Treks into the Little Colorado River gorge are a gamble at any time of year, but certain seasons offer a higher degree of safety, comfort and opportunity to see turquoise waters. None of the following observations are guarantees – the Little Colorado can turn into a surging, muddy deathtrap any time of year.
The winter season can be a fine time in the canyon, and many successful trips to the Little Colorado have taken place this time of year. Cooler temperatures prevail and the days are short. River temperatures drop into the 50’s, making crossings (a frequent occurrence when travelling up-and-down the gorge) a chilly proposition.
The river runs blue most winters. Summer storms are a distant memory, winter storms are more sporadic, and the plateau and surrounding mountains are cold enough to hold onto any snow and ice that falls until Spring.
Some winters (like 2017) run warmer and stormier than others, however, and the Little Colorado won’t catch a break from muddy runoff until April or May.
Spring offers comfortable hiking temperatures but makes finding clear, turquoise waters an unlikely proposition – particularly in the early season.
The Little Colorado gorge rarely sees significant snowfall in its depths. However, as temperatures rise on the plateaus above, snow melt often triggers significant flows that inundate the gorge. Some of the largest flows in recorded history occurred when heavy snow runoff coincides with early season storms.
Late Spring (April-May) offers a better window for safe exploration and blue waters. Temperatures can soar to punishing heights by then, but snow melts have dried up and the summer monsoons are still in their infancy.
This is perhaps the most dangerous time of year to venture into the Little Colorado gorge. The canyon’s depths become punishingly dry and summertime heat can cripple or kill even the most seasoned hikers. To make matters worse, once the annual monsoon thunderstorms wind up in midsummer, these events can drop significant flows up on the plateau that barrel toward the gorge in the form of terrifying flash floods.
Summer flash floods have claimed the lives of even the most veteran Little Colorado explorers.
Once the threat of summer monsoons has faded, the gorge once again becomes an attractive target. Rainfall becomes less frequent, the temperature becomes more moderate, and the days remain long enough to allow for considerable foot travel before nightfall.