Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A grand day at Grand Falls


Grand Falls

Grand Falls is one of Arizona's least well-known scenic locations. Located 35 miles northeast of Flagstaff, it's a short drive on an innocuous Navajo Indian Reservation dirt road. Then all of the sudden it opens up to this gigantic cut in the earth and a waterfall taller than its most famous North American cousin, Niagara Falls. The chocolate-colored water is quite the unexpected sight. 

Chocolate Falls from a previous trip

This seasonal flow is as dry as a bone most of the time especially in the hottest part of the summer. But fed by snow melt from the White Mountains in early Spring, it rages. I've been to the falls when the ground was rumbling under the impressive force and power of the falls. Spray jumps up in the air and wafts across the chasm making it difficult to keep the front element of the camera dry.

This trip was during its second seasonal flow at the end of summer and the monsoon rains. The falls were probably flowing at only half its volume as the Spring.

Chocolate Reflections

The Little Colorado River is wide and smooth before the big event. Reflections off the water with a stormy sky were very pleasing. I enjoyed walking upstream from the falls to capture the scene. 

Calm and wide, the Little Colorado River

Sediment made the water look like something I stirred around in my morning mix of coffee and creamer. It's no wonder the falls have the nickname "Chocolate Falls."

The first bump before the big drop

A series of steps starts the waters decent before a couple big drops over the falls. I was tempted to get in the stream so I could shoot from the middle. But after hearing a couple horror stories from other photographers that recently had dunked their cameras, I changed my mind. I don't think the water was so deep, but it had to be very muddy and was probably really difficult to negotiate.

Little Colorado Baby Steps

Eventually the Little Colorado flows into the Colorado River at the beginning of the Grand Canyon. Grand Falls was created by an ancient lava flow that deposited a very hard rock across the course of the river. Unable to erode at the same pace as the rock below, a large waterfall was the result.

Monsoon storms made this trip very memorable. I managed to stay dry as the storms seemed to move around me all day. There was lightning and rain all around and was a godsend as it provided a fantastic sunset.

Another photographer was also there shooting away in the great afternoon light. I noticed she was packing up to leave when I walked over to her and I told her she should to stay a bit longer since the conditions seemed perfect for a colorful sunset. There was just enough of a gap between the clouds and the horizon to make it happen. 

 Sunset and Rainbow at Grand Falls

And it happened. The sky started with an orange glow before a full blown sunset. There was even a small rainbow. My panoramic technique was perfect for capturing both the setting sun and the rainbow in "one" work of art. I hesitate to call it "one" photograph as it was a combination of 10-frames stitched together to form one image. Along with the fact I was bracketing my exposures for HDR processing, 30 images were necessary to make the final image happen.

Sunset at Grand Falls

Smoke on the Water

On the way out I noticed a small forest fire that had been touched off earlier by lightning. A small plume of smoke was rising up from the foothills around the San Francisco Peaks. A couple acre flooded pan alongside the road was the perfect place to shoot it in the fading light. It was dark and foreboding. The Deep Purple song "Smoke on the Water" sprang to mind. It was a perfect way to end a very dramatic day at Grand Falls.

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© 2013 G. Reid Helms / Arizona Panorama
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