So to start off, I’m going to tell everyone something about this place that nobody told us: IT’S INSANELY WINDY. You really have nooo clue what is about to hit you as you park and walk to the front doors of the entrance/visiting center. It’s not windy at all up there. Not even a little bit. However, as soon as you exit the doors to the area that begins the long descent down the stairs and into the canyon, you are hit in the face with Mother Nature’s equivalent to a giant industrial 50-pound school gym fan. The oddest part of it all? It only happens at the rim. Not above it. Not below it.
Another FYI about this place – there are A LOT of stairs leading to the bottom, and to the bottom you must go. This means that you must climb back UP these same stairs. This is where all the accessible ancient cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people are located. It’s quite remarkable because not only are these cliff dwellings located along the edge of the commercialized walking path, but also along steep cliffs that jut out to the side, totally off-limits to visitors, and knee-shakingly high. I have an immense fear of heights; however, these cliff dwellings were ridiculously high and I’m at a loss for how the Sinagua people came to and from them. Protection wise it makes perfect sense, but you definitely couldn’t have a fear of heights in those days.
Located within the Coconino National Forest, at 3 Walnut Canyon Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, it is open daily from 9am to 4:30pm. It’s around 10 miles southeast of downtown Flagstaff and about a 1-hour, 20-minute drive from the Grand Canyon. The canyon rim is steep, with an elevation of around 6,690 feet (2,040m), making it all the more awe-inspiring that the ancient Native American’s were able to make it their home. There are approximately 25 cliff dwelling rooms constructed by the Sinagua people up in the cliffs.
It was formally declared a National Monument in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson. He did so as this was the main way to ensure that they’d be preserved. It was finally listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. While it’s not clear when the Sinagua first settled here, it is believed that they suddenly and mysteriously left around 1250 A.D. It’s hypothesized that this was due to their fear of neighboring tribes or continuous droughts, but of course, it will never be certainly known. They left over 80 total cliff dwellings behind. They built these cliff dwellings into ledges and deep within the canyon, sometime between 1125 and 1250. They believe that each dwelling would’ve be equivalent to “one room”, with one for each family.
There are not many trails here, as it would be a dangerous hike. The main trail is the Island Trail, which is only one mile long and wraps around in a loop. While this is a rather mundane trail (no rocky parts or climbing), it’s a tad bit too thin for my liking. I completely understand that the Arizona Park Service had to work with what they got, but just be extra aware. People come from the opposite way, so you have to kind of squeeze into the wall to fit semi-comfortably and not feel like you’re about to turn into a Sugar Glider sailing to your death.
All along the loop are cliff dwellings aka pueblos, some which are off limits, and some you can walk right into, explore, and hang out in. Some even have burn marks still on the walls and ceilings. I’m unsure if these burn markings are as old as the Sinagua or if they are a newer addition. Of course, all artifacts have likely already been discovered and removed from these ancient homes. Also, if you’re in the mood for even more dwellings built courtesy of the Sinagua people, those can be found at the Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle National Monuments (Montezuma Castle National Monument: “It’s not a castle and Montezuma never lived there.”), both of which are relatively close.
There is one other trail at this monument, called the Rim Trail. This trail goes around a small portion of the rim of Walnut Canyon. It is only 0.7 miles and just along the top; you don’t actually go inside the canyon and there are no stairs. This is a very mild trail and the main point of interest is the outlook point, down into Walnut Canyon. It is also extremely windy up here too, and while I was trying to take a selfie (my friend had tuckered out and didn’t want to come to the lookout point with me), I was terrified that my phone would be blown out of my hand. This was not a stupid, risking-life type selfie; I was on the proper side of the railing, just throwing that out there. It was just really, really, REALLY windy and I could see the wind taking my phone like a balloon.
Overall, if you’re ever in Northern Arizona visiting Flagstaff or the Grand Canyon, or perhaps driving through on I-40, please take some time to visit this cool, historical, stunning, and extraordinarily windy National Monument. There is so much history and natural beauty here, it’d be a shame to miss it! 🌲🤙🏼