After rain or sufficient snowmelt, Grand Falls lives up to its other name: "Chocolate Falls."
© Shane McDermott
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Indian Road 6910The road is rough, but the reward of seeing the smooth water of Chocolate Falls is well worth a few bumps and thuds.
By Jobeth Jamison
When it comes to waterfalls in Arizona, the first thought for most people is Havasu Falls, and rightfully so. However, the Colorado River is fed by another watery wonder: Grand Falls. Although it's a lesser-known kid sister, Grand Falls is more accessible than Havasu, and it's about the last thing you'd expect to encounter in the arid expanse of Navajoland.
"Mud Falls," as Grand Falls is sometimes called, is fed exclusively by snowmelt and rainfall, so it often runs low, or it doesn't run at all. The falls, though they look like something created by Willy Wonka, were formed when lava from a nearby crater created a dam in the Little Colorado River and rerouted the flow. The falls are where the new route rejoins the old one. After a rainy spring or late-summer monsoons, enough water usually passes through the falls' red-dirt path to create a muddy cascade. In the wake of a wet winter, the 185-foot drop can resemble a chocolate Niagara Falls, making it aesthetically delicious and worth the "grading" drive.
The first 35 miles from Flagstaff are comfortably paved — first eastbound along Interstate 40, then north along Winona and Leupp roads, where you will catch glimpses of the area's cinder mines. These shaved volcanic cones reveal layers of ages-old burgundy, black and caramel rocks.
After passing through the little town of Winona, Leupp Road (where keen mileage calculation should begin) leads to the Navajo Indian Reservation. There, the signs of human life are pleasantly fewer while signs of the area's unique geological history abound. The road bends past untouched cinder cones and craters that tower up into an otherwise even landscape, interrupting distant views of the San Francisco Peaks.
About 17 miles from the start of Leupp Road, signs for the Grand Falls Bible Church start to appear. The church and the falls are on different roads and are many miles apart, but it's a good time to pay close attention to the odometer and mileposts. Indian Road 6910 materializes approximately 20.3 miles down Leupp Road, between Mileposts 5 and 6. Keep in mind, there is a small, official Indian Road sign, but it's hard to see in advance.
After taking a left onto the unpaved road, there's a sprinkling of small hills and rock outcroppings, but for the most part the land is dry and flat as far as the eye can see. You'll struggle with the idea that any semblance of water exists anywhere along this road. Another struggle is the steering wheel. Although Indian 6910 looks smooth, it's painfully graded and can be dangerous at high speeds. Fortunately, the need to soak up the solitude and beauty of Navajoland will trump the need for speed.
After 9.4 miles, and after passing Indian Road 70, a series of side-by-side dirt roads veer off to the left. Picnic-table ramadas and the likely existence of other vehicles are clues that something is out there, but it's still hard to imagine. Only after you've parked your car and walked the short distance to the overlook will you believe that Grand Falls actually exists. But there it is, very different from Havasu Falls, but impressive nonetheless.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 47 miles one way
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive east on Interstate 40 to Winona Road (Exit 211) and turn left (north). Follow Winona Road to Leupp Road and turn right. Follow Leupp Road for 20.3 miles to Indian Road 6910 (unmarked) between Mileposts 5 and 6. Take a left onto the unpaved road and drive north for 9.5 miles. Do not cross the river. Turn left onto an unmarked road and follow it to the overlook (approximately 0.2 miles).
Vehicle Requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended. The road is graded, but very rough and slow-going. Snow, ice, deep water and mud may be present.
Travel Advisory: Grand Falls is located on the Navajo Indian Reservation, where it's illegal to travel off designated roads. Proceed respectfully. There are no barriers or fences, so keep dogs leashed and children in hand.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don't travel alone and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.