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Land Lines - Grand Falls


By Rose Houk and Michael Collier

In the American Southwest, rocks are eloquent and landscapes have stories to tell. Sweeping dramas like the Grand Canyon command center stage here. But you can also discover concise geologic vignettes where the plots are crystal clear and earth's processes are a little more obvious. Places like Grand Falls in northeast Arizona. The Hopi people call Grand Falls "swishing/whistling sound place."
The falls on the Little Colorado River do whistle and hiss as the water sifts down over limestone ledges. The falls are about 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff, the last third over a gravel washboard road across Navajo land. As you approach, a low line of tamarisk trees is the only sign of a river. The last thing you might expect out in this moonscape is a 185-foot waterfall, taller than Niagara. But when the Little Colorado River is running - with snowmelt from the mountains or with summer monsoons -- it's worth a look.
The Little Colorado flows clear in its upper reaches, but picks up a lot of sand and clay as it courses through Chinle Shale of the Petrified Forest. Then it becomes a "loathsome little stream, so filthy and muddy that it fairly stinks." At least that's what John Wesley Powell's crew thought when they saw it downstream in 1869.
To see the falls, you have to wander out to one of the rock shelters perched on the rim, or walk around to the front of the falls where cool spray sends out a welcome mist on a hot summer day. You can sit and watch the falls for hours, but pretty soon you start to wonder: Why are they here? What made them?
Look back over your shoulder to the southwest, to the cinder cones that dot the San Francisco Volcanic Field. To one in particular, elegant Merriam Crater, seven miles away. About 20,000 years ago, basalt oozed from the base of the cone. The black lava flowed overland like thick, sticky honey to the Little Colorado. The tongue of basalt plugged the river's gorge. Like all good rivers, the Little Colorado detoured around the obstacle blocking its path. When it tumbled back into the old channel, Grand Falls was born.
In the not-too-distant future--at least as geologists measure time--the Little Colorado River will slice down through the limestone ledge and resume its original channel. And Grand Falls will be no more.
But for now, gnarled cottonwood roots wash into the deep pool at the foot of the falls. Hopi craftsmen come here to gather those roots, raw material for their katsina carvings --representations of the beings they beseech for water in this parched land.