The “Other” Grand Canyon of Northern Arizona
A canyon with stunning views, natural history, native culture, all of this found in Northern Arizona. I bet you are thinking I’m writing of the most famous of canyons, the Grand Canyon, but I’m not! I speak of Walnut Canyon National Monument!
Walnut Canyon National Monument, just southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona is stunning! A verdant contrast to much of the high desert! We happened upon this gem when we were traveling across the open range expanse that began in St. Johns, AZ, up past the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest, on our way to Williams, the Gateway to the Grand Canyon back in 2013. We had been driving for several hours and needed to get out and stretch our legs. We couldn’t have picked a better place!
As we approached Flagstaff traveling west on I-40, the terrain changed from windswept short grass range to Juniper and pinyon pines. Turning off the highway and traveling to the Walnut Canyon National Monument, the pines surrounding the road began to thicken and increase in stature. The differences were stark compared to the past 140 miles of big sky country we had driven across to reach this point.
Walnut Canyon Visitor’s Center
As of the writing of this post, the costs were $8 per person over 16 years of age, those that are younger are free. The pass is good for 7 days. The visitors center is lovely and very educational. There you can learn about the natural history of the 6oo ft. deep canyon, and the fascinating history of the Sinagua native cliff dwellers that inhabited the walls of this canyon centuries ago as well as other native tribes of the region.
The building is perched upon the precipice of the canyon. It has large viewing windows that allow you some incredible views without even leaving the comfort of the indoors!
A 0.7 mile paved trail runs along the canyon rim. It is surrounded by pines above and is an easy trail allowing most anyone to enjoy the canyon’s vistas. The views across the canyon are gorgeous! Jade like, ribbons of gray limestone and reddened sandstone peer between sage shades of evergreens and other desert vegetation clinging thickly to crevices in the canyon walls.
For a more invigorating adventure, take the Island Trail down into and along the cliffs. This trail is moderately challenging with many stairs and a few tight passes, but most people without any health problems should be able to tackle at least a portion of this amazing path. The trail circles around a narrow and tall mesa in the middle of Walnut Canyon. This mesa appears as an island of sorts, which is why it is given the name of the Island Trail. The natural beauty of the rocks and vegetation are tremendous, however, to see and climb into the tiny cliff dwellings accessible along this path is inspiring and humbling. The Sinagua peoples that inhabited this place roughly 800 years ago built the cliff dwellings.
Seemingly every where one looks on the canyon walls across the canyon, shadowy dots reveal primitive abodes. Around every bend, a new home. The tiny homes were little more than holes in the canyon wall, bricked up with stone walls and small doorways. Other than sleep and hiding from harsh weather, little time was likely spent here. The simple yet harsh lives they lived are difficult to imagine having been born in this time and place.
The People “Without Water”
Sinagua means “without water” in Spanish. This location receives only 18″ rain fall annually, which is actually generous for Arizona, most likely led the Sinagua to settle in this location. The Sinagua also inhabited Tuzigoot and Montezuma’s Castle also preserved as National Monuments in Arizona. The Walnut Canyon settlement flourished between 1100 CE and 1250 CE. Pots of water were stored in the tiny abodes for when the supply ran low in the canyon below. They were very judicious in their use of water to ensure survival. It reminded me of how easily we in rain abundant climates east of the Mississippi River can take water for granted. In deed, most people in the United States regardless of rainfall on their back yard.
The Sinagua farmed maize/corn, beans, and squash on the flats above the cliffs. In addition to their crops, they were hunters and gathers. Food resources in the region include mule deer, pronghorn, pine nuts, acorns, and Arizona black walnut, the location’s namesake.
Located only a few miles southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, a visit to Walnut Canyon National Monument would be well worth it if you are in the area. I highly recommend it! Give yourself at least 2 hours when visiting, however, you may wish to spend an entire day here. I would like to have walked more of the paths and spent more time visiting the visitor center and museum. We were somewhat in a hurry to get to our next location as we passed through Walnut Canyon, but we took our time and made the most of our 2-hour pit-stop at this high desert oasis which has made a lasting impression upon my wife and me.
This canyon may pale in comparison to the scale of The Grand Canyon, roughly a 100-mile drive north of here, but its own unique beauty and anthropologic history make it a grand canyon in its own right!
Have you ever visited Walnut Canyon National Monument? When in the Flagstaff area would you visit this unique place? Let me know in the comments!
Here are a few pictures of Carrie and I on the Island Trail and in front of several cliff dwellings.