Hydrology and Colors of the Little Colorado River

April 11, 2019



April 2019 Viewer's ChoicePhotographer: Thomas McGuire 
Summary Author: Thomas McGuire 

The drainage basin of the Little Colorado River has an area of about 26,500 square miles (69,000 sq km). That’s larger than 10 of the states of the United States. It drains mostly high desert landscapes in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. The Little Colorado starts as a clear mountain stream on Mount Baldy, on the reservation of the White Mountain Apache Tribe at an elevation of 11,000 feet (3,400 m).

333333333Grand Falls of the Little Colorado is featured above, at top. Here, the river’s in flood with late winter snowmelt is a chocolate brown color. Due to the sparse vegetative cover, erosion is relatively rapid in this region. But more often the river’s nearly completely dry for months at a time, especially in the warmer months before the summer monsoon season. A different view of these falls is shown at left, with the author and his wife.

When it’s dry on the Colorado Plateau, the Little Colorado still flows into the larger Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. In dry periods, it’s fed by groundwater flowing from springs a few miles above the confluence. At that time, the water color is an intense powder blue (bottom photo, lower left). This color is from dissolved travertine, a form of limestone. Photos taken on March 22, 2019.