 2012:

Wow, just an amazing photographic journey that captures the dichotomy of nature at a truly stunning location. Beautiful!!

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on August 01, 2012:

Wow! The difference between a drought and a flash flood is phenomenal. What a beautiful lens and quite the experience to see it I'll bet. Well deserved LOD!

pawpaw911 on August 01, 2012:

Just thought I would stop back in to say congratulations on the LOTD. Well deserved.

Robin S from USA on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations, this gorgeous lens was selected as Lens of the Day today. You can read about it at SquidooHQ: http://hq.squidoo.com/lotd/grand-falls-really-does...

bestvpn1 on August 01, 2012:

great lens

Nayyte7 on August 01, 2012:

I want to go mudding in a lifted chevy right here! Oh yeah!

TheTuscan on August 01, 2012:

I only can tell you that I would like to go there. I've recently seen Niagara Falls in America and Rhine Falls in Europe.

But I'm still missing any muddy falls completely.

Kaamra LM on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations

Kaamra LM on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations

GabStar on August 01, 2012:

No but it looks fantastic!

anonymous on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations for the lens of the day.

msseiboi on August 01, 2012:

No..but seems wonderful

Rob Hemphill from Ireland on August 01, 2012:

Great photos, and what an adventure, very well done!

sarasentor lm on August 01, 2012:

This is very amazing lens.

LynetteBell from Christchurch, New Zealand on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations on LOTD and your win. Well done!

GoGirl2012 on August 01, 2012:

wow amazing!!! This is a great lens, congratulations

nutritioncounseling on August 01, 2012:

Nice Lens! Congrats on LOTD!

nicks44 on August 01, 2012:

This place goes beyond any expectation! I just hope to find the time soon enough to visit it properly myself! Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

intermarks on August 01, 2012:

Your have beautiful pictures. Congratulation!

essayshub on August 01, 2012:

it is such a great adventure! Congrats for the achievement.

ZarisaMontgomery on August 01, 2012:

Congrats on your squidwoot win! Beautiful lens.

anonymous on August 01, 2012:

Congratulations on your win, no excuses for not adding more beautiful pictures to your future lens now of your own.

anonymous on July 31, 2012:

wow..this place is nice. thanks for sharing..

DesertRatDan on July 31, 2012:

Very Excellent Lens! Great Job and Congrats on the Purple Star!

Jeanette from Australia on July 31, 2012:

Woah. Awesome difference! Congratulations on your win :-)

AgingIntoDisabi on July 31, 2012:

Amazing photographs - makes me feel like I'm there.

KevinGeetar on July 31, 2012:

Excellent lens!! I've not been to this area, but am planning a trip out that way in the next couple years.....will have to add this to the itinerary.....Kev

Dusty2 LM on July 31, 2012:

First, Congratulations on winning SquidWoot #4 Challenge. Enjoy the camera you won and take many more awesome photos as you have edited into your lens here. Hope to see more awesome photos. i lived in AZ for awhile and knew about those seasonal dry washes. One minute dry, next minute overflowing and flooding. You definitely captured that in your photos and the results. Thank You for sharing your lens, photos and experiences. Please; "Pay It Forward"!

Crystal A Murray from Corydon, Indiana, USA on July 31, 2012:

Congratulations on your win, and I can see why you got it. The lens is interesting and informative, and I like the bio you included. I'm from Kingman, but have never seen the LCR. Now I live in Kentucky, so I don't know it it'll be in my future, but I enjoyed visiting it here. BTW, there is a book called "Kaleidoscope Eyes" by Karen Ball that is about an SAR volunteer who has synesthesia. Interesting read even if you don't read the other 2 books in the series.

DebMartin on July 31, 2012:

Awesome photos!

Elyn MacInnis from Shanghai, China on July 31, 2012:

Your pictures are amazing - I am from the Northeast, and we don't have anything quite like this! That's quite a story...

norma-holt on July 31, 2012:

Wonderful pictures, great documentary and well deserving of the win. Congratulations. Featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2012-2. Hugs.

BernardSinai LM on July 31, 2012:

Congratulations on this winning lens. Great pictures too. :-)

bluewren56 lm on July 31, 2012:

Well deserved. Great lens, fantastic pictures.