Good farmland, wild plant foods, and forests filled with game attracted the Sinagua to this pretty canyon more than 800 years ago. Ledges eroded out of the limestone cliffs provided shelter from rain and snow—the inhabitants merely had to build walls under the ready-made roofs. Clear waters of Walnut Creek flowed seasonally in the canyon bottom.
After occupying Walnut Canyon from A.D. 1125 to 1250, the people moved on. Some Hopi clans trace their ancestors back to Sinagua at this site. More than 300 cliff dwellings remain; you can see and enter some along a loop trail. Another loop trail on the rim passes viewpoints, a pithouse site, and a two-room pueblo.
A small museum (928/526-3367, www.nps.gov/waca, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, usually extended in the warmer months, $5/person age 17 and up) displays pottery and other artifacts of the Sinagua culture. Exhibits show how the people farmed and how they used wild plants for baskets, sandals, mats, soap, food, and medicine. A map illustrates trading routes to other indigenous cultures. Staff offer interpretive programs and answer questions about the archaeology and natural history of Walnut Canyon. During the summer, they lead the Ledges Hike to cliff dwellings off the main trail, the Ranger Cabin Hike to a 1904 Forest Service cabin that once served as a visitor center for Walnut Canyon, and a Moonlight/Starlight walk that introduces archaeo-astronomy; call ahead for times and to make reservations for the hikes. A bookstore sells a wide selection of books, maps, and videos related to the monument and region.
The self-guided 0.9-mile Island Trail begins behind the visitor center. As it winds past 25 cliff dwellings, you begin to get a feeling of what it was like to live here. The paved path descends 185 feet with 240 steps, which you'll have to climb on the way out; allow 45–60 minutes. Because of the high elevation (6,690 feet), the trail isn't recommended for people with mobility, respiratory, or cardiovascular problems. The easy Rim Trail visits two scenic viewpoints, a pithouse site, and a small pueblo; signs describe plants and wildlife found here. Allow 20–30 minutes for the three-quarter-mile loop, which is paved, level, and wheelchair accessible. Pets cannot go on trails.
Vegetation changes dramatically from the pinyon and juniper forests near the rim to the tall Douglas firs clinging to the canyon ledges. Black walnut and several other kinds of deciduous trees grow at the bottom. Rock layers will be familiar to Grand Canyon visitors. The lower 100 feet of Walnut Canyon is Coconino Sandstone, 265-million-year-old sand dunes that have turned to stone. The upper 300 feet is Kaibab Limestone, formed in a sea about 255 million years ago.
Walnut Canyon National Monument remains open all year except Christmas, though snows can close the trails for short periods. Vehicles pulling cars and large trailers may have trouble negotiating the turnaround loop at the visitor center. You'll find picnic areas near the visitor center and on the drive in. From Flagstaff, head east seven miles on I-40 to Walnut Canyon Exit 204, then turn south three miles on a paved road.
Arizona Trail near Walnut Canyon
Hikers and mountain bikers enjoy forests, canyon scenery, and views of the San Francisco Peaks along this section of trail. A sign 2.5 miles in on the Walnut Canyon National Monument road points the way to a trailhead 1.7 miles to the west along a graded dirt road. From here the path heads southwest, crossing a side canyon of Walnut and paralleling the rim before dropping down into upper Walnut Canyon just west of Fisher Point in about six miles. A branch of Flagstaff's Urban Trail System joins here. In another mile you'll reach the junction for Sandy's Canyon Trail, which climbs the canyon to a trailhead near Lake Mary Road in three-quarters of a mile. The Arizona Trail curves to the southeast and continues four miles to Marshall Lake. Mountain bikers may need to walk the steep sections at the side canyon and at the descent into Walnut Canyon. The monument visitor center may have a map.
On to Grand Falls