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Northern Arizona's Walnut Canyon National Monument 
by Betsie Nielson August 08, 2005

Visit Walnut Canyon National Monument to experience stunning views and learn about the ancient cultures of the Southwest.

I first discovered Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff, Arizona, in the late 1990’s when my college geology class went there on a field trip. Although I had lived in Flagstaff for four years, I had never managed to see the local national monument.

Experiencing the Park

When we drove into the park, the landscape looked like the northern Arizona terrain I was used to: lots of red dirt, Ponderosa pines and short juniper trees. We made our way into the visitor’s center and were immediately struck with the center’s panoramic view of the canyon and Anderson Mesa in the distance. From the parking lot, you don’t even realize you are within a few hundred feet of a canyon rim, so the wow factor of the view inside the center is enormous.

From just outside the visitor center we could see down into the canyon, which was formed by the meandering waters of Walnut Creek. The trail that leads down into the canyon is called the Island Trail because it circles a lower rim of a huge rock formation that juts out into the canyon like an island. The trail is only .9 miles total, but it plunges 185 feet downward via 240 manmade stairs. But, my geology class, full of healthy college kids, hopped down the stairs easily. At the bottom of the stairs, the trail leads to the left, or west, around the first part of the island.

Here, the vegetation changes a bit, as we are descending from an Upper Sonoran desert landscape, complete with yucca plants and prickly pear cactus. As we descend, we move into the Pacific Northwestern forest zone, and begin seeing more conifers and shade loving vegetation. As we round the bend to the south, we find our path is taking us right into cliff dwellings, built over 900 years ago by the Native American Sinagua people. Sinagua is the Spanish word for “without water.” Archaeologists named the ancient canyon dwellers this because of their resourcefulness in living in a relatively dry area.

We learned that the Sinagua women were the builders of these cliff dwellings. They made use of the natural caves formed by nature in the limestone. Walls were built by mortaring more limestone with clay and then plastering over the surface of the wall with the same clay substance. Today, large sections of these walls still stand. Because the cliff dwellings are built into the walls of the canyon, and the path is just outside of the dwellings, we are able to stand right inside the ancient homes.

Smoke deposits from cooking fires hundreds of years ago are still visible on the upper surfaces of the caves. The dwellings are fairly small compared to our modern abodes, but several contain multiple rooms, sectioned by clay and limestone walls with doorways in between. Most of the dwellings lay on the south and east sections of the island, probably for maximum passive solar intake.

As we make our way around the island rim trail, we notice that there are other cliff dwellings carved out of the facing canyon walls. We wonder how the Sinagua people were able to carry water up from the canyon floor, approximately 170 feet below our trail. Today, Walnut Creek is just a creek, but we are told that in the time of the Sinagua, it was much more river like, but still did not flow year round, meaning that they had to store water for winter use.

As we wondered around the island, I was struck with the enormous history of the place. It amazes me that people were able to survive and prosper in such rugged country with no modern gadgets and tools. I learned that the Sinagua were farmers, as well as hunters. They grew dry land crops like corn, beans and squash up above the island on the rim. They conserved water for their crops by building check dams and terraces.

After rounding the final curve of the island, we began our ascent up the 240 stairs, which was a bit of challenge for the slightly out of shape, like myself. Fortunately, there are several nice places to stop along the climb and sit on a bench or just look out over the landscape.

Once we arrived at the top, we took the other trail, the Rim Trail, which is just that. It is a trail that runs along the rim of the canyon. It is a very easy .7 mile stroll on a paved trail. At the end is a great overlook area where we could take in the great panoramic view of Walnut Canyon and beyond. Also along the Rim Trail are some of the rim top buildings left behind by the ancient people. They are called pit houses and were used by the farmers while tending their crops. Once our hikes were complete, we spent some time in the museum area and bookstore of the visitor’s center. While it is fairly small, the museum offers several displays of artifacts from the early dwellers of the area, as well as information about their culture and lifestyle. The big mystery that the archaeologists have yet to solve definitively is why the Sinagua people left Walnut Canyon after living there for over 100 years and where they went when they left. The current prevailing theory is that they assimilated into the modern tribe known as the Hopi. The Hopi explain that these ancestors, whom they call Hisatsinom (people of long ago), migrated towards one another as part of a religious quest to unite all of the clans. In the bookstore, there is a wide selection of readings on the local Native American tribes and culture, as well as northern Arizona archaeology.

I have returned to Walnut Canyon several times in the years since my first visit. Most memorable, was when I had the opportunity to take groups of high school students who were participating in a summer enrichment program at Flagstaff’s Northern Arizona University. My students were from all over Arizona, some Native American and some from the desert city of Phoenix. They were intrigued with the cliff dwellings and how they were located so far from “everywhere else.”


A trip to Walnut Canyon is very inexpensive. Children sixteen and under are free and adults are $5.00 for a seven day pass. Seven days sounds great, but I’m not sure what one would do for seven days at this park. There are picnic facilities, but no camping within the park. The average family could see and do everything satisfactorily in about three hours.


The park is open every day of the year except Christmas and is open 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., except during June, July and August when they stay open until 6:00 p.m. During the summer months, they also offer free starlight, ranger-led hikes on Saturday evenings from 7:30-9:30. Space is limited, so call ahead (928-526-3367) Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time, so know that they are on Mountain Time year round.

Getting There

Walnut Canyon is located 10 miles east of Flagstaff (which is 120 miles north of Phoenix) off of Interstate 40, exit 204. It would make a great family stopover if you are traveling along I-40, or it could be a side trip if you are going on a Grand Canyon excursion. Also, nearby Walnut Canyon are two other National Monuments: Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki. All three are archaeological and geological sites of interest that are related by history and early culture.


If you go, realize that Walnut Canyon is located in the northern part of the state, so the climate is not the hot desert of Phoenix and Tucson. The elevation at the rim is 6,690 feet, so expect snow in the wintertime, but fairly warm summer temperatures and be prepared for high altitude hiking.


There are indoor bathroom facilities near the visitor’s center, but there are no food concessions, so be prepared and bring your own water – lots in the summer – and your own picnic food if you want to have lunch.


Also, know that Walnut Canyon is considered to be a sacred place by the Native American people, so be sure to treat it with respect. Stay on the trails, take out what you take in and never, ever take anything from the park – not even a pebble.

More Information

For more information, visit the Walnut Canyon National Monument web site listed below. For information on lodging and dining in nearby Flagstaff, go to the Flagstaff Guide web site listed below. As a Flagstaff local for several years, my recommendation for lodging would be the Little America Hotel (928-779-7900). For dining, there are tons of great options, but my top three “local” picks would be La Fonda’s for Mexican (1900 N 2nd St.), Kathy’s Café for breakfast (7 N San Francisco St.) and Crazy Bill’s Steakhouse & Saloon for lunch or dinner (3130 E. Rt. 66).


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