Willy Wonka, the famed fictional chocolatier whose factory housed a chocolate waterfall once sang, “Come with me and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination.” But if you go at the right time of year, you don’t have to imagine Grand Falls, Arizona, also known as the “Chocolate Waterfall.”
No, this isn’t some splashy dessert gimmick you’ll see at your best friend’s wedding reception. This remarkable site (and sight) is a natural wonder of tiered waterfalls featuring flat rock plateaus and cascades of cocoa-colored H2O located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Flagstaff on Navajo Nation land in a region called the Painted Desert.
Grand Falls formed during the late Pleistocene era. An ancient volcanic eruption at the Merriam Crater sent lava flowing toward the canyon of the Little Colorado River. Hot lava cooled and filled the riverbed up and downstream, damming the river. Eventually a lake formed and spilled over the top of dam and carved out Grand Falls.
It is important to note that if you visit Grand Falls at the wrong time of the year, you might not see waterfalls at all. The best time to view the “Chocolate Falls” is in the spring, especially in March and April. That’s when the waterfalls are fed by the spring snowmelt from the Little Colorado River, which originates at Mount Baldy, orDził Łigai Sí’án, as it is known to the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
Mount Baldy is the state’s highest mountain and part of the White Mountains, a mountain range in northeast Arizona that makes up part of the Colorado Plateau. The heavily silt-laden water gives the river its warm brown color and flows through the mountains to Grand Falls where it makes the 187-foot plunge.
By the time the water flows the complete 338 miles (544 kilometers) northwest to meet up with the Colorado River at the Grand Canyon, the brown silt is completely filtered out and minerals have changed its color to pale turquoise.
Occasionally, you can view Grand Falls in the summer when it’s fed during the rainy season, which begins in June and continues through September. Monsoon season typically brings higher humidity leading to frequent thunderstorms, heavy rainfall and even flash floods.
However, these weather patterns are short, infrequent and unreliable. The flow of the Grand Falls can also be affected by drought conditions. But it is possible to call ahead to learn whether the falls are, in fact, falling.
Grand Falls is part of the Grand Falls Recreational Area. It’s on Navajo Nation land and maintained and managed by the Leupp Chapter House. When visiting the area, it’s important to be respectful of the people, the nature inhabiting the land and of the land, itself.