Prologue: This past weekend I posted two diaries on slot canyons: Antelope Canyon (http://www.dailykos.com/...) and one featuring other popular slots (http://www.dailykos.com/...). For today's diary, it's a whole other of a canyon, actually a gorge, at its upper sector that is featured. Located to the southeast of the Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado River Gorge is sometimes referred to as the Baby Grand Canyon. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this sector southeast of the Grand Canyon, which is visible from Desert View. Of course, it's really a deep chasm, whose average depth is around 1,000 feet. At the upper end, near Cameron (Arizona), the sinuous gorge etches toward the Grand Canyon, as though a gigantic and deep crack in the Earth opened up. From the raven's view, this sector of the Little Colorado River appears like scrimshaw across the Mesozoic Era formations defining the eastern view and Painted Desert terrain beyond Grand Canyon National Park. As spectacular as this cracked pavement is, at the start of the gorge is something even more awesome: the Grand Falls. This lava-based foundation is more stunning when the monsoonal rains begin, usually between mid-July thru mid-September. Arguably, that's the best time to see and hear Nature's display of thundering, muddy water spilling down the stair-steppedd profile defining the falls. Even when the falls aren't pouring over the basalt like chocolate milk, this overall tabernacle of rock is nonetheless impressive.
But there's a catch to getting there: this part of the Little Colorado River Gorge, the upper sector, can be tricky to find. So, pay close attention to the directions at the close of this diary. You'll need the route getting there and you'll need a bit of luck when you arrive, that is, to get down below the falls and really get an eye and earful.
Location/Geography: In northeastern Arizona, east of Flagstaff and just off Leupp Road. The falls are on the Navajo Reservation (Leupp) east on Leupp Road, at the eastern edge of the San Francisco Volcanic Field which is 1,800 square miles and marks the southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau.
Spotlight: The falls are like a flowing chocolate milkshake during the spring runoff. To think the Little Colorado River can put on such an energetic and thunderous show like this! Certainly, an aptly named setting. Think of a chocolate smoothie in the guise of a quite muddy river that adds to the popular appeal of these falls. . .but mostly when the cubic feet per second (c.f.s.) is extreme.
Snapshot: Here is where fire once met water, then became steam. Thus, a moving stream of molten that merged with the Little Colorado River. That amazing event happened about 151,000 ago and what a splendorous result for the rest of us in our tie. Grand Falls is located close to the start of the Little Colorado River Gorge that empties into the Grand Canyon. This is extinct volcano country (so far extinct), boasting some six hundred volcanoes in the San Francisco Volcanic Field.
The craters range in age from around six-million-years-old to less than one thousand years, approximating the Cenozoic Era's Miocene to Holocene periods (respectively, 23 million to 5.1 million and 11,700 years ago to the present). Sunset Crater is the youngest in the large gathering. The largest volcano is Humphreys Peak, at Flagstaff's northern perimeter. At 12,633 feet, Humphreys is the highest of six summits on this stratovolcano popularly known as the "San Francisco Peaks."
Although the Little Colorado River (hereafter, "LC") is a major tributary of the Colorado River some 315 miles long, draining an area of about 26,500 square miles in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Its terminus is also where Marble Canyon officially ends, inside Grand Canyon NP. This usually muddy-brown tributary is dry or extremely shallow most of the year. (However, closer to meeting with the Colorado River, the LC turns a lovely turquoise color because of travertine deposits, making it a must-see lunch stop for boaters on the main channel (at mile-60 measured 60 miles downstream from Lee's Ferry). To see the falls running at the upper end of the LC gorge is a rare and rewarding sight. It also entails visiting during the spring runoff in March, usually lasting into April; also, during the monsoon seasons when some of the summer downpours are heaviest.
Note: Although the gorge is named after the Little Colorado River, its stream is not credited with creating the chasm. The original architect was known as the "Ancestral Colorado River," which was the initial architect responsible for chewing its way across the regional Marble Canyon Platform (to the east of the Grand Canyon), then vectored to the southeast and eventually ended up ponding its waters somewhere in the vicinity of the Hopi Mesa country (close to present-day Winslow, Arizona). Given this news it should be apparent to some how the Colorado River was not therefore the drainage that initially carved its way through the Grand Canyon. That story is told elsewhere (in a diary still to come). For the record, when the Little Colorado River was born high in the White Mountains, it eventually made its way to northern Arizona, and conveniently followed a pathway that was log ago (by millions of years) carved by the Ancestral Colorado River, then eventually joins the Colorado River that today flows into the Grand Canyon from the northeast and heads south-southwest.Guided Tour Essentials: The formation of the Grand Falls is directly linked to regional volcanic activity. A river of magma from nearby Merriam Crater (6,385 feet) southeast of Flagstaff flowed for about 7 miles, then spilled into the 200-foot-deep canyon of the river in this sector. The molten rock shower continued as magma lapped up and over the canyon's opposite rim, then flowed downstream another 15 miles before literally running out of steam and heat. This excessive mass of lava effectively dammed the river where the magma flow first entered the channel. Imagine the lava steps before the LC wandered into this sector.
