Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 3

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island. Each room, built under limestone ledges, might have housed a family. The ledges afforded protection from the elements – they kept the dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were also easier to defend against invasion. Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea. Views from the canyon rim include the volcanic peaks around Flagstaff, including Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks, as well as landmarks such as Mormon Mountain to the south, all rising out of the extensive ponderosa forest covering the Mogollon Plateau. 

Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
Upper Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument, from the Canyon rim. Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks rise behind in the distance. (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks (Agassiz and Schultz) from the rim at Walnut Canyon National Monument


Archeological farming areas within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
Southward view from the rim of Walnut Canyon National Monument. Mormon Mountain rises in the distance. The “island” of the Island Trail passing many cliff dwellings is the narrow peninsula at right-center. (National Park Service-managed, Arizona)
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Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

Cliff dwellings on the walls of Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona). Can you spot the dwellings?
Cliff dwellings on the walls of Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument (National Park Service-managed, Arizona). Can you spot the dwellings?
Southwest panorama of Walnut Canyon, showing the canyon itself, the “Island,” (center-right), Mormon Mountain (distance, left), and Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff (distance, right). Smoke from a fire rises in the distance as well, possibly the one that I observed several days ago from the Peaks.

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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Rim TrailIsland Trail
Type of hikeOut & backLoop
Trail SurfacePaved trailPaved Trail
Length (Mi)0.71
SeasonAll yearAll year. Stairs may get icy in winter. Snowy & icy conditions can lead to closure of the trail.
Major attributesGood view of variety of cliff dwelling structure remains throughout the central portion of Walnut Canyon. Rim-top pueblo.Loop trail providing close-up view of cliff dwellings in inner canyon
Potential Water SourcesWalnut Canyon Visitor CenterWalnut Canyon Visitor Center
TrailheadsVisitor CenterVisitor Center
Trailhead AccessVehicular (paved road)Vehicular (paved road)
WildernessNoNo
DifficultyEasyStrenuous. 185 feet descent into canyon at 7000’ elevation.
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Hiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of parkHiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of park
Ecosystems TraversedRocky Mountain Montane Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Accessible?YesNo
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Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Passage 31 & 33 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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