Arizona: immediately images of the scorching heat, dusty plywood towns, and leafless shrubs clinging to life amidst a barren sea of sand come to mind. Certainly waterfalls in Arizona must be a myth! But in reality, Arizona boasts immense biodiversity, underrepresented waterways, and a recreation culture ripe for seekers of that life-giving force: water. It’s no surprise that Arizonans seek out rivers, lakes, and above all, waterfalls, but it may be surprising that they find them.
Below you can learn about 5 waterfall hikes in Arizona that you should check out if you’re visiting Arizona.
When rain falls on the remote North Rim of the Grand Canyon, it seeps through the layers of limestone, gathering the mineral in solution form, and emerges as a 100-foot-tall waterfall that cascades onto an ever-growing cone of travertine. As if a waterfall in the middle of the Grand Canyon isn’t enough to lure you in, the off-trail trek to see it is lush with willow, fern, and wild mint. The base of the falls features a secret moss-covered cavern behind the curtain of water that’s fun to crawl into.
Mileage: 8.4 miles one-way from the North Rim (North Kaibab Trailhead); 5.2 miles one-way from Phantom Ranch if you’re already there (minimum hike distance to reach Phantom Ranch is 7 miles)
Elevation: The North Rim’s North Kaibab Trailhead is at 8,241 feet, making for a 4,521-foot drop over 8.4 miles – ouch!
Hike time: While you’re allowed to day hike to Ribbon Falls, it is not recommended due to the difficulty of the trail. If you’re game for a 17-mile roundtrip hike with almost 2 vertical miles of elevation change, we suggest allowing a full day to complete this trip. Otherwise, we recommend obtaining overnight backcountry permits for Cottonwood Campground through the Grand Canyon Backcountry Office. Cottonwood Campground is 1.6 miles one-way from Ribbon Falls.
Once the site of the Childs-Irving hydroelectric power plants, Fossil Creek is now pristinely restored wilderness and considered one of the most diverse riparian ecosystems in the state. The Fossil Creek Wilderness area is a haven to 30 species of trees, a plethora of wildlife, and more than 100 species of birds. In 2005, APS assessed that the goodwill generated by stream restoration was more important than the 4.2 megawatts of hydroelectric energy (enough to power around 3,500 homes) generated by the plants.
The decommissioning and disassembly of the historically significant plant left behind a 70-degree free-flowing creek with waterfalls, cliff jumping areas, and swimming holes. Arizona residents flocked to this desert oasis en masse during the summer. After crowding issues peaked in 2008, Coconino National Forest put a permitting system into place during the busiest months (April 1 – October 1) where visitors must reserve a parking space in one of 8 parking lots for $6 per vehicle.
Mileage: From the Waterfall Trailhead to the waterfall it is about 2 miles roundtrip. You should account for the walking distance along the road (0.25 to 3.5 depending on the parking lot you are permitted for). You can also work your way down the creek instead of the road for more adventure, or access Fossil Springs itself – the headwaters for the creek – from a parking lot (permit required) at the Fossil Springs Trailhead. This hike is 4 miles one-way, with 1,500 feet in elevation change, and is considered moderate.
Elevation: Around 250 feet for the shorter, easier Waterfall Trail
Hike time: Allow a half hour for the hike in and an hour for the hike out if you’re taking the Waterfall Trail. Parking areas are only open 8:00am – 8:00pm. Permits are available through recreation.gov one month prior to arrival date. Day use only; no camping.
Most people, even Arizona locals, have never heard of the unpredictable and muddy waters of Grand Falls. The waterfall is located 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff in the Painted Desert and on the Navajo Nation. At 185-feet (taller than Niagra Falls), Grand Falls is an important flood area formed when lava from nearby Merriam Crater created a lava dam in the river’s original path, rerouting it to create the waterfall. The flow goes from a trickle in the summer and winter months, to a raging torrent during monsoon season (late summer/early fall) and spring snowmelt season, dumping its silt-filled white water into the Little Colorado River and greatly contributing to the unique color it is famous for.
Mileage: .5 mile one-way hike from the parking lot to the viewpoint
Elevation: 4,650 feet at parking lot with minimal elevation change over trail to view point
Hike time: While the hike itself is short, the drive from Flagstaff will take about 1.5 hours one-way. The drive requires off-road travel on unmaintained dirt roads, plus one vehicle crossing of the Little Colorado River. We recommend 4-wheel-drive, high clearance, and recovery equipment if crossing when the river is flowing. Do not travel off the main road and contact the Navajo Nation if you require a guide.
If you’re searching for that perfect summer “Instagrammable” waterfall hike, look no further than Sabino Canyon in Tucson, Arizona. A moderate hike from an established trailhead leads you to a canyon with 7 beautiful and accessible waterfalls. Sunbathe, cliff-jump, swim, scramble, slide, and explore until your heart’s content. The hike itself is popular – for all the reasons just listed – so consider a visit in the off-season winter months, or at the first sign of monsoon season when it’s still too hot for the tourists. Use caution in monsoon season however, as the trail crosses the creek almost a dozen times and the water flow can be deceiving.
Mileage: 2.3 miles one-way if you use the Bear Canyon Tram; 4.5 miles without use of the shuttle
Elevation: The trailhead sits at 2,770 feet in elevation with a drop of about 100 feet to the bottom of the falls
Hike time: Give yourself about 1 to 2 hours to reach the falls, then another hour to scramble to the top levels where the best swimming holes are. Using the shuttle ($6/adult; credit cards accepted at the ticket booth or use cash at the Visitor’s Center) greatly increases your swim time, but only runs every half hour from 9:00am-4:00pm. Show up early and hike the full distance to avoid crowds. A $5 day pass required in addition to shuttle fees.
Nestled deep within the Grand Canyon, in the middle of the rugged Havasupai Indian Reservation, lies a popular but remote 100-foot-tall waterfall of crystal aqua-colored water. Havasu Falls is a main highlight for those that hike into Havasu Canyon, but the whole canyon is full of waterfalls for adventurers to admire. After all, Havasupai means “people of the blue-green water.”
Neighboring waterfalls include 200-foot Mooney Falls, the cascading pools of Beaver Falls deeper in Havasu Canyon, the ever-changing landscape of Navajo Falls, and several other waterfalls that grace the pages of most outdoor enthusiasts’ bucket lists.
Mileage: 9.5 miles one-way
Elevation: The trailhead is at 5,200 feet; the trail drops 2,000 feet to the Village of Supai, plus another 400 feet to the base of Havasu Falls
Hike time: Day hiking is not allowed. The tribe requires visitors to stay for 3 nights. You can camp near Havasu Falls or stay in the lodge about 1 mile away in the Village of Supai. The required permits can be obtained through the Havasupai Tourism Office. For more information about hiking to Havasu Falls, check out our guide to visiting Havasu Falls here.
No matter the season, these beautiful places attract intrepid explorers willing to get a little sand in their boots and a little sweat on their brows. Those who take the dusty trails Arizona offers to its prize jewels are rewarded with a sense of finding Eden, or at least the modern-day Eden, where adventure, surprising landscapes, and waterfalls converge.