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Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona

(NPS Photo) Aerial view of walnut-shaped canyon

Ancient cliff dwellings line the steep, terraced walls of Arizona's Walnut Canyon where people of the ancient Sinagua culture built more than 300 rooms into sheltered alcoves on ledges high above the canyon's floor. Stone tools and implements found here suggest that people sporadically moved through this wooded land near present day Flagstaff as early as 2500 B.C., but the people called “Sinagua” by archeologists were the first to settle here. Their settlements flourished for about 150 years, from 1150 to 1300 until, it is believed, demands of a growing populace and diminished natural resources forced them to walk away from Walnut Canyon.

The cliff dwellings went unnoticed for close to 600 years until westward expansion and a fascination with American Indian artifacts brought surveyors and explorers into the region. J. W. Stevenson led the first expedition into Walnut Canyon in 1883; soon after, the site became a destination for tourists and relic hunters. Looters destroyed entire cliff dwelling walls and floors to get to artifacts. Alarmed by the vandalism and destruction of the irreplaceable vestiges of the Sinagua culture, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Walnut Canyon a national monument in 1915 to preserve “certain prehistoric ruins of ancient cliff dwellings of great ethnologic, scientific, and educational interest” (Proc. No. 1318), citing authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906.

The Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology sponsored the first professional studies of the ruins at Walnut Canyon in the early 1920s. University of Pennsylvania professor Herald S. Colton led the excavation of a cliff dwelling on the Island Trail in 1932. The work culminated with the stabilization of two rooms. Analysis of pottery found at Walnut Canyon indicated a trade network with other regional cultural traditions, including the Kayenta, Winslow Anasazi, Cohonina, Mogollon, and Hohokam.

Today, visitors can walk the self-guided Island Trail, descending 185 feet into the canyon, to 25 cliff dwelling rooms and a view of 100 more. The less strenuous Rim Trail follows the canyon's edge to overlooks, a small pueblo, and a pithouse. At the visitor center, exhibits feature building styles, farming techniques, native plant species, stone tools, ceramics, and other aspects of everyday life 800 years ago.

The rugged landscape, seasonal availability of water and vegetation harbor a rich variety of wildlife, including elk, mountain lion, black bear and pronghorn antelope who share Walnut Canyon National Monument's 3,579 acres with coyotes, mule deer, and a variety of reptiles and other small mammals. The steep terrain and secluded gorges of the canyon are home to hawks, owls, and rare bird species, such as the peregrine falcon and northern goshawk. More than 125,000 visitors come annually to Walnut Canyon.

In 2004 and 2005, visitors to Walnut Canyon responded to the question, “In your opinion, what is the national significance of this park?” with the following comments:

  • “A wonderful microcosm of early Native American culture. Particularly enjoyable also because of the unique landscape/ecology. We really enjoyed this small gem of a park. Well worth preserving and protecting. ”
  • “It gives visitors a wonderful look into the past lives of the native people of Arizona. Its value is priceless.”
  • “Important because it speaks without words of who we are.”
  • “It shows our desire as citizens to preserve and study the past for the benefit of our descendants in the future.”


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