Known as Adah’iilíní to the Navajo people, Grand Falls is a beloved yet sacred destination located on the Navajo Nation near Flagstaff, Arizona.
This natural wonder is a picturesque waterfall with chocolate-brown waters that cascade over a ledge on the Little Colorado River. Grand Falls has become hugely popular on social media and with tourists over the past few years.
However, the influx of visitors to this site on tribal lands has deeply impacted the Indigenous community who hold this place as hallowed ground. Fed up with accumulations of trash, harm to livestock, and lack of respect for their spiritual rituals, Navajo residents have decisively closed off access to Grand Falls. Here’s what you need to know about this closure:
Disturbances Led to Formation of Advocacy Group
For native families living near Grand Falls, the burgeoning numbers of tourists have caused numerous disturbances. Overflowing waste was frequently left behind, requiring locals to conduct clean-ups. All-terrain vehicles trespassed into private drives and sacred areas. Native practices and nearby gravesites were photographed against wishes. Patrols were conducted to mitigate some issues, but complaints persisted regarding noise, litter, and jeopardized safety.
These long-standing grievances led several Navajo community members to form an advocacy group called the Grand Falls Coalition. The Coalition aims to block tourists from Grand Falls in order for the land to heal and local culture to be preserved. They began patrolling the waterfall vicinity in order to inform visitors of the closure.
Closure Supported by Some Tourism Groups
Signage has been posted around Grand Falls indicating the area is closed to the public until further notice. Some tourist organizations that previously led trips to the waterfall have canceled upcoming events out of respect for the Navajo community’s decision. For example, the Museum of Northern Arizona publicly aligned with the Coalition’s goals to prioritize care for the local inhabitants over catering to crowds.
Still, many tourists continue attempting access in defiance of the blockade. The firm stance of top Navajo Nation officials remains ambiguous thus far. While emphasizing the importance of sites like Grand Falls being shielded from exploitation, Navajo President Buu Nygren has simultaneously advocated for tourism partnerships that would monetize the tribe’s land. The future accessibility of Grand Falls hangs in the balance as discussions unfold.
Waterfall Holds Deep Significance for the Navajo
Beyond posing logistical headaches, the outsized presence of guests at Grand Falls struck at the core of many Navajos’ cultural values. They emphasize this is no ordinary landmark – it is the setting for seminal rituals and offerings that sustain their way of life. Allowing such a holy locus to become overrun for sightseers’ benefit is unconscionable in their eyes.
For advocates like resident Sandra Curtis, the problem runs deeper than preserving spiritual traditions. It’s also about ensuring basic needs like running water for Navajos living near the Falls. She argues that building bathrooms for tourists while residents still lack utilities represents grossly unfair treatment.
In the view of Violet White from the Grand Falls Coalition, defending territorial autonomy here is connected to a long lineage of Indigenous resistance. Closing the cascade they call Adah’iilíní this spring has been these activists’ way of honoring their ancestors’ protection of the land. Though the outcome is uncertain, their message is clear: Grand Falls is not just a photo backdrop. It is the heartbeat of a culture.
Cover photo courtesy of: Jake Case