During ideal times, the Little Colorado Gorge can be an absolute, magnificent paradise. Although it’s difficult (if not impossible) to predict them very long in advance, most days of the year fall into this category.
Dry Gorge Conditions
The upper 20-30 miles of the gorge are dry and rocky during periods of prolonged sunny weather. Some upper sections will retain water for weeks after the most recent rainfall, at least, producing considerable slogs through heavy silt and sand. Quicksand exists year-round in the gorge, and is quite frequently in several key areas.
About halfway down the Little Colorado gorge, freshwater seeps start to emerge, gradually forming a clear, flowing stream that winds down to Blue Spring. At that point, large quantities of mineral-laden water join the flow, effervescing and coursing downstream. This phenomenon introduces an otherworldly turquoise quality to the river as it runs its last 20 miles down to the confluence with the Colorado River.
The stream of groundwater that feeds the perennial portion of the Little Colorado River is a deep one, and flows constantly and briskly even during the hottest days of summer.
The Gorge Under Flow
When rain or snowmelt pours in from the plateaus above, the dry upper-gorge and blue waters of the lower half are quickly overrun by thick loads of silt and sediment. In high water conditions, many sections of the gorge can become an absolute deathtrap. The Little Colorado drains an immense area – 26,000 square miles in total across northern Arizona and New Mexico. A vast network of washes often convey monsoon thunderstorms or exceptional spring snow melts into the gorge for days or weeks at a time.
Every few decades, monumental floods tear through the narrow walls with enough violence to carve rock and significantly alter some parts of the landscape. The Little Colorado gorge is a staggeringly beautiful place, but also one that must be explored with considerable caution and planning.
A few times each millenia, conditions converge across the Little Colorado’s vast plateau in such a way that waters of biblical proportions surge down into the gorge – more voluminous than the Colorado itself. The river level raises by one-hundred feet or more, in places, inundating the narrow canyons in a ferociously powerful surge from wall-to-wall.