As we left Grand Canyon National Park, we followed Highway 64 east onto Navajo Reservation lands near Cameron. The geographic region is known as the Navajo Section, and is generally lower than the high plateau that contains the Grand Canyon. For the most part the section contains flat barren badlands, although parts are very colorful (this area is sometimes called the Painted Desert). There is an exception to the flatness, where the Little Colorado River approaches the Grand Canyon. That was our next stop.
The Little Colorado River is by watershed area one of the most important tributaries of the Colorado River, but the area it drains is so arid that the river contributes little overall to the discharge of the main river. The smaller river is actually dry along most sections for most of the year. The exceptions are during the spring runoff, and during the summer monsoons. Flash floods on the small river can be monstrous. Our local river back home, the Tuolumne, is considered a fair-sized river (by California standards). It reaches flood stage at a discharge of 9,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). The highest flow ever recorded on the Tuolumne was around 70,000 cfs. During a flood in 1923, the Little Colorado River recorded 120,000 cubic feet per second!
So, as I asked in the title, if there is a Little Colorado River, is there a little Grand Canyon? In a manner of speaking, the answer is certainly yes. The lower part of the Little Colorado where it approaches the main river is a stupendous gorge 3,000 feet deep. If the Grand Canyon didn't exist, the canyon of the Little Colorado River would probably be a national park all its own. That said, the gorge of the Little Colorado River wouldn't exist without the Grand Canyon nearby. It was the rapid downcutting of the Grand Canyon that caused the gradient of the Little Colorado River to increase and carve downwards. The nature of the river canyon tells us it once flowed over a relatively flat floodplain. The evidence lies in the presence of entrenched river meanders.
|Goosenecks of the San Juan River in southern Utah|
|A distant view of the canyon of the Little Colorado River from Highway 64|
It had been years since I had seen water flowing in the Little Colorado River, but last summer was remarkable in terms of the monsoons. They began early and produced a number of flash floods throughout the region. When we arrived, the river was flowing, although the term "river" barely applied to the viscous mixture of mud and silt in the canyon below.
|Mouth of the Little Colorado River in Grand Canyon|
The mud certainly influences the Colorado River. The Little Colorado River may not provide prodigious amounts of water to the system, but it is one of only two major sources of sediment to the river now that Glen Canyon Dam prevents mud from flowing downstream of the reservoir. When we rafted to the mouth of the Little Colorado in 2013, the main river was almost clear, but silt was pouring from the tributary. For a short distance, the river was bi-colored, but within a mile or so the water and silt were thoroughly mixed and remained that way for the remainder of our trip, another nine days!
|Two rivers in one, the green Colorado, and the brown Little Colorado|
The Little Colorado River is a fascinating part of the plateau country. It gets lost in the broader scenery at times, but is well worth the bit of effort to explore a few of its secrets.