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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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).