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Navajo tribal members want to keep Grand Falls closed. So far, they're going it alone

Up until last month, tourists flocked to the churning mud waters of Grand Falls, a popular landmark a little off the grid in northern Arizona. Locals from the Navajo Nation shut it down to nontribal members. Now they’re trying to keep it closed. 

On a recent and chilly Sunday morning, a group of Navajo tribal members gathered just outside a barricade of rocks and boards along a dirt road. A bright yellow sign warns warns visitors not to enter. A stake buried in the ground is emblazoned with: Grand Falls, Power, Strong.

It’s a quiet but firm stance against what folks here on this southwest corner of the vast Navajo Nation call a disorganized crowd of tourists in an area rich with burial grounds and natural medicines. Violet White is frustrated not only with tourists but the local governing board, the nearby chapter house. 

"They didn’t try to come here and say ‘how do you want us to help you," she said.

White has been at the forefront of this closure of Grand Falls since it started earlier this year. The group tried signs alone, but that wasn’t enough. 

"Our group just end up gating it off more because they just keep coming and coming. Visitors, tourists, keep coming. So that’s why we have to do that," she said.

At the heart of this determined protest is a group of locals defending what they view as a way of life that’s intruded upon by those visitors to Grand Falls. 

The spot is just a short drive from Flagstaff on a maintained dirt road and has become a social media darling; much like many landmarks in the Southwest. 

From selfies on Instagram to TikTok videos to pop music against a drone footage backdrop of the ephemeral landscape melting into the Little Colorado River. 

And more off road vehicles, drones, buses, Jeep tours and, inevitably, garbage. 

Radmilla Cody describes her childhood along Grand Falls while working on the community farm with her grandmother.

"When we were allowed to have breaks," she laughed, "we would go to the banks of the water and just be there, just be present with the water," said Cody.

And she wants it to stay that way.

"As a kid, you just appreciate that. You appreciate nature, you appreciate it around you and uh, yeah, and respect that," she said.

To better understand the provenance of the issue here, Cody points at the history of how this came to be a tourist spot. It’s not a long one. In 2002, Coconino County voters approved an initiative to build funding for infrastructure here. In 2016, an interpretive site was built here and the county excavated the pit for a bathroom. A large ramada was also added, drawing more tourists. 

Like his niece, Herman Cody grew up here. He says it’s just too easy for people to get to and then, there’s no control over how many arrive or what they do.

"You don’t go to the Grand Canyon with a trailer load of motorcycles and take them out and drive all over the place. Which they do here," he said.

He wants there to be some sort of organized handling of traffic. 

"There's no one to say, 'Hey, easy on that.' No one."

Right now, there’s a heavy cable strewn across the road with a no trespassing sign. And the small group of the Grand Falls Coalition. 

And then there’s growing support. Paul Thompson lives nearby. He raises livestock near Canyon Diablo, a popular mountain climbing spot that’s partially on the Navajo Nation.

"We don’t want them in there," he said.

"You want a blanket close it down?" I asked him.

"Yeah, just like here."

The Leupp Chapter house of the Navajo Nation is ultimately responsible for organizing group visits. And for maintaining the bathroom, the ramada and those interpretive sites. Officials there have declined interviews with KJZZ’s Fronteras Desk, only acknowledging on their website that Grand Falls is closed. 

Monsoon season is when the waters here roar the loudest and that’s only a couple months away. Whether visitors return or whether they’re welcome if they do, remains to be seen.

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Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.