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Walnut Canyon National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona

Updated on March 22, 2017
Close up of Cliff Dwellings on the far canyon wall
Close up of Cliff Dwellings on the far canyon wall | Source

Stunning Views, Ancient Cliff Dwellings and Easy to Moderate Hikes

Visiting Flagstaff? Looking for a couple of great hikes not far out of town? This is the place for you.

Walnut Canyon was inhabited over 800 years ago by the Sinagua (Spanish for "without water") people. They lived on the steep cliff walls and hunted and farmed in this relatively dry environment. After living here for over 100 years, they left for reasons that are still unclear today. Water only intermittently flows through the 20-mile-long, 400-foot deep canyon that is only a quarter of a mile wide.

Named for the Arizona black walnut trees that were once common on the canyon floor, Walnut Canyon National Monument is located less than 10 miles east of Flagstaff.

There Are Two Trails Open to the Public:

  • Island Trail: This 0.9-mile loop descends 185 feet (240 steps) and passes 25 cliff dwelling rooms. The return trip requires a climb of the 240 steps. While paved, the trail is not handicapped-accessble because of its steps and steepness.
  • Rim Trail: For those that don't relish the climb of the Island Trail, this flat 0.7 mile (one-way) partially paved trail follows the rim of the canyon and has 2 overlooks, including one at the far end. Paved to the first overlook, this portion of the trail is handicapped accessible.
  • In addition, there are two ranger guided hikes: the strenuous 3-hour Ledge Hike and an easier 2-hour Ranger Cabin Walk. These are offered only on certain days and reservations are required.

During your visit you can explore the ancient homes as well as enjoy the breathtaking scenery and varied plant life.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Walnut CanyonPhoto of a map of the Island and Rim Trails
Walnut Canyon
Walnut Canyon | Source
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Photo of a map of the Island and Rim Trails
Photo of a map of the Island and Rim Trails | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Bottom of the CanyonCanyon far wall with cliff swellings
Bottom of the Canyon
Bottom of the Canyon | Source
Canyon far wall with cliff swellings
Canyon far wall with cliff swellings | Source

1. The Island Trail

View of the Island from the Visitor's Center.  Note the Island Trail in the foreground.
View of the Island from the Visitor's Center. Note the Island Trail in the foreground. | Source

When you stand on the overlook at the Visitor's Center, don't be intimidated by the 240 steps on the Island loop below you (see the picture above).

This winding trail from the Visitor's Center is a paved path with interspersed steps. The variety of plants and breathtaking panoramic views all around will demand your attention throughout the trip down.

At the bottom of the stairs (but not the bottom of the canyon) is a "Y" intersection. Take the trail to the right to follow the loop around the "island" and past the 25 cliff dwellings which will ultimately lead back to this same point. Additional dwellings can be seen on the far walls of the canyon. The pueblos range from those almost completely intact to those with front and side walls barely existent. Try to imagine living on these cliffs, from the snow in winter, to hot dry summer days. The overhanging lip of cliff would provide some relief from the weather but wouldn't completely protect against it.

Usually built by women, the cliff dwellings were made in shallow caves created by water and wind. With a natural roof, floor and back wall, the one room pueblos had side and front walls fashioned from rocks held together with mortar.

Natural floor, ceiling, and back wall of a cliff dwelling on the Island Trail.
Natural floor, ceiling, and back wall of a cliff dwelling on the Island Trail. | Source
Remnants of a cliff dwelling on the Island Trail.  Note the doorway in the far side wall.
Remnants of a cliff dwelling on the Island Trail. Note the doorway in the far side wall. | Source
Remnants of a cliff dwelling on the Island Trail (steps in the background).
Remnants of a cliff dwelling on the Island Trail (steps in the background). | Source
Cliff Dwelling with intact front wall on the Island Trail.
Cliff Dwelling with intact front wall on the Island Trail. | Source

The Return Trip

This lower loop portion of the trail is relatively flat, but does involve a few steps up or a few steps down. From this portion of the trail you can look down into the bottom of the canyon as well as across the canyon to cliff dwellings in the opposite wall.

The return to the Visitor's Center, does require a climb back up the 240 steps, but there are plenty of benches and places to rest and enjoy the views along the way (see the photo below).

Looking up from the Island trail loop toward the Visitor's Center
Looking up from the Island trail loop toward the Visitor's Center | Source

2. Rim Trail

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Walnut Canyon WallWalnut CanyonPueblo ruins above the rim
Walnut Canyon Wall
Walnut Canyon Wall | Source
Walnut Canyon
Walnut Canyon | Source
Pueblo ruins above the rim
Pueblo ruins above the rim | Source

The Rim Trail is flat, paved and easily handicapped accessible to the first overlook. The remainder is not paved to the overlook at the far end of the trail. While you cannot see the cliff dwellings up close from this trail, it does offer beautiful panoramic views of the canyon.

A side trail from the Rim Trail courses through a ponderosa pine forest and leads to pueblo and pithouse ruins as well as a picnic area. Set back from the rim, this area is probably where the Sinagua grew their crops.

Along both trails are numerous examples of the plantlife in the canyon area including pinyon and ponderosa pines, prickly pear cactus, claret cup cactus, and banana yucca. Visiting in early May, we saw dying blooms and full vibrant blooms, as well as soon to bloom flowers.

Plant Life of Walnut Canyon

Banana Yucca
Banana Yucca | Source
Ponderosa pine
Ponderosa pine | Source
Prickley pear cactus
Prickley pear cactus | Source
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A markerWalnut Canyon National Monument, AZ -
Walnut Canyon National Monument, Walnut Canyon Road, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, USA
get directions

Some Tips and Final Thoughts:

Directions: From Flagstaff, take Interstate 40 east to exit 204. Turn right at the end of the ramp to the entrance road. The road is well marked and will take you to the Visitor's Center. The Visitor's Center is where all trails start and the user fee is paid.

While this is not a hike in the wilderness, some precautions should still be taken. Wear sturdy shoes to walk in, carry water, and apply sunscreen. While neither hike is particularly long, they are made more strenuous by the elevation, 6690 feet above sea level.

There is a fee for visiting the monument that is paid at the Visitor's Center. In addition to an information desk, the Visitor's Center also houses exhibits, bookstore/gift shop and restrooms. Food and lodging are not available.

While you are in the area, you may also want to visit Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument.

© 2012 bankscottage

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    • bankscottage profile image
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      bankscottage 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Samantha, glad you enjoyed the Hub and had the chance to enjoy Walnut Canyon in person. I'm sure your children will also enjoy it. I'll have a few more Hubs on great fun and educational hikes for kids in the Flagstaff area.

    • Samantha Gold profile image

      Samantha Gold 5 years ago

      What an amazing place! I really enjoyed my visit when I was there 10 years ago and someday plan to take my children,as well. It is just incredible what the Sinagua people did in the mountains.

      Great hub! A vote up from me.

    • bankscottage profile image
      Author

      bankscottage 5 years ago from Pennsylvania

      laurathegentleman, thanks for stopping by. Walnut Canyon was an amazing area. To think that the Sinagua people could live on those cliffs in all kinds of weather. There are also some great hikes around Flagstaff to volcanoes as well as one in a lava tube (underground).

    • laurathegentleman profile image

      laurathegentleman 5 years ago from Chapel Hill, NC

      This is a great and useful tool for anyone looking to travel this area! I only wish I was close enough for a visit! :)