The Remarkable Cliff City of Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon National Monument

by Joe Zentner

Although northern Arizona’s Walnut Canyon National Monument is an important and intensely interesting prehistoric farming village ruin dating to the Southwest’s Puebloan tradition, it is one of the national park system’s lesser-known major archaeological sites.

Its cliff dwellings – built during the Northern Sinagua period (eight to nine centuries ago) – are situated on the sides of a steep “island” in the canyon and on ledges along the canyon walls. The dwellings encircling the island were built in the upper parts of the sheer cliffs, beneath overhanging rock ledges. A side-canyon, leading in from the north and nearly on the level of the cliff dwellings, gave access to these prehistoric homes.

Cliff dwelling in shallow caves

The cliff dwellings overlook Walnut Creek, which issued from the forest south of today’s Flagstaff, Arizona. It tumbled over the rock formation now known as the Kaibab limestone, down into the Toroweap sandstone to a horseshoe bend, looping back to almost meet itself at the open end of the horseshoe. The island is the center of the horseshoe.

Early People

Before the 12th century, the Sinagua made only light use of the Walnut Canyon area. It wasn’t until around A. D. 1120 that they settled the canyon in strength, undoubtedly attracted by the reliable stream and arable land during a time of drought and climatic uncertainty throughout the Southwestern region. (This is still dry country. Indeed, the very term “Sinagua” – “without water” in Spanish – evolved from the Spanish name for the region, Sierra Sin Agua, or “waterless mountains.” A drink from the water fountain at the Walnut Canyon National Monument Visitor Center has to be pumped from a well 2,000 feet deep.)

Sinaguan artifacts

The Sinagua, who took their cultural cues from Puebloan traditions across the Southwest, built more than 80 dwellings within the canyon and occupied both rims. Most of the cliff sites, which housed several hundred people, cluster on two main ledges scoured from softer layers of limestone. These masonry rooms are strung end to end along the canyon walls, situated to take advantage of the natural shelter provided by recesses in the cliffs. While masonry walls formed three sides of a dwelling, the natural overhang served as a roof; the rock ledge, as a floor; and the back of the recess, as the room’s fourth wall.

The finished rooms were small by modern standards, averaging 80 square feet, but they must have seemed elegant to the Sinagua. Although most of their daily activities took place outside, the people had enough space within the rooms to lie down, store a few things and cook a meal, sheltered from rains, snow and icy winds. They could capitalize on the warmth of the sun in winter because they built their homes on south-facing cliffs, where solar rays would strike the structures for the greater part of a day. The winter sun was so important that they usually avoided building at sites with northern exposures – and cold winter shade – even if a good source of water was located nearby.

View inside a prehistoric rock house

While the Sinagua were, in effect, Stone Age people, they were, at the same time, expert in farming, which yielded their principal sources of food. Each day the village farmers climbed the arduous trail to the canyon’s rim. In small natural clearings among the junipers on the northeast rim of the canyon, they found plenty of arable soil, which they cultivated with digging sticks and stone-bladed hoes. They grew corn, beans, squash and sunflowers. They probably also domesticated wild turkeys, helping assure themselves a steady supply of meat.

Additionally, they harvested wild plants such as the snowberry, serviceberry, currant and elderberry, and true to their ancestral nomadic roots, they hunted the wild game of the area, which abounded with elk, deer, antelope, bear, porcupine and birds.

Like the peoples of the other Puebloan traditions, the Sinagua carried on commerce with distant neighbors, trading surplus animal skins and foodstuffs for salt, cotton, stone axes, pottery, turquoise and seashells. The shells, valued for their use in jewelry, were carried to Walnut Canyon all the way from the Pacific Coast.

Like their cultural kin, the dwellers of Walnut Canyon utilized music in ceremony and dance. The earliest scientific examination of the ruins revealed the presence of flageolets, small wind instruments that produced haunting melodies.

After less than a century, the Sinagua began walking away from their homes in Walnut Canyon, probably leaving by family groups over time, not by mass migration all at once. By A. D. 1225, they were all gone. They may have abandoned the region as a result of the prolonged drