Walnut Canyon

Exploring Walnut Canyon National Monument In Flagstaff

Home to a dense population of ancient cliff dwellings, Walnut Canyon National Monument offers an experience unlike any other. The canyon was carved by Walnut Creek over 60 million years ago and hosts curved limestone cliffs, diverse vegetation and wildlife, as well as some of the best preserved dwellings in the state.

But the most fascinating feature of it all is the opportunity to walk through the rooms and imagine what life would have been like. Nearly 400 feet below the rim, you’ll have an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of those who came before us and learn about their rich cultural history.

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The Inhabitants Of Walnut Canyon

So who were these people who lived within the limestone cliffs? One thing to know about Arizona is that there were several tribes throughout history who migrated across the land over a span of thousands of years. One in particular occupied Walnut Canyon and they are known by archeologists as the Sinagua.

The Sinagua, among many others, lived in the Flagstaff region sometime near 600 CE. and farmed the fertile land. That is until after Sunset Crater erupted and sent lava flowing over their crops and pit houses.

The tribes fled to the outskirts of the lava flow and found new fertile soil where the volcanic ash had fallen. The Sinagua themselves relocated to Walnut Canyon around 1100 and lived in dwellings under the cliff ledges while they farmed corn, squash, and beans on the rim.

During their time in the canyon the Sinagua built an extensive series of dwellings scattered all throughout the backcountry. The park trails allow you to walk past 25 of them in total, but you’ll be amazed when you spot the concentrated amounts hundreds of feet across the canyon. The Sinagua even left some petroglyphs deep in the wilderness areas, protected from visitors.

Unfortunately looting was popular in the late 1800s so many of the dwellings already had their walls broken down and floors stripped of artifacts. In 1915 president Woodrow Wilson declared Walnut Canyon a National Monument in order to preserve the archeological sites and reduce further negative impact.

Where Are The Sinagua Now?

The fate of the Sinagua people is a great mystery. Archeologists speculate they abandoned the area around 1250 and moved on to join the Hopi culture in the northern mesas. This period of time is known as “The Great Abandonment” which leaves us with many unanswered questions about the tribes across Arizona and why they suddenly left the area, artifacts still in place.

Fees & Passes

There is an entrance fee of $25 per private vehicle which is valid for 7 days so you can visit as many times as you want during that time period.

Any of the National Parks passes or Flagstaff Area National Monument pass get you free entry. If you haven’t invested in an annual National Parks pass yet you should highly consider it! It is a great investment if you plan on visiting 3 or more national parks or monuments, etc. within the same year. The pass is good for 1 year from the purchase date and you can buy one at any of the locations that accept it.

Free Days

Walnut Canyon National Monument waives entrance fees each year on select days. Below are the months they typically do this, but for an updated list of dates be sure to visit this website.

  • January – Martin Luther King Jr. Day
  • April – First day of National Park Week
  • August – Anniversary of the Great American Outdoors Act
  • September – National Public Lands Day
  • November – Veterans Day
Walnut Canyon, Flagstaff.
Cliff dwelling along Island Trail.

Best Time To Visit Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon National Monument is open year round but of course certain times of the year are more comfortable than others. Flagstaff, Arizona has 4 seasons and typically sees cooler average temperatures than the Phoenix valley.

The best seasons for visiting and hiking Walnut Canyon are spring and fall. During these seasons the air is cooler in the morning and evenings, but the sun still provides warmth. Summer would also be a beautiful time depending on daily temperatures and whether or not a monsoon is in the forecast. If ice and/or snow is in the forecast it can partially or fully close park trails during winter. This can make it difficult to plan a visit if you’re just passing through because the Island Trail is what you really want to experience!

Walnut Canyon Island Trail.
Top of Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument.

Walnut Canyon Trails

The park holds 2 trails for exploration- the Island Trail and Rim Trail. Both are short in distance and worth walking since they provide different experiences. Below is a brief synopsis of each trail so you can decide for yourself if you’re going to choose one or do both. I suggest both!

Island Trail

If you’re wanting to gain the entire experience within Walnut Canyon and get up close and personal with Arizona Indian ruins, you won’t want to miss the Island Trail. This 1 mile round trip path takes you back in time as you descend 185 feet into the canyon via series of spiraling stairs.

From there you’ll follow a trail that travels along the entire rim of the ‘island’, passing dwellings that were built into the cliffside hundreds of years ago. There are no railings on the cliffside so be careful to watch your footing and the little ones. However the absence of human infrastructure here is a treat. It helps paint an accurate picture of what the area may have been like so long ago, and makes you wonder how the Sinagua were able to traverse to some of these places.

Of course climbing back up the series of stairs is another story. For some this will pose a challenge, but if you take your time and frequent breaks most people are able to make it back up without issue.

The Island Trail in my opinion is what you cannot miss when visiting Walnut Canyon. It is well maintained, absolutely stunning, and the history you get to experience is unapparelled.

Rim Trail

If you prefer to view the Sinagua cliff dwellings from a distance, the mostly flat Rim Trail offers the perfect opportunity. This path is a 0.7 mile loop that takes you along a portion of the Walnut Canyon rim. There are 2 viewpoints that allow you to view the cliff dwellings below, and boy, it is quite a sight.

Along the trail you’ll pass through the beautiful juniper and pinon pine forest as well as a garden known as the ‘demonstration garden’ which features traditional crops the Sinagua would have grown. Near the end of the Rim Trail you’ll pass by a partially re-built pit house and pueblo too.

If you’re interested as much as I am about the ancient civilizations throughout the Southwest, I have just the book for you. House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization across the American Southwest is a thrilling travelogue that will both educate and inspire you.

Walnut Canyon, Flagstaff.
Island Trail, Walnut Canyon.

How Long Does It Take To Go Through Walnut Canyon?

To get the most out of Walnut Canyon National Monument I would plan on spending 2-3 hours at the park. The Island Trail can take about 1 hour while the Rim Trail is roughly 30 minutes. The park has a small museum full of interesting historical facts, artifacts, as well as a gift shop.

Other than the 2 trails, park museum, and gift shop there isn’t much else to do in the area. Nonetheless, a stop at Walnut Canyon National Monument is worth a day trip or a detour if you’re passing through.

Walnut Canyon, Flagstaff.

Recap: Is Walnut Canyon National Monument Worth It?

If you ask me Walnut Canyon National Monument is most definitely worth a visit! This place holds such historical significance in Arizona. We’ve been able to learn so much about the Sinagua through archeological excavations, and not to mention how impressive the concentrated amount of cliff dwellings are. But I understand not everyone appreciates ancient historical sights as much as others do.

If you’re looking for a big adventure or full day hike you may be underwhelmed since the park is limited to 2 short trails. Likewise, if ancient sites bore you and you’re not open to learning about the tribes that migrated across Arizona, it may not justify the costs to enter the park.

Regardless, I highly suggest giving Walnut Canyon a chance, because it is a one of a kind place. Plus you never know- you may be inspired into learning more about the Sinagua after an introduction to their way of living.

Visit More Sinagua Ruins in Arizona

If you’re fascinated with Arizona Native ruins, check out these other Sinagua sites:

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