“Never did I imagine ever finding myself in a place like this!” said Purna, as we lurched along the rutted cattle track, like characters from a Tony Hillerman Navajo detective novel. “Always I have lived in the city, and this is unlike anything I’ve ever imagined.”
My wife Jean and I had plucked the young native of India and her fellow graduate student, LeeAnne, from plush Scottsdale, where the two were visiting from Chicago.
Together we’d flown from urban landscape to high-desert plateau, notable from the air not so much for its own featureless surface, but rather for the distant buttes and mountains to which it leads one’s eyes.
Parched and treeless below us, high plains rolled like soft flesh to the horizon, slashed here and there by deep incisions cut by water zig-zagging through the land. What’s down there, I wondered, in those crevices rendered bottomless by harsh desert shadows?…
Once or twice a year I hear of friends visiting “Grand Falls,” a seasonal waterfall on Arizona’s Little Colorado River. Although the little-known 185-foot desert cataract is taller than Niagara Falls, it runs in volume only occasionally following mountain snow-melt, monsoon thunderstorms, or rare widespread rain.
Jean and I have always wanted to visit the landmark, but have been hampered both by its ephemeral water flow, and by the tortuous drive over primitive roads to reach its remote location northeast of Flagstaff. The rugged journey favors high-clearance vehicles, and traveling in pairs in case of breakdown. Invariably we either hear too late that the falls have been running, or are otherwise committed when invited to go.
Given the magnitude of the waterfall when flowing, I’d always assumed it would also be exciting to view from the air. But it’s not marked on sectional charts, nor many other maps for that matter, so finding it seemed a task in itself.
Then one late-summer morning I found myself desperate to fly. Not having been aloft in weeks, and armed with a new camera that demanded “testing,” I decided on a lark to seek out Grand Falls and mark it for future reference in my GPS navigator. There’d been little rain lately, so I didn’t expect the falls to be running. But knowing their location would be useful for a future aerial visit when the right opportunity arose.
I first gleaned general coordinates and nearby landmarks via Internet search. I also knew the Little Colorado River runs northwestward from Winslow to ultimately join the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. By intercepting the Little Colorado near Winslow and tracing it downstream, I should easily find Grand Falls.
The instant I departed the ground, I knew I’d picked the right day to fly. The sky sparkled cobalt, punctuated by snowy puffs of fair-weather cumulus. No sooner had I turned downwind for departure than I was mesmerized by a huge field of vivid yellow wildflowers bordering Lake Mary southeast of town. I diverted in that direction and sailed over the sea of golden blossoms. Floating in their midst like a spidery space station was the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer, an observatory that collects starlight from distant galaxies via widely dispersed light tubes, and calculates their distance from Earth via parallax.
Following a joyous few minutes savoring chrome-yellow flowers, I departed Flagstaff’s pine forest over high desert to intercept the Little Colorado River. I found it chiseled as if by a coping saw through crimson rock north of Winslow. Tracing the channel toward its distant Colorado River junction, I almost missed Grand Falls, as it proved virtually invisible from the upstream side. But for whatever reason, I happened to glance back. To my surprise and delight given the dry summer weather, the falls flowed vigorously.
Top photo: At 185 feet, Arizona’s “Grand Falls,” is taller than Niagara (note cars in foreground), but flows in volume only a few times a year. Upper right: Late-summer wildflowers tint the Coconino Plateau near Flagstaff, Arizona. Lower left: Wildflowers envelop the Navy Precision Optical Observatory. SEE MORE PHOTOS!
“My favorite moment was circling that huge crater on the way back to Flagstaff from Window Rock,” said my sister Leslie when asked what she’d most enjoyed about her Arizona holiday. “Having always been fascinated with sci-fi and outer space, it was branded in my brain that ‘this is the closest I’ll ever get to the cosmos!'”
Leslie and her husband Lindsay recently visited from Philadelphia. Along with driving trips to the Grand Canyon and the historic mining town of Jerome, I’d offered flying primarily to access additional destinations during their stay.
Our first aerial excursion was to Arizona’s old territorial capital of Prescott, where we viewed a photo show, wandered art galleries, and toured the 150-year-old log Governor’s Mansion. Instead of driving the 3-hour round trip, we flew 35 minutes each way. En route, we surveyed the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness, and previewed mountainside Jerome from above.
Everyone seemed to enjoy that flying trip, so I proposed another that seemed purely selfish at the time: to visit my Navajo pilot buddy Tyler and his family while he was home from college. There wasn’t time to drive 7 hours round-trip to Window Rock, but it’s only an hour away by Flying Carpet. The vermillion Painted Desert and golden spires of the Navajo Nation over which we flew are so different from the rolling green beauty of Pennsylvania, that I was surprised when our guests said little about it […]
Top photo: Rare snow frosts Arizona’s Meteor Crater, at sunset.” At right: “Re-Entry Rocket (or Monday),” NASA Space Art Collection. Design and glass beadwork by Leslie B. Grigsby. Lower left: Orbit #3 by Lindsay Grigsby. SEE MORE PHOTOS!