Having left Joshua Tree National Park to bake in the triple-digits, we decided to explore Walnut Canyon National Monument, 10 miles east of Flagstaff. The 20-mile long, 400-foot-deep canyon is home to hundreds of cliff dwellings built in shallow caves between 1125 and 1250 by the Sinagua people. Sinagua is a Spanish word for “without water,” and was given to these people as a tribute to their ability to turn a relatively dry region into a homeland. The dwellings were occupied for a little more than 100 years, and remained undisturbed for more than six centuries, until the railroad carried souvenir hunters to the site in the 1880s. Theft and destruction prompted local efforts to preserve the canyon and soon drew national support. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson, using his authority under the Antiquities Act, declared the canyon a national monument.
The Sinagua people left no written history when they migrated away from the area, so archeologists and anthropologists have had to reconstruct their culture by examining objects such as ceramic fragments, tools, ornaments, and building remains. It is thought that the Sinagua were farmers, and that they cultivated drought-resistant crops such as corn, beans, and squash on the relatively flat canyon rims and along terraces and small rock check dams. They also hunted deer, bighorn sheep, and smaller animals.
The homes they built were situated on cliffsides facing south and east to take advantage of warmth and sunlight. A few sites faced north and west, and may have been occupied during the warmer months. It is believed that the women built the homes, forming walls from limestone rocks, shaping them roughly, and then cementing them together with a gold-colored clay. They used wood beams to reinforce doorways, and finished the walls with clay plaster.
After taking in the panoramic view of the canyon from the visitor center, we embarked on the Island Trail, a nearly 1-mile-long loop that passes 25 cliff dwelling rooms and traverses several plant-life zones. We stepped inside several dwellings and tried to imagine living in them more than 800 years ago. Collecting water from the creek that flowed through the gorge must have been a considerable effort, especially considering the rugged terrain. The 185-foot climb back to the canyon rim (elevation 7,00 feet) was a challenge in and of itself, and that was on a paved walkway!
A few things we learned along the way are worth sharing:
- Parents of small children shouldn’t be upset if the kids don’t take easily to climbing 240 steps.
- When relying on GPS for directions, it’s good to have situational awareness—sometimes the situation on the ground changes.
- It is possible to respond to emails in an 800-year-old cliff dwelling, but not advisable.