Walnut Canyon is a national monument in Flagstaff, Arizona with preserved ancient cliff dwellings constructed by the Sinagua people, a central Arizonan pre-Colombian culture that lived between 500 and 1425 CE. The dwellings were built between 1100 and 1250 CE. The National Monument spans 3,600 acres just 8 miles southeast of Flagstaff, with a 6-mile stretch that encompasses Walnut Creek and the length of the canyon where the Sinagua built their homes. The National Monument offers several vantage points from which to see the cliff dwellings and surrounding geological structures.
The Island Trail passes by 25 of the rooms, and more can be seen across the canyon from the trail. Today, there are 80 dwellings in total, and at one point numbered close to 300 rooms. The Island Trail is a strenuous, 1-mile trip that takes approximately 1 hour to complete. Although paved, it descends almost 200 feet into the canyon, and hikers return uphill the same way. Each of the rooms, set just off the edge of the trail, is approximately 20 feet wide, 7 feet tall, and 10 feet deep; just large enough for a single family to cook and sleep in. Originally, the caves would have been reinforced with golden clay walls, with the doorways supported with wooden beams and wooden doors. The Rim Trail offers a self-guided hike through the ponderosa forest overlooking the canyon. There are two built-in overlooks on the 0.7-mile round-trip trail, which traverses the areas in which the Sinagua grew their crops. Hikers walk past an ancient pithouse as well as a pueblo. These were the first dwellings in which the Sinagua lived. It was not until 1100 CE that the alcoves were carved out of the eroded limestone rocks. The Rim Trail is paved, wheelchair accessible, and offers an easy 30-minute hike. Wildlife enthusiasts may see over 100 species of birds in the canyons as well as jack rabbits, coyote, mule deer, and elk, among other animals. The northern goshawk, one of the rarest raptors in the United States, is a resident of the canyon, as are peregrine falcons and golden eagles. The Walnut Canyon Visitor Center offers expansive views of the canyon and surrounding land, and includes amenities such as a picnic area, a bookstore, and restrooms. A small museum at the visitor center offers exhibits and a display of native artifacts.
History: The Sinagua is the name given to this ancient group by archeologists, from the old Spanish name for the region, Sierra de Sin Agua, meaning “mountains without water.” The Sinagua were the first to create permanent dwellings in the canyon, although they were not the first to live there. They adapted to the dry climate of Arizona with advanced techniques for finding and conserving water as well as farming. The Sinagua grew corn, squas,h and beans in volcanic terrain using a method known as “dry farming.” Advanced irrigation techniques included the building of terraces and rock dams to store and conserve rain water. Although the crops provided much of their food, the Sinagua were likely attracted to the area by the variety of plant species and wildlife, and hunted bighorn sheep and deer. The Sinagua suddenly left their cliffside homes in 1250 to move to nearby villages, leaving over 80 dwellings behind. It is not known what triggered the move, but speculation includes drought or fear of neighboring tribes. In the 1880s many of the dwellings were dynamited by treasure hunters in search of Sinagua possessions. The alarming theft and destruction is what drove local citizens to establish the National Monument in 1915.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Daily ranger talks take place at 10:00am. Two Discovery Hikes are available in the summer months through Labor Day. Reservations are required for the ranger-guided hikes. The Canyon Ledge Hike is a strenuous 90-minute hike that takes visitors past the ancient cave dwellings, up along narrow ledges and rocky slopes. The Ranger Cabin Walk takes guests on an easy 2-hour hike to the recently restored ranger cabin. Built in 1904, the log cabin was originally where rangers and their families lived as they worked to protect the park and welcome visitors. One of the oldest remaining log cabins in Arizona, the home was added to the Nation Register of Historic Places in 1975.
What’s Nearby: Camping is unavailable at Walnut Creek National Monument, but visitors to the area can camp at Bonito Campground in the Coconino National Forest just across the street.
6400 U.S. 89, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, Phone: 928-526-3367