The usually muddy brown river was then forced to change course, making a wide horseshoe bend to the east, surging around the margin of the lava flow. Over time the LC carved a new channel. In the process, it excavated portions of the lava base that filled the river’s former channel. To reach this fairly recent-in-time channel, the river flows over sedimentary steps in the Kaibab Formation that once was part of the north wall of the former Little Colorado River gorge. When this drainage is flooding with spring runoff, or even during flash floods, the spectacular cascade of the river comes alive and readily earns its epithet: The Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River. Sometimes when the spring runoff is fierce the raging flow over the falls is literally explosive. Certainly, a visceral and engaging sight.
Geology: During the spring runoff season, sediment-laden water spills down from Arizona’s White Mountains near the border of New Mexico and the Mogollon Rim region along the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. This same region is where the LC traces its headwaters. The dark volcanic rock is basalt (lava-formed). In contrast, the opposite rim is composed of horizontal layers of limestone in the Kaibab Formation. From this point, the basalt continued downstream to the west. Like a searing river of red-hot lava, it wandered across the terrain, its wide tongue of magma following the drainage that led into the gorge and was partially filled with lava at its upper reaches. The scene today is palatable, for with imagination it’s possible to hear and feel the energy and surge of the lava pouring over the lip and spilling downward.
Meanwhile, downstream it's an entirely different scene. Mostly, flat water, still a light brownish tincture, until it reaches the confluence with the Colorado River. In this sector, the Little Colorado River has been transformed by a travertine chemical reaction, turning its water a gorgeous and serene turquoise color. This color changes happens only twice inside Grand Canyon National Park: here at the Confluence and at Havasu Creek in the far western sector of the canyon (and upstream from Diamond Creek on the Hualapai Indian Reservation).
Hiking: The best way to see and understand what happened here is go on a hike. Once at the falls there’s a crude trail of sorts to the west (in the downstream direction), which vectors along the rim of the canyon. There are also many confusing branches and false turns, so it usually takes time to find the right path. After about 100 yards the trail becomes rocky and descends gradually over outcrops of basalt. Notice how there are no visible crystals in the lava. Their absence indicates the lava cooled quickly and crystals did not have time to form. Next, notice the numerous tiny holes in the basalt. These are called vesicles, which signifies gas bubbles once trapped in molten lava. In some places these telltale markings are elongate or lens-shaped, because the gas bubbles were stretched as the lava continued to move while it cooled and solidified.
Take note that there are no soft rocks here and the footing can be tricky and slippery (in places). Then again, it's possible for hikers and their canine angels to tagalong. So, that should give notice to the fact even dogs can manage the terrain.
Venturing into the gorge, notice the fracture or joint patterns in the basalt foundation making up the dark right wall of the canyon. Look for columnar patterns, also called columnar joints. When lava cools, it shrinks or contracts, creating highly noticeable cracks in the process, forming joints in volcanic rock. If the falls are running and putting on a thunderous display, the view of the cascading water from below is utterly spellbinding. Notice how, on the right side of the falls, the ledges of the Kaibab Limestone Formation end abruptly against the dark basalt. Directly below the ramada on the left, the rough hewn lava is also very thin. Yet to the right it thickens rapidly along a steep boundary that cuts sharply down to the bottom of the canyon. This dramatic contact zone represents the north wall of the OLD river canyon when the lava filled this sector and eventually dammed the river. The 200-foot-thick plug of basalt to the right is the lava remains from Merriam Crater that completely filled this part of the gorge. The thin basalt cap directly beneath the ramada also marks the place where molten lava lapped over the rim of the old canyon. After resting and listening to the whitenoise roar of the falls, it's time to head back up the trail and get used to the quiet again.
Directions (Pay Attention!): Drive I-40 headed east from Flagstaff (14 miles), then take the Winona Exit 211. Drive 2 more miles on the Townsend-Winona Road, then turn right on Leupp Road to the Grand Falls turnoffs. Another option is to drive 2 miles past the Flagstaff Mall (eastern Flagstaff), then turn right at the traffic light onto the Townsend/Winona Road. Drive east 8.3 miles and turn left onto the Leupp Road (Navajo reservation country). Follow Leupp Road for 15.3 miles and turn left onto a wide dirt road ("Navajo Road 70"), which has a sign for “Grand Falls Bible Church” soon after the cattle guard (marking the boundary of the Navajo Reservation). The rounded cinder cone on the left is Merriam Crater, which is the probable source of the lava that initially created Grand Falls.
Now that I think about it, you may need a topographical map to help make better sense of the layout of this sector:
Remember: It can be vewry, vewry tricky for some folks trying to find, not the sector of the falls, but the route TO the falls:
Note: The road to Grand Falls is very dusty (also very muddy during the rainy season). Washboard bumps are ca-ca-ca-ommmon. The main road is also converged on by several other secondary roads. Ergo, pay attention! Stay on the largest and most heavily used road. Drive for 8.6 miles and turn left onto a smaller dirt road about 0.7 mile past the junction of Navajo Road 6910, which comes in from the right. However, if you find yourself at the river, you have plainly missed the turn! Instead, just follow this rough road about 0.5 mile and park near the rim of the canyon below the last ramada of the picnic area. The trail, which may or may not be marked, starts just downstream (west) about 100 yards from the parking area. Because the falls are located on the Navajo Reservation, do not wander off main roads or do anything to violate their laws.
Contact Information: Navajo Nation Tourism, P. O. Box 663, Window Rock AZ 86515. Phone: 928-810.8501. Fax and Email: non-listed. Another option is to contact the Navajo Nation, Leupp Chapter House, Leupp AZ 86035. Phone: 928-686.3227.
And so, DKos community, we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.
As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.
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