The native Navajo people call the Little Colorado River the “Little C”, yet despite its affectionate nickname, this east Arizona wonder is larger than life. Rising to the surface in the Arizona White Mountains at Mt. Baldy, the river travels north through Winslow and through the Wuptaki National Monument on its way to join forces with the Colorado River at the Navajo Indian Reservation and the Grand Canyon. And while the river meanders for most of its trip north, when it reaches the Little Colorado River Gorge at Cameron, Arizona the true excitement of the Little C comes to life.
Unlike its big brother the Grand Canyon with its dramatic vistas that stretch large and wide, the Little Colorado River Gorge is remarkably narrow. The Gorge is so narrow in fact visitors that approach the edge of the canyon are astonished at the deep, almost black abyss that falls below them. Here the river channels through such a tight area while making its rapid descent over the next 30 miles to the Grand Canyon that the sound of rushing water and waterfalls rises up through the Gorge to the awe and wonder of captivated visitors.
The geology of the Gorge sets it apart from the Grand Canyon as well. Whereas the Canyon is a massive sand art painting with layer upon layer of rich, deep hues cutting horizontally across its jagged edges, the Gorge is mostly gray and black limestone layers at the top, with smooth, colorless sandstone at its deeper levels. Visitors expecting to see the warm, inviting colors of the Grand Canyon will be surprised at the severe, yet striking landscape of the Gorge.
The Navajos have lived in unity with the Gorge for the past thousand years and accept its dark and mysterious presence without question. The Navajo Parks and Recreation Department operates Little Colorado River Tribal Park alongside the Gorge, maintaining overlooks equipped with covered picnic tables and even fireplaces to enhance the viewing for travelers.
Just outside Cameron, native artisans set up tables to sell their wares, and it is the perfect place to find unique pieces of silver and turquoise jewelry, original pottery and hand woven blankets. If you are interested in local color and speaking with native peoples, this is the place to shop! The artisans themselves are on hand to discuss their work and most will share a story or two about their way of life along the Little C.
Although most visitors experience the sights and wonders of the Gorge from its upper levels, hikers and backpackers will find the Little Colorado River an outdoor wonderland with rich history and navigable trails for all skill levels. Trailheads can be reached by heading west on State Highway 64 toward Desert View, the East Entrance to the Grand Canyon. Just past mile marker 285 watch for signs to the overlook. There are several trails heading down into the Gorge at the east end of the overlook parking lot.
The most popular trails for reaching the bottom are the Blue Springs Trail and the Hopi Salt Trail. The trailheads to both are found off Route 64 and can be challenging during the fall rainy season. Intrepid hikers will be rewarded, however, by easier than expected descents and breathtaking views of the sky line at the Gorge’s rim when looking up from the bottom. If you are thinking about setting out on foot to explore the Gorge, stop by the Cameron Trading Post and pick up a copy of two maps published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These essential maps offer detailed locations of roads and trailheads, list the changing elevations along your route, and also point out where water can be obtained, a must in warmer weather.
Whether you come for the stunning scenery or to test your physical abilities against this million year old natural wonder, a trip to the Little Colorado River Gorge is guaranteed to inspire and thrill you. More than just a fuel stop on your way to the Grand Canyon, the Gorge at the Little C is a destination all unto itself!