Kids just squeal with delight: “It’s like pouring chocolate milk into the river!” It’s Willy Wonka at his best magic.
The “Chocolate Waterfalls,” actually Grand Falls AZ, is located in the Leupp Chapter of the Navajo Nation, about 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff. While it is an adventure to get there, it’s well-worth the effort to see a unique, natural phenomena. It’s a 90-minute side trip there and back from Interstate 40 at Winona. Grand Falls AZ is not that far from Grand Canyon National Park, and definitely within reach of Petrified Forest National Park. It’s about a four-hour drive from Phoenix.
The nearly 200-foot tall Grand Falls, near Leupp (“loop”), Arizona, is often called “Chocolate Falls” because of the rich, brown color from Little Colorado River sediment. From the parking lot overlook, the river flows slowly down shallow terraces, picking up speed, until it powers down a trio of steep drops, plunging into a river bend below. It is one of the few “chocolate waterfalls” to be found in the Southwest.
Getting to Grand Falls AZ
Most of the route from I-40 is paved, and the dirt road on which you turn left, Indian Road 70, covers the last nine miles to Grand Falls. It is easily driven with a two wheel-drive passenger car (make sure it has a spare). Drivers’ experience with dirt roads is measured with the speed differences. Some vehicles were chugging along at 15 to 20 miles per hour, others whipped by in the mid-50s mph. The majority held at a steady 35 to 40 mph. The road has a mild washboard surface, is easily navigated by passenger sedans, but the dirt and gravel make traction slippery in spot.
Families of all sizes and ages were pulling in to the parking lot. The road trip to Grand Falls can be tailored to all ages and experience. Located at the end of a 45-minute adventurous ride from I-40 through the Navajo Nation, the roar of the falls can be heard before reaching the dirt parking lot.
Limited Facilities at Grand Falls
The Navajo have constructed a picnic ramada with an information kiosk and a pit toilet. There are no other services available. Even the parking lot is a “park where you can” design. While not technically ADA compliant, it is possible to maneuver a wheel chair or walker to the ramada to look at the Falls.
It’s a short walk from the parking area to the ramada and overlook on the south bank of the Little Colorado River. A safety fence allows close looks into the steep canyon without risk of slipping over the edge. A step beyond the fence is a risk visitors should be unwilling to take.
For those willing to walk a bit, a second smaller, shaded overlook is set in the top of the canyon at the point where the river bends to the north at the base of the falls. This shelter is located about one-quarter mile from the main ramada.
Most families with young children, and those with walking challenges seemed to stay in the upper parking area. There are plenty of places to view the falls from different angles. With a nearly one-half mile width from cliff-to-cliff before its final drop into the river below, the south parking area affords great picture opportunities and lots of sound.
It’s an easy walk to the west bank overlooks of the Little Colorado River directly across from the Falls. There are volunteer trails of soft sand and gravel, moderate changes in elevation, and interesting vegetation making it worth the extra 20 minutes to make the loop back to the parking lot.
Hiking Down to the River
For the adventurous, there’s a narrow trail cut into the rocks along the west bank of the Little Colorado River. Hikers of all ages navigated the slot to get to the lower beach, 200 feet below the cliff top. Arrows in the photo point out the trail, the slot and the lower beach.
When visitors are seen on the flat area on the north and east sides of the Little Colorado River, it’s a give-away that they used Google or Apple maps for their directions. The best directions from I-40 and Flagstaff are on the Visit Flagstaff website. The flat area, where those maps direct you, has no ramada and look down on the falls from the side; the broad face of Grand Falls can’t be seen from there.
Grand Falls and the chocolate waterfall is best viewed in the spring following winter rains. However, it also flows for short periods following monsoon rain in June through September. Remember, when driving Indian Road 70 following or during a monsoon, drive slowly and watch out for deep puddles that could burst a tire or break and axle. They are not visible when the road is puddled.
The Navajo Nation is a Foreign Country
The Navajo Nation is essentially a quasi-foreign country in the U.S. It covers an area of northeast Arizona, northwest New Mexico and southern Utah that is larger than New England. Tribal law varies from U.S. law in some aspects. The Navajo find places like Grand Falls to be a sacred site. As a visitor to the Nation, share that respect.
Grand Falls is not officially a Navajo Nation Tribal Park, it’s just an amazing scenic view well worth the adventure. You can ask questions with the Navajo Nation Tribal Parks and Recreation Department Grand Falls office, (928) 686-3227. Camping is permitted with a backcountry permit. Do not camp without a permit; there is a fine for doing so.
Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park are about a 90-minute drive from the chocolate waterfall.
Desert Travel Safety Tips
You are in the desert of the Colorado Plateau. You can dehydrate without even being conscious of the change in your body. In extreme hot weather, distress from the heat is possible. Even in winter, the sun is extremely bright. Drink often. If you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated.
More safety tips:
- Keep hydrated. Carry one liter of water per person from your car even for a short walk to look at the falls or hiked down to the lower beach. Coffee, tea, soft drinks are not hydrators.
- Stay away from the edge of the canyon. The gravel is slippery and a single step can result in a fatal fall.
- Stay out of the Little Colorado River. The water flow is a lot faster than it looks, there are currents and eddies that can trap even the most experienced swimmers. The base rock is sandstone, and when wet, the rock is slick and provides no purchase to stop movement.
- Do not go in the Little Colorado River, even if it appears to be slowly flowing. You will likely be swept over the falls and die. In the lower portion, you could be sucked into an eddy or trapped by a swirling current and die. Protect your family and do not take chances on the river or cliff edge.
- Bring a paper map. Mobile phones and phone-based GPS mapping are unreliable outside of Winona.
- Many roads are not well-marked. Know where you’re going.
- Fill your gas tank in Flagstaff or Winona, and purchase snacks, supplies and water. There are no services at Grand Falls.
- Ensure your spare tire is properly inflated.
- Travel at safe speeds on gravel roads. Hidden rocks or potholes can damage tires or axles. Remember AAA and most travel assistance programs will not cover unpaved road issues.
- Use sunscreen no matter what the temperature or cloud cover. Ultraviolet rays can penetrate clouds.
- Wear a hat with broad brim and sunglasses when it’s sunny.
- Do not approach or feed wildlife. Nearly all snake bites are from people teasing or trying to handle a rattlesnake.
- Use common sense. You are literally dozens of miles and hours from emergency responders.
Take Interstate 40 Exit 211 for Winona. Go north on Townsend-Winona Rd. about 2.3 miles and turn north (right) on Leupp Road. Take Leupp Rd. east, a two-lane paved road, about 15 miles to Indian Route 70. IR 70 comes in on the left. There is a Baptist Church on the left, and sometimes, there is a sign that says “Grand Falls.” Travel about 9 miles on IR 70 to the Falls.
Important Travel Notes
Do not blindly follow Google Maps and Apple Maps, they will take you to the west side of the Little Colorado River, which is not the best views of Grand Falls. Use directions above, which are from Flagstaff.com.
The Leupp chapter house and the Indian Route roads are within the Navajo Nation and under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Tribal Police. Speeding tickets are processed under Navajo Nation laws, and are not the same as the U.S. On the Navajo Nation, you are within a foreign country and subject to its laws. Don’t speed.