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Continuing our exploration of the five National Park Units in the area around Flagstaff, AZ, last (but by no means least) on our list was Walnut Canyon National Monument.
This National Monument preserves a collection of cliff dwellings, built and occupied by the Sinagua people during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Walnut Canyon was the 23rd unit on our quest to visit ALL the National Park Units in the US. We visited in early May 2019.
Walnut Canyon National Monument is located just 10-miles southeast of Flagstaff, AZ. It's easily accessible just a few miles south of I-40.
Much like at Montezuma Castle National Monument, the rooms at Walnut Canyon National Monument were built up into the cliffs.
But here, the canyon floor is over 350ft below the rim!
Walnut Creek winds its way for 34 miles through the Little Colorado River drainage basin, flowing northeast from its source near Mormon Mountain in the Coconino National Forest, south of Flagstaff, AZ.
The river was dammed in the early 1900s to supply water to Flagstaff. Nowadays, Walnut Creek only flows occasionally - following heavy monsoon rains or snow melt.
Almost 1,000 years ago, it would have been one of the few reliable streams in this arid, high desert region. And it's this water source that drew the Sinagua people here.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Walnut Canyon was first occupied, albeit temporarily, by travelers passing through the area thousands of years ago. The first permanent inhabitants are thought to have arrived around 600 CE.
The old Spanish name for the region was Sierra de Sin Agua, meaning "mountains without water". It's from this that the people were named Sinagua - reflecting their ability to survive in seemingly arid environments.
The Sinagua people built dwellings throughout this region, relying on their knowledge of water conservation to let them live in what would otherwise be an inhospitable desert.
Archaeological evidence suggests that they first inhabited Walnut Canyon around 1100 CE and lived here for around 150 years. Then, suddenly around 1250 CE, they left - the same thing that happened at many other Ancestral Puebloan sites in the area.
Almost 400 feet deep, 1/4 mile wide and 20 miles long, Walnut Canyon was carved into the Permian Kaibab Limestone over 60 million years.
Below this hard upper limestone ledge, filled with marine fossils from an ancient sea, the rock is much older...and softer! The strata lines in the buff sandstone cliffs reveal the contours of ancient sand dunes.
It is in these sandstone walls that the Sinagua people built their homes. Natural ledges and caves formed the basis of pueblos that were further defined by masonry walls.
Estimates about the population vary, but at its peak, there may have been as few as 75 or as many as 400 people living here.
Walnut Creek running along the canyon floor would have provided fresh water - running at times but also stored in shaded pools between rains and spring snow melts.
Deer, bighorn sheep and other wild game would have been hunted in the surrounding forest.
And up on the canyon rim, the Sinagua people would have farmed the lands - growing staples such as corn, beans and squash in fields.
We arrived just after lunch on a Wednesday in early May, looking forward to an afternoon spent exploring the area. It did not disappoint!
It's worth noting that the Walnut Canyon National Monument entrance fee is not cheap - $15 per person (not per vehicle) 16 years old or older. Children under 15 are free.
This might be a good time to purchase an America the Beautiful annual pass which gives you free admission to all the National Parks plus lots of other federally-managed areas.
Inside the Visitor Center, we stamped our Park Passport and took a look around the exhibitions inside.
But the best way to experience Walnut Canyon is by hiking the two trails: the Rim Trail and Island Trail.
We started with the Rim Trail, a circular trail that follows the canyon rim past some vista points, before circling back past a pithouse and a pueblo.
At just 0.7 miles long and paved, it's by no means strenuous - but the views are stunning!
We followed the trail, stopping at the scenic lookout points to take some photos.
However, the main attraction at Walnut Canyon National Monument is the Island Trail. While it's only a little longer than the Rim Trail at 1 mile in total length, this circular trail includes 185 feet of vertical ascent via 273 steep steps!
Undeterred, and excited about the opportunity of heading down into the canyon, we set off down the trail through the door at the back of the Visitor Center.
The path quickly descends down from the rim. Although paved, the steps are steep and somewhat narrow in places. People coming up were happy to stop for a breather and let us past though!
Once down the steps, the trail levels out somewhat - the steep section is over at least! The trail hugs the cliffs as it winds past dwellings built into the rock.
The remains of the original masonry walls delineate what would once have been rooms.
One feature we spotted was a bead running along the underside of the overhangs. It was put there by the National Park Service to encourage water to drip outside rather than running back into the ruins where it may cause damage.
While some of the walls were low, there were others that spanned from the floor to the ceiling of the cliff overhangs. Being careful not to touch, it was cool to see inside and imagine what life must have been like.
As you walk the trail, don't forget to look out across the canyon - the canyon walls are lined with cliff dwellings all around. They look so inaccessible, it's hard to believe people once lived in them!
Altogether too soon, the trail turns a corner and it's time to start climbing back up to the Visitor Center!
Being so close to Flagstaff, AZ, Walnut Canyon National Monument is an excellent day trip destination. Take a nice quiet stroll along the Rim Trail and enjoy the stunning panoramic vistas of the canyon below.
Or if you're feeling more active, hike the Island Trail for the chance to get up close and personal with these ancient cliff dwellings.
For us, Walnut Canyon National Monument rounded out our stay in Flagstaff - the last of 5 National Monuments in the area. Be sure to check out our other blog posts to learn more about those places too.
Our journey will continue east, onward to Petrified Forest National Monument!