“A strong man and a waterfall always channel their own path.” ~Author Unknown
Many waterfalls are found in Arizona. At first this may seem like a contradiction because the climate is so dry. However, the landscape of mountains and canyons is ideally suited for waterfalls. In some areas, the precipitation that falls as snow in the winter and thunderstorms in the summer seeps beneath the surface through porous layers of sediment. As a result, there are underground systems of water that manage to avoid evaporation by the hot sun and eventually emerge further below the canyon rims as springs. In other places, when rain falls on hard rocky ground it doesn’t soak in but will run in the path of least resistance, which is down. Look for waterfalls flowing off cliffs during the winter rainy season, in the spring as the snow melts, in summer following a monsoon, or anytime after a heavy rain. Caution: If you go exploring waterfalls be sure to keep an eye on the weather, watch for rising water, and beware of flash floods. It may not be raining where you are, but it may be raining upstream. A wall of water rushing down a narrow canyon moves too fast for you to escape.
1. Havasu Falls – The most famous waterfalls in Arizona are found on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, which is in a side canyon of the Grand Canyon that is managed by the Havasupai tribe rather than the National Park Service. Here, Havasu Creek feeds year-round waterfalls that attract tourists from around the world even though they require long and arduous treks into the canyon. Havasu Falls, a spectacular blue-green waterfall cascading off travertine cliffs into a turquoise pool, has been called one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the world. However, its appearance is always subject to change. The falls used to be 120 feet high in a wide singular column before a powerful flash flood in August 1997 knocked out nearly a quarter of its height and created a 90-foot pair of plumes. Following another severe flash flood in August 2008, its once symmetrical flow now emerges sideways. At the base of the pools, the calcium carbonate deposits that cause the turquoise blue colors in the waters of Havasu Creek form travertine dams. Before the flood in August 1997, the travertine dams were much larger and almost acted like spas for visitors wishing to take a dip. Since the flood of August 2008, the travertine pools are now gone. Tribal members have placed sandbags at the base of Havasu Falls hoping that the travertine will build back up. The first prominent waterfall that hikers would see in the canyon used to be Navajo Falls, tumbling 75 feet down the canyon wall into a pool. In August 2008, Navajo Falls was completely destroyed by a massive mudslide that redirected the water past the falls. Nearby Supai Falls used to be much bigger before a flash flood wiped it out. Now it is not really much of a waterfall either but a series of rapids along the creek, totaling about 15 feet in height. Mooney Falls is the tallest of the Havasupai waterfalls, plunging some 190 feet in a long singular column. Mooney Falls used to have a thicker column, but it was also reshaped by floods. Tribal members have not been able to restore its pool, although eventually the travertine deposits may reestablish on their own.
2. Grand Falls – Grand Falls on the Little Colorado River northeast of Flagstaff is accessed from the Navajo Indian Reservation north of Winona. The best time to view Grand Falls is during the snow melt in early spring (March to April, and possibly into May). The size of its flow depends on how much snow has accumulated in the White Mountains. Grand Falls goes dry for the rest of the year except for a brief revitalization during the summer monsoons. But getting there at just the right time after a monsoon is not easy to do. Grand Falls is quite impressive – it’s 181 feet high and it’s wide like Niagara Falls. The falls cascade down multiple terraces and the water is so muddy that it looks like melted chocolate. Grand Falls is one of the state’s best kept secrets and it’s not a major tourist attraction as it’s located off a dusty dirt road that’s a little hard to find. Take I-40 east of Flagstaff until reaching exit 207 at Cosnino. Go north on Cosnino Road to Townsend-Winona Road and turn right. Drive for a couple of miles, then turn north onto Leupp Road (FR 505) before you get to Winona. Follow Leupp Rd about 13 miles (a paved road at this point) and look for an easy-to-miss turnoff on your left just past the Navajo Indian Reservation boundary sign. This will be Grand Falls Road (tribal road #70). There might be a Grand Falls Bible Church sign near here. Follow this dirt road another 10 miles (trying to ignore the side roads) until you get to the rim of the Little Colorado River Gorge.
3. Seven Falls – The Tucson area is a waterfall lover’s dream: Seven Falls, Seven Cataracts, Ventana Falls, Bridal Wreath Falls, Bridalveil Falls… not to mention the dozens of unnamed falls deep in the backcountry of the Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains. The easiest one to reach is Seven Falls, a seven-tiered series of waterfalls and pools in the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson. The trek to Seven Falls is a beautiful hike on a rocky but well-traveled trail in the Sonoran Desert. From the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area visitor center, you will take the Bear Canyon Trail. The hike up Bear Canyon is almost always accompanied by the sound of trickling water from the stream. The trail crisscrosses the stream seven times so you will get wet when water is flowing, especially after a heavy rain. Even though it’s in the middle of the hot desert, this hike can be done in the summer because you can cool off in the water along the way. The larger pools will have water even in the driest months. Wear water shoes for walking on the rocks and going in the water. After the seventh crossing, the trail climbs up the south wall of the canyon on a couple of long switchbacks. When the trail forks, take the left fork to the main waterfall. There is a shaded area and a large swimming pool at the base of the waterfall, and you can stand under the cascading waterfall. Get your clothes wet, and they will keep you cool on the hike back. This hike is about 8 miles round trip with a 700 foot elevation gain, and it takes about 3-4 hours. People of all ages can make the hike through the desert canyon to enjoy the refreshing waterfall scenery. This is a popular hike and the Sabino Canyon parking lot can fill up on weekends, so plan on getting there early or go on a weekday.
4. Slide Rock Falls – Slide Rock at Oak Creek is a favorite swimming spot for desert dwellers who flock to this water recreation area to escape the summer heat. The gradually falling elevation drop of approximately 10 feet over about a third of a mile makes for a natural water chute. People ride down the water slide and repeat the fun over and over again. There are many side pools, slides, and waterfalls in which kids of all ages can play. The slippery rocks are just abrasive enough to ruin good swimsuits, so we recommend wearing old cutoffs. Also wear an old pair of sneakers or surf shoes for the trek back to the starting point. During summer months Slide Rock experiences extremely high visitation. A long wait to enter the park may occur, especially on weekends and holidays, and the parking lot will typically fill up by late morning or early afternoon.
5. Water Wheel Falls – The Water Wheel Falls are a magical 40-foot tiered falls located just outside of Payson on the banks of the East Verde River. From Phoenix, go north on Highway 87 to milepost 254 (about 2 miles north of downtown Payson) and turn right onto Houston Mesa Road (FR 199). Go about 7.4 miles and pull into the Water Wheel Campground. A path at the far left of the campground takes you to the falls which empty into a deep pool of sparkling greenish-blue water. Along the way you will also pass some other pools. The path on the right will lead you downstream. Either way, it’s an easy to moderate walk along the river and a great place to relax, have a picnic, swim, or just enjoy the sound of gurgling water. Wear water shoes for going in the rocky pools and stream. You can also climb to the top of the falls and behind the falls. During the summer months on weekends the campgrounds fill up fast as this is a popular location. Summer temperatures here get into the 90’s and drop down into the 60’s at night. Winter temperatures range from low 20’s to high 50’s.
6. Queen Creek Waterfall – The Queen Creek Waterfall is a beautiful cascade and series of pools in a rugged canyon just east of Superior. Following a heavy rainfall, you can spot the impressive waterfall right next to US Hwy. 60 just east of Superior. If you are heading East, after exiting the Queen Creek tunnel, pull off at the second of two large gravel lots on the right-hand side of US 60. Take a walk along the outside edge of the guardrail to get the best view of the waterfall which will be cascading down the cliff on the north side of the highway. Hike underneath the bridge and from there you can climb up to the waterfall. Be careful because the wet rocks are slippery. The closer you get, the more soaked you will get from the water spray. It can be quite freezing on a cold windy day!
7. Tonto Natural Bridge Falls – This spring-fed trickle of water has a 100-foot drop and when blown by the wind the falling water droplets sparkle like diamonds. Take Rt. 260 south from Strawberry for several miles to the Tonto Natural Bridge turnoff. Turn right and follow the gravel road for 3 miles to the parking area. The waterfall trail which ends at a shady grotto of caves is lush and beautiful but it’s a steep, slippery climb down a 300-foot long staircase and then back up. Watching the water softly cascading from the hanging garden of ferns and moss, you’ll feel like you’re in a rainforest and forget you live in the arid southwest. You can also stand at Viewpoint 2 and watch the water fall from the top of the bridge to Pine Creek below.
8. Workman Creek Falls – This is a nice 200-foot waterfall that you can see right from your vehicle. The best time to visit would be after heavy rains. To get there, go south of Young 21 miles on AZ 288, then turn left 3.2 miles on Forest Road 487 at the sign that says “Workman Creek Recreation Area, Sierra Ancha Wilderness” between Mileposts 284 and 285. In about 2.6 miles there will be gate that is closed from December 15 – March 31. On the way to the falls, you will pass primitive campsites at Creeksite, Cascade, and Falls Recreation Sites. The last quarter mile may be too rough for most cars. This is a beautiful canyon that supports dense stands of Douglas fir and white fir trees, as well as Arizona sycamore and the relatively rare Arizona maple.
9. Winn Falls – This waterfall is located in the Coronado National Forest 150 miles east of Tucson, 7 miles southwest of Portal, 57 miles northeast of Douglas. From Douglas, take US 80 east approximately 50 miles to Rodeo, NM. Two miles past Rodeo, turn left (west) on Portal Road. From Portal, drive west on Forest Road 42, approximately 5 miles, turn left (west) on FR 42A and continue 2 miles to the campground. Roads are paved (except for the last 2 miles) and suitable for passenger vehicles. There is a small streamside campground called Herb Martyr Campground on the banks of Cave Creek at the end of the road that leads into Cave Creek Canyon. The lower campsites offer a good view of a waterfall formed by Herb Martyr Dam and some smaller natural cascades below it. From the campground you can also get a good view of 400-foot-high Winn Falls tumbling off Sanders Peak in the Chiricahua Mountains (when it’s running). In early summer it’s likely to be a dry bare cliff, and in winter it becomes a giant icicle. But during the spring and summer monsoon season, Winn Falls provides a spectacular waterfall display. The best way to get up close to Winn Falls is via the Greenhouse Trail. This route starts at the end of a 4WD trail off the Herb Martyr Road and switchbacks its way into the high country. Along the way, it passes an overlook that presents a nice view of the falls. This is a strenuous hike that starts at 6,240 feet and ends at 9,240 feet.
10. White Tank Mountain Waterfall – The normally dry Sonoran Desert is subject to sudden and sometimes severe flash flooding which creates temporary waterfalls in the narrow canyons that run through the mountains. A wash in the White Tank Mountain Regional Park has a significant drop forming an especially nice seasonal waterfall that attracts park visitors. The White Tank Mountains got their name because during heavy rainfall such as after summer thunderstorms, accumulated water tends to rush rapidly through the steep canyons, over time scouring out a number of depressions or “tanks” in the white granite near the base of the mountains. The Waterfall Trail is an easy trail, so it is a popular place for family hiking.