The Rim Trail ~ Walnut Canyon National Monument
When touring the Grand Canyon or Petrified Forest National Parks in Arizona, there are several other National Monuments in this region that should also be ventured into. Most of the National Monuments in this end of Arizona are ancient native heritage sites. Visiting the ancient pueblos and sacred ancestral places can open up the eyes and a lot can be learned about the people that have always lived here. By visiting the ancient heritage sites that are protected by National Monument status, a tourist can step into a timeless world and separate themselves from all the baggage that is weighing them down. It is easy to dream in these places and gaining a new perspective on life is often the reward.
Other than on a local level, Walnut Canyon National Monument is a place that most tourists have not heard of. Much of this is due to the nearby Grand Canyon National Park being in the spotlight of just about every tourism agency in this region. For example, when traveling on the highways anywhere close to Flagstaff or Williams, all that one sees is roadside billboard ads for Grand Canyon adventures, while relatively little is advertised about the five National Monuments that are also nearby. In a way, this is a good thing, because this means that overcrowding will not be a problem at the local National Monuments. For those who seek an opportunity to escape from the big crowds for just one day, this is like music to the ears!
The access road to Walnut Canyon National Monument is just a few miles east of Flagstaff and the historic Route 66 Winona freeway sign is the one to look for. Walnut Canyon was once a Route 66 attraction of sorts back in the old days and it still is in modern times, but this ancient place was far more popular back in the late 1800s when the west was still wild for all the wrong reasons.
Shortly after the wild west was settled and the railroad came through, all sorts of dubious people started heading west to make money the easy way. Treasure hunting for ancient native relics became a pastime on a local level, because the fat cats back east were willing to pay high prices for ancient artifacts. As a result, countless numbers of ancient pueblos were ravaged by the local pillagers and the ancient heritage sites at Walnut Canyon were a prime target for looters. The ancient cliff dwelling pueblos were torn apart and left in shambles just like so many others, so something had to be done to defend these sacred native places. Enacting National Monument status for the ancient heritage sites brought them under Federal Government protection. Walnut Canyon became a National Monument in 1915 and the integrity of the remaining ancient pueblo structures have pretty much been unchanged ever since.
Walnut Canyon National Monument is not a large place, so it only takes about one day to explore the entire site. When paying admission at the entrance gate, a park brochure and map are provided. The map covers the two separate foot trails and the points of interest are highlighted. Parking can be found next to the visitors center, which is where both of the trailheads are located.
The Walnut Canyon Visitors Center is the best place to start a tour, because this facility is also a museum. The museum houses many interesting ancient artifacts found in Walnut Canyon that were left behind by the Sinagua People. There are exhibits that depict the complete history and timeline of the Sinagua occupation of Walnut Canyon. The information about the Sinagua culture and the dry farming techniques that they employed will provide answers for many questions that will enter the mind when taking on the foot trails.
Of the two Walnut Canyon foot trails, the Rim Trail is by far the easiest to accomplish. In fact, the tackling the Rim Trail is like taking a casual stroll in a park, because this trail is on level ground! Just like the name suggests, the Rim Trail follows the canyon rim, so the trail is on flat high ground that actually is a Ponderosa Pine forest. The entire pathway is paved, so even those who have mobility challenges can take in the scenic views.
The entire Rim Trail loop is less than a mile long, but this distance can seem like forever during the peak heat of summer. Visiting Walnut Canyon during the cooler fall and winter seasons is best, because dehydration will be less of a concern. There are park benches and picnic areas along the trail, so visitors can turn this short hike into a relaxing pleasant afternoon venture.
Along the rim trail, there are two good overlooks where some of the ancient pueblos can be seen on the other side of the canyon. The views of the maze of canyons disappearing into the horizon are definitely majestic as well. A good portion of The Island can be seen from the overlooks too. The Island is a solitary eroded mesa is where most of the ancient buildings are centered, so it is the main attraction. The Island Hiking Trail has many staircases, so it is a bit more challenging to do.
It does take a good eye to spot all of the ancient structures on the canyon walls in this National Monument. Blending in with the environment was part of the harmonious natural theme of the people that once lived here and it provided some defense. As one scans the canyon walls up and down, one will see many hidden structures or the rubble that remains. Often the actual site location on the canyon wall will provide clues as to the original purpose of the building. Some are dwellings, workshops or food storage silos. The farms were located on the flat high ground, while precious water was collected in the bottom of the ravines or from seepage springs, so one can imagine where the old footpaths must have been when looking at the canyon walls. Before long an entire way of life can be envisioned that is totally different than the daily routine from back home.
When doing the Walnut Canyon Rim Trail, it is best to bring along a strong telescope, binoculars or a telephoto camera. The distance between the opposing canyon walls and the Rim Trail viewpoints is a few hundred yards, so looking with the naked eye will reveal limited detail. The large structures do stand out clear with a binoculars and they are quite a sight to see! When gazing at the pueblos on the canyon walls, one cannot help but to think that some pretty strong legs must have been required to live in such a place, because so much climbing was involved.
As the Rim Trail starts to loop back toward the visitors center, it enters the shade of the high mesa pine forest and this is where a few more interesting ancient archaeological sites can be found. There is a well preserved ancient pit house and a pueblo along this trail that are well worth checking out. There also is an ancient site that has not been excavated, which to the untrained eye can deceptively look like an ordinary pile of rocks. The wildlife is all around in this wilderness area, so seeing some unique species of squirrels gathering pine nuts is part of the experience.
When planning a trip to Walnut Canyon, be sure to pack snacks or a picnic lunch and plenty of drinks. There are some good picnic areas in this place, but the main reason is because Walnut Canyon is located at a deceptively high elevation in an arid desert environment. Both altitude sickness and dehydration can set in quickly, so the best defense is to snack and drink plenty of water during the visit. The reason for this bit of forethought will become evident when taking on The Island Trail, which is quite a bit more strenuous than the easy going Rim Trail. More information about the Walnut Canyon Island Trail will be featured in an upcoming article.
The best way to start a tour at Walnut Canyon is to take small steps and the Rim Trail is a great choice for warming up to the task. The Rim Trail is also a great place to spend a leisurely day in the shade of the pine trees, which is not a bad idea in itself! Walnut Canyon National Monument is rarely crowded and there is plenty of elbow room. Modern amenities can be found in the city of Flagstaff next door, so there is no excuse to not get the show on the road! The Walnut Canyon National Monument definitely is well worth checking out when touring the Grand Canyon region of Arizona and it is a great destination of its own, so be sure to check it out!