Grand Falls: The Willy Wonka of Waterfalls in Northern Arizona
Grand Falls, also known as Chocolate Falls, is a seasonal waterfall located about 40 miles northeast of Flagstaff (Keep reading to avoid a directional mishap with Google Maps). Grand Falls is a spectacular off-the-beaten place to visit during March and April as the winter snow melt fills up the typically dry Little Colorado River. The massive cascade of falls known as Grand Falls, is over 180′, which is about 5 feet higher than the more famous Niagara Falls.
While March and April are the best times to see Grand Falls in action, the seasonal summer monsoon can also provide a spectacular sight as the water flowing over the terraces looks more like Chocolate Falls due to the normally dry river sending dirty water downstream. The muddy waters is reminiscent of scenes straight out of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, especially in the late afternoon when the setting sun intensifies the brown color.
As you look downstream of Grand Falls the landscape looks like a microcosm of the Grand Canyon. From the south side of the river there is a trail that leads down to the bottom of the falls so that you can get a close-up view. You will often see rainbows form, which is just another element of this beautiful setting.
I have been to Grand Falls twice now, the first time was in early May, 2017 and there was nothing but a trickle of water. The second time was in early April, 2019 and the water was flowing nicely, but not as much as I’ve seen in some photos and videos after monsoons sent a rush of water downstream. Seeing Grand Falls at its best takes a bit of luck and good timing.
Tips for Visiting Grand Falls
- The best views of Grand Falls, aka Chocolate Falls, is on the south side of the Little Colorado River. NOTE: If you wish to be on the south side, DO NOT follow Google Maps.
- The north side is still really nice, and, there are far fewer people, but you only get a partial/side view of the falls.
- There is no access to the hiking trails that lead to the bottom of the falls from the north side of the river.
- You can make it to Grand Falls in a car, but a high clearance 4×4 truck or SUV is best.
- There are no amenities anywhere nearby, so be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks/food.
- The cliff edges are very unstable, so use caution when getting close.
- There are several picnic tables and gazebos available.
- Lots of great places to dry camp on both sides of the river.
- There is a concrete road just above Grand Falls that will allow you to cross the river when there is little to no water. Do not attempt this if the water is high and flowing fast. Again, high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles are recommended if there is water flowing over the road.
- Be aware that this is a rural area and cell/data coverage is spotty.
- There are no entrance fees.
- There are not bathrooms or running water, but you will find a couple of outhouses near the primary parking area.
Directions to Grand Falls
There is little to no signage to guide you to Grand Falls. Getting there from Flagstaff is only about 30 miles, but 20 miles of that is via unpaved roads. If you use Google Maps, it will take you a long way around (as seen in the second map) and will add more than an hour to your drive. Grand Falls can actually be accessed via a number of Indian roads (this area is on Navajo land) from either HWY 89 or off of I-40, but many are unmarked.
15 miles east of Flagstaff off of I-40, you’ll want to take exit 211 at Winona. Drive 2.3 miles northwest to Leupp Road and turn right. Then, drive 20.3 miles along Leupp Road to unpaved and unsigned Indian Road 70, which will lead you right to the Grand Falls overlook. You can also take Indian Road 6910 if you happen to miss 70. Both roads can have sections of washboard terrain that are quite rough. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary, but it is nice to have.
However you get to Grand Falls, remember that you want to be on the south side of the river for the best views and access to the hiking trail.
Grand Falls Road Trip Vehicle
My road trip vehicle for this adventure to Grand Falls was a brand new 2019 Nissan Rogue Sport. While this Rogue was not an AWD version, its front-wheel drive handled the terrain with ease. This road trip-ready SUV Crossover was a great companion not only for the trip there, but to hold all of my gear for camping.
From a road trip perspective, here are some of the things I really appreciated about the Nissan Rogue:
- Great visibility.
- Good gas millage and range – One tank I drove 399 miles and averaged 28.8 mpg (rated 25/32)
- Pro-Pilot Assist – Not billed as an autonomous feature, but does allow you to take your hands off the steering wheel for a moment or two. The car will stay in its lanes and a safe distance behind vehicles in front of you.
- Fold down rear seats – Great feature for hauling gear like I did for camping.
- Plenty of outlets – As a road trip blogger this was helpful for keeping my camera gear and gadgets charged up.
- Observation technology – Nissan has taken the camera system to the next level. You see different angles of the car so you can avoid running over a curb, or into car bumper.
Camping at Grand Falls
After the sun began to set, I headed off to find a place to camp. I ended up finding a path that followed the river upstream (on the north side). I probably drove around a mile from the falls where I found a nice flat spot to park the Rogue and set up camp for the night. My tent was just steps from the river, with the Rogue in front so I could easily assess all my gear.
As you may have noticed in some of the photos, I was regulated to the north side of the river because I was misdirected by Google Maps (Hopefully my experience and directions will assist you). Since the river was flowing high, I could not cross via the road I mentioned above. That said, while there are plenty of places to camp on the south side, I think the north has its benefits. For starters, there are far fewer people roaming the north side. As you can see in the photo below, I found a stellar spot to call it a night.
This stretch of the river was pretty calm and provided a soothing sound for sleeping. There was no one around as far as I could see and not a single person drove past me the entire time I was there. The only evidence of previous activity was horse hove imprints, clearly a spot where horses took a drink from the river.
If you have any questions about visiting Grand Falls (aka Chocolate Falls), leave a comment below. If you’ve ever been to Grand Falls, please share your experience.