First things first – IT’S INSANELY WINDY. You truly have no idea what’s about to hit you when you park, then walk to the front doors of the visiting center. It’s not windy at all up there. However, as soon as you exit the doors to the outside 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, high school gym, 50-pound fan. Weirdest part? It only happens at the rim. Not above it and not below it.
Also, please be aware, there are A LOT of stairs leading to the bottom, and to the bottom you must go (also means that you must climb back up these same stairs). At the bottom 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 the steep cliffs jutting out on the sides. Knee-shakingly high, these are totally off-limits to visitors.
Located within the Coconino National Forest, at 3 Walnut Canyon Rd, Flagstaff, AZ, it’s 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 (Grand Canyon National Park (it’s really grand).). The canyon rim is steep, with an elevation of around 6,690 feet (2,040m), making it all the more incredible that the Sinagua were able to make it their home. There’s approximately 25 cliff dwellings constructed up in the cliffs (please see below for a close-up example).
It was formally declared a National Monument in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson. He did this to ensure that it’d be fully preserved. It was then placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. While it’s not clear when the Sinagua first settled here, it’s 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. They left over 80 total cliff dwellings behind, some deep within the canyon, sometime between 1125 and 1250. Archeologists believe that each dwelling would’ve be equivalent to “one room”, with one for each family.
There are only two trails within the monument, as they want to preserve the area. The main trail is the Island Trail, which is only one mile long and wraps around in a loop. While this is an easy, paved trail, it’s a bit too thin for my liking 😬. I understand that the Arizona Park Service had to work with what they got, but just be extra aware, some parts are thin. People will come from the opposite way, so you have to 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, some which are off limits, and some you can walk into and explore. Some even have burn marks still on the walls and ceilings (not sure if these burn markings are from the Sinagua or if they’re a newer addition). If this isn’t enough and you’re in the mood for even more dwellings built courtesy of the Sinagua people, you can find those at both Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle National Monuments (Montezuma Castle National Monument: “It’s not a castle and Montezuma never lived there.”), which are both relatively close.
They only other trail at this monument is called the Rim Trail. It goes around a small portion of the rim and is only 0.7 miles. You don’t go down into the canyon and there are no stairs. It’s a very mild trail, with the main point of interest being the outlook point, which offers a magnificent view into Walnut Canyon. It’s also extremely windy up here too, and while I was trying to take a selfie, I was terrified that my phone would be blown out of my hand. 🤪
Overall, if you’re ever visiting Arizona (especially northern AZ) or perhaps driving through on I-40, please take some time to visit this cool, ancient, beautiful, and extraordinarily windy National Monument. There is so much history and natural beauty here, it’d really be a shame to miss it! 🌲🤙🏼