Locals pushing back as 'Chocolate Falls' draw large crowds to remote Navajo area

By Michel Marizco
Published: Thursday, March 2, 2023 - 4:55am
Updated: Thursday, March 2, 2023 - 2:47pm

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Grand Falls
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Grand Falls' waters churn even in the middle of winter. It's located just a few miles inside the Navajo Nation’s southwestern boundary,

A group of Navajo residents living near what’s become a landmark waterfall in northern Arizona want to close it off to tourists and visitors, saying the increasingly popular area is being loved to death.

Grand Falls is a haunting spot on the Little Colorado River, just a few miles inside the Navajo Nation’s southwestern boundary. The falls are nearly 200 feet high and leave a sense you’re watching some ephemeral movement of the land as the roiling waters melt the landscape. 

The Navajo Nation’s Tourism Department touts Grand Falls as a place to visit, including this video of the falls roaring down at their fullest. 

It suggests seasons to visit, like now when snows melt off the falls. And during monsoon storms when, the agency claims, these so-called "Chocolate Falls" reach heights bigger than those of Niagara.

But the Tourism Department also warns folks not to camp out overnight and to respect locals and their livestock. Herman Cody says that’s where the trouble starts.

Herman Cody
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Herman Cody explains that visitors are loving Grand Falls to death.

"The thing is when they come, some of them. Not everyone of course, they think it’s a free-for-all. Go where you want to go. Do what you want to do," he said.

He pointed to a pair of Jeeps that traversed the waters below as we spoke in the cab of a pickup truck to shelter from blustery winds on top of the plateau.

"They vroom, vroom the motorcycles that way and the ATVs. If they have four-wheel pickup trucks, they go where there are no roads," he said. 

Some of the tourism feels more invasive than that.

"Yeah, the drones. They fly them on top of people’s homes. And they go that way. They find ancient ruins over there and they post them. So people come and start searching for them," he said. 

On a recent Saturday, Cody and a group of other residents gathered to plan out how to close Grand Falls to the public.

"In the meantime, temporarily, we plan on asking that they don’t congregate in this area because that’s exactly what happens here and let us figure things out," he said.

Cody said the group does not want to close Grand Falls to Native American tribe members who may use the site for their own sacred rites. But the authority to close Grand Falls to non-Native visitors is murky.

The Navajo Nation’s own Tourism Department continues to promote the falls and acquiesces authority to the local Navajo government, the Leupp Chapter House. But the president of the Chapter House declined to be interviewed. 

Violet White
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Violet White is drafting the resolution for residents to adopt that would temporarily keep visitors out of Grand Falls.

But on Feb. 8, the chapter house asked the Museum of Northern Arizona to suspend an upcoming field trip the museum conducts at the falls because it didn’t have a permit to do so. Up until that request, no permit was required, said Kristan Hutchison, director of public engagement at the Flagstaff-area museum. 

"We were definitely surprised but I actually think that it’s a good thing they are taking measures. Grand Falls is a very special place and I know that the amount of visitation there has increased over the years and so putting in place some kind of structure and procedures to protect it and maybe limit visitation makes sense," she said.

Violet White is writing up a resolution for residents from the Leupp Chapter to vote on that would temporarily close the area to non-Native visitors.

Others are writing up a petition that so far has just a few signatures. A planning meeting will come up at the end of the month. 

"This is barely the beginning of the process so we want to hear other ideas," White said. "Maybe other residents want to limit the visitors, we’re trying to gather ideas, what you want to do. But for now, we’re just temporarily shutting it down."

That closure has come in the form of a pair of private property, no trespassing signs mounted on the roads leading to the majestic falls.

Navajo Nation boundary
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
The Navajo Nation boundary as one leaves Grand Falls on the way back to Flagstaff.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been updated to correctly describe the location where Grand Falls lies in the Navajo Nation.

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