Sunset at Grand Falls, Arizona on the Navajo Nation.

Grand Falls itself is a story about the desert and water. Water doesn’t really belong in the desert. That’s what makes it a desert: no water. So, when water shows up in the desert unexpectedly, sometimes the result is the utterly beautiful chaos seen at Grand Falls, Arizona.

Grand Falls is an example of nature playing games with itself. The falls are rather new, as such things go. A relative blink-of-the-eye ago (about 150,000 years back), nearby Merriam Crater erupted. The lava flow created a dam partially blocking the Little Colorado River. The lava diverted water over the plateau that came to be known as Grand Falls.

The thing is, Grand Falls isn’t always falling. The surrounding area is a desert — a high and very dry one. Water only flows after heavy snowmelt or strong rains. That means most of the year, you won’t see much more than a trickle over the geological formation that was — until that lava thing happened back then — just sitting there, minding its own business. Grand Falls is relatively unknown even among experienced Arizona travelers, partially because it oftentimes just isn’t there.

But when the waters come, watch out. At 185 feet in height, Grand Falls is taller than Niagara. Because the water flow is so sporadic, it carries a lot of sediment. This has led some to call Grand Falls “Chocolate Falls.” Because water doesn’t belong in a desert, nothing really makes sense when you combine the two. Play your cards right and you can see a river of chocolate milk spilling over enormous, ancient stone steps. Just go with it.

Grand Falls is a bit of a challenge to access. It’s located about 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff. There are no major paved roads leading to the falls. Passenger cars need to stop at the South side of the river. At that point, you’ll need some strong legs and good shoes or a sturdy 4×4. A Navajo guide or an experienced backcountry explorer is more or less a necessity. Also, a Navajo Nation hiking permit is required for a visit to the Falls. At the right time of year, Grand Falls is well-worth the trip, and the minimal hassle of paying respect to Tribal laws.