Walnut Canyon cliff dwelling

Walnut Canyon: Explore Amazing Cliff Dwellings in Arizona

One of our favorite spots in Northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument showcases and protects ancient cliff dwellings left behind by their former inhabitants. Though these ancient homes of the Sinagua are the highlight of a visit, the high desert geological formations of the Canyon are just as big of a draw.

Walnut Canyon

Named for the black walnut trees growing on the bottom, Walnut Canyon is a steep, 400-feet deep, twenty miles long and a quarter mile wide canyon. Walnut Creek carved it during a period of 60 million years. Fossils of marine life are embedded in the soft limestone around the perimeter, reminders of an ancient sea. Over time, the sea turned to desert, and we have this beautiful landscape to visit and admire.

Not only that, but at some point ancient people made their homes here, leaving behind the ruins of their buildings.

Close enough to Phoenix for a great day trip destination, especially in the summer, and one of our family’s favorite National Parks in Arizona, we visit it often. All our kids got their Junior Ranger badges here over a decade ago when they first learned about the park and promised to protect it.

Start with the Visitor Center

The first stop when entering Walnut Canyon National Monument should be the Visitor Center. We stop there first, too, even after all these years, unless we see a cloud when we first get there and want to take advantage of it before the sun comes out. In that case, we might start with the Rim Trail. But to get to the main trail unto the canyon we need to go through the Visitor Center.

Perched on the edge of the canyon, the Visitor Center offers a panoramic view of the canyon below. This is the place to learn about Walnut Canyon, its geology, natural features and ecosystems, and human history. Though small, the museum has great exhibits that explain it all. Kids can get their National Park passport stamped and earn a Junior Ranger badge.

The Island Trail

The highlight of a Walnut Canyon visit is the Island Trail. The “island” is a high rock plateau created by Walnut Creek circling it on three sides. Home to about 25 cliff dwellings, perched on its side, a well-defined trail circles it. But getting down to that part of the trail is not that easy.

The descent is vertical and abrupt, and I’m not sure if the stairs make it easier or harder. Though my biggest issue with it is not necessarily that it’s strenuous, but the sudden elevation change.

The park is at 7,000 feet, and the trail descends 185 feet vertically, through a series of around 240 stairs. Yes, that’s a lot of stairs.

I live at almost sea level, which might explain why this affects me more. Over the years I found that if I take it slow, I can handle it better. When I used to try to keep up with the rest of my family (except when my kids were young, and they walked very slow), I always ended up with a pounding headache that made the trail less enjoyable. Now that I am “old”, I take it slow. And no headache.

Learn from my mistakes, and take your time, unless you are used to high elevation, or abrupt elevation changes. You’ll enjoy it more. You can go fast and stop at each of the benches if you feel like it. Especially if you start getting a headache, remember what is causing it and slow down.

Inside Walnut Canyon – Sinagua Ruins

Once down into the canyon, the trail goes through 700-year-old cliff dwellings built by the Sinagua, the same people who built Montezuma Castle. We walk by or through 25 rooms of this ancient pueblo and at times we see other ones across the canyon.

I imagine the area filled with the everyday noises of people who made their homes here. We walk through low doorways, see signs of ancient fireplaces where the walls of the dwellings are blackened. When they were little, my kids used to play in these rooms, pretending that they lived there. As long as they didn’t touch the walls, they were fine. As junior rangers, they knew how to preserve the past, how to enjoy the place without damaging it.

Walnut Canyon Arizona
Cliff dwelling inside Walnut Canyon

Who lived in these ancient homes?

People lived in Walnut Canyon thousands of years before they settled and built anything here. Archaic people lived here short term while traveling through the Southwest.

Permanent inhabitants, called Sinagua (sin=without + aqua=water => without water) settled here around 600 AD. As the name suggests, they didn’t have much water; the Spanish called these mountains Sierra de Sin Agua = Mountain without water.

Still, water flowed at the bottom of the canyon during the wet seasons, and shaded pools held water between rains. In the spring, snowmelt was flowing through the canyon. It was enough for people to settle here.

They farmed the Canyon Rim, growing beans, squash, and corn. Wild plants, like nuts and berries, added variety to their diet, and so did the wild game they hunted, deer and bighorn sheep among them.

Around 1100 they built the cliff dwellings along the ledges on the canyon walls, in the natural alcoves formed in the limestone. They lived in them for another 150 years before moving on.

Walnut Canyon - cliff dwellings
View of cliff dwellings

On the Trail

We descended all 240-something stairs. Taking it slow, stopping at the rest stations, I was able to avoid the elevation-change-caused headache.

From there, the trail took us around the island. We walked under the alcoves, by the dwellings and through them at times. On the opposite side of the canyon, we noticed more cliff dwellings, similar to the ones we were visiting.

Though the Island Trail is only one mile long, it can take a long time to walk it, between the stairs, and enjoying the cliff dwellings and the surrounding scenery.

Once out of the cliff dwellings, the trail narrows. Walking on the ledge of the canyon walls, I felt part of it, though it seemed that a sudden gust of wind would sweep me off to the bottom, still a long way down. Hawks and other birds of prey were flying in the canyon, eye-level with us.

Pinion and juniper pines populate the bottom of the canyon, but I know that somewhere down there, a grove of Arizona black walnuts, the trees that gave this canyon its name, still live.

Walnut Canyon - view
View of Walnut Canyon

The Rim Trail

The Rim Trail is not as spectacular, though the viewpoints offer some exquisite glimpses into the Canyon below. Basically, though, it is a flat, paved trail on top of the canyon, usually sunny, offering an easy stroll through a smaller part of history.

As I just said, the viewpoints are the highlights of this trail, but an excavated pit house and the ruins of a two-bedroom pueblo sit on the other side, in the pinion-tree forest. On a hot, sunny day, we used to sit by the pit house and watch our kids (then young) play while enjoying a bit of shade. Most of the trail, especially on the rim, is exposed, make sure you wear a hat and carry water.

This trail offers a glimpse into the dry land farming the Sinagua (and most other desert people) used. Just like the Hohokam in Pueblo Grande, their main crops were the “three sisters”: corn, squash, and beans. Though here, they grew them differently, planting them in a circle. Corn in the middle, beans around them to climb on the corn, and squash on the outside for ground cover to keep in the moisture and as pesticide control.

Flat, paved and short (3/4 miles), the Rim Trail is worth to walk through, for the history lessons it provides, but mostly for the views of the Canyon.

Leaving Walnut Canyon

A small one, as National Parks go, Walnut Canyon only has the two trails mentioned above to explore. Each around or under one mile, it doesn’t seem like much. Yet, it gives us a greater understanding of the high desert environment and the ancient people who made it their home.

For us, it is also an opportunity to get out of the heat and explore Flagstaff and its surroundings. Though the Rim trail is nice and has great overlooks, the highlight of our stop at Walnut Canyon is always the Island Trail, even with the stairs and the vertical climb out. It’s not only about the ancient homes, but the environment of this unique landscape.

Quick facts about Walnut Canyon National Monument

  1. When did Walnut Canyon become a National Monument?

    On November 30th, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Walnut Canyon a National Monument to protect he ancient cliff dwellings within it. The Monument was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

  2. What to do in Walnut Canyon

    Visit a geologically interesting area, and visit cliff dwellings on the canyon walls, along the Island Trail. he Visitor Center offers a great introduction to both geology and human history of the site, featuring a small museum. While the Island Trail is a bit strenuous, it takes visitors through the cliff dwellings. But for those who can’t hike it, the Rim Trail offers gorgeous views of the Canyon and several cliff dwellings from above.

  3. Location:

    Walnut Canyon is near Flagstaff, Arizona, about 10 miles from the center of own, off the Historic Route 66 and I-40. Drive east on I-40 out of Flagstaff, and exit at the sign for Walnut Canyon (exit 204).

Walnut-Canyon NM
Walnut-Canyon Arizona
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