I'm a waterfall groupie. I've stood before the world's mightiest--Niagara, Victoria, Iguazu, Yellowstone, Akaka and the Rhinefalls. Eagerly, I applauded each roil and whorl, seeking encore after encore.
I'm going to remain closer afield this year, but as luck would have it this promises to be the first good runoff in almost a decade for Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River (better known as the Navajo Niagara because of its location on the northern Arizona reservation).
Even the name "Grand Falls of the Little Colorado" seems like a contradiction in terms. But when Mount Baldy gets cranked up to toss away a heavy snowpack or when winter rains are extraordinary, this adobe-brown cascade with its Niagara-like 185-foot drop can match superlatives with the best of them.
Like Africa's Victoria Falls, the river at the bottom of Grand Falls takes a sharp turn along a tight, deep canyon, headed ultimately for the Mother Colorado and Grand Canyon.
There's none of the commercialism of Iguazu or Niagara, unless you consider a hand-lettered sign offering "Indian fry-bread" from the bed of one of the ubiquitous pickup trucks that ply the reservation.
Any respectable flow over the Grand Falls looks muscular in its desert setting. In full cascade, if even the slightest winds are sweeping the barren prairie of the Navajoland, the spray erupts from the canyon as opaque raindrops soaring skyward. And when one turns away from the fury, the blue heavens seem dotted with thousands of reddish-brown gnats. In fact, Grand Falls is sometimes described as a "chocolate Niagara."
A path from the rim circles down to the driftwood castles growing in the whirlpools at the base of the flow. A glance upward reveals a billowing cafe-au-lait theatrical curtain supplying an encompassing roar that serves as its own ovation.
The drive from Flagstaff is mostly blacktop, but concludes along an unpaved reservation road in perfect Tony Hillerman country. The route to the falls traverses a landscape consisting mostly of dry prairie, although in the spring there are pronounced fields of hill lupine.
Until the edge of the Little Colorado's chasm is at hand, there is no indication that a mighty river cuts this barren land, and without the flow the cliffs can be dry as a bone.
Grand Falls is shown as a dot on most Arizona highway maps about 15 miles northeast of Winona, the hamlet east of Flagstaff best known in the lyrics of "Get your kicks on Route 66."