Walnut Canyon National Monument, Flagstaff, Arizona
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.
1. The Island Trail
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.
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).
2. Rim TrailClick thumbnail to view full-size
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
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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Mark Shulkosky