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

Updated on March 3, 2016

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!

Grand Falls dry
Grand Falls dry

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.

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

Grand Falls by Contrast

The Little Colorado River's Highs and Lows

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

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!

Grand Falls in Motion

Video footage of the LCR's Lows and Highs

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.

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!

A markerGrand Falls -
Grand Falls, Arizona
get directions

Looking for a Place to Eat Near Grand Falls?

Get a taste of the local flavor at Old Smokey's 2 Bar 3 Restaurant and Saloon

The closest place you'll find to Grand Falls to get something to eat and, if you wish, some refreshments is historic and rustic Old Smokey's 2 Bar 3 Restaurant and Saloon, located on Leupp Road a 1/4-mile north of Townsend-Winona Road.

Old Smokey's serves hand cut steaks, prime rib, slow cooked smoked brisket, fish, 1/2-pound fresh hamburgers, chicken wings, pizza, and a bunch of other specialty dishes. This is a great place to stop on your excursion to Grand Falls, either on the way out or as you're coming back.

© 2012 Deb Kingsbury

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

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    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 4 years ago from Canada

      We made it up to Nevada on our holidays last year but did not quite make it up to Arizona. After seeing your photos of the Little Colorado river (which by the way really does not look too little to me) my husband and I may have to take a wander back up that way. He would love it.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 4 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I haven't seen anything in this area, but I certainly enjoyed your great photos and story of this powerful river. Congratulations on your SquidWoot win!

    • profile image

      BarbaraCasey 4 years ago

      Congrats on your win! Love seeing these changes in Mother Nature... makes me respect her all the more.

    • NausetViews profile image

      Kristen 4 years ago from Boston

      Beautiful pictures. Congratulations on your win. Well deserved!

    • profile image

      Zienna1 4 years ago

      No, I'm too far. I'm here down under, but I'm glad I stopped by. Felt like I've been there already.

      Thank you and Congratulations. It's amazing!!

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 4 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Congratulations on your Woot win! Way to go!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 4 years ago from Colorado

      Fantastic chronicle of nature's power and moods. Congrats on your SquidWoot win! Very pleased for you. Always love your work.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 4 years ago from USA

      Congratulations! You did a super job in the SquidWoot challenge. Raad more here: http://hq.squidoo.com/squidwoot/squidwoot-week-4-w...

    • vetochemicals profile image

      Cindy 4 years ago from Pittsburgh Pa

      I've never been to the LCR before but, your page gave us all a great look. Congrats on your win and your new camera! xoxo

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 4 years ago from Central Florida

      Fascinating topic and your photos are great. Well done and congratulations on winning the contest.

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 4 years ago

      Never been there, but it looks like it would be a very interesting place to visit, whether the water is running or not. Very nice lens. Congrats on the win.

    • BLemley profile image

      Beverly Lemley 4 years ago from Raleigh, NC

      What an incredible story and pictures! That's incredible that you experienced that ~ it seems you could have been in danger, but you have amazing pictures that tell it all ~ Congratulations on your win! I know you will enjoy testing it out and getting the picture ~ just be careful! SquidAngel blessed! B : )

    • Brandi Bush profile image

      Brandi 4 years ago from Maryland

      Awesome photos! Congrats on your SquidWoot success! :)

    • victoriuh profile image

      victoriuh 4 years ago

      Stunning photos! I enjoyed reading this. Blessed.

    • Gayle Mclaughlin profile image

      Gayle 4 years ago from McLaughlin

      Amazing photos! No I have never been to this particular falls--but we love the Colorado River and my husband has rafted down part of it. Congrats on your win!

    • MEDerby profile image

      MEDerby 4 years ago

      Beautifully constructed lens

    • CCGAL profile image

      CCGAL 4 years ago

      I can see why this lens was awarded a purple star and won the Squid Woot - this is not only an educational and extremely interesting pictorial, but you've shared personal experience and highlighted things that most of us will never have the chance to see or do. Marvelous experience to visit, read, and enjoy this lens. Mega Kudos to you!

    • lclchors profile image

      lclchors 4 years ago

      great photos

    • profile image

      NC Shepherd 4 years ago

      Congrats on winning Squidwoot! Quite a flood you caught.

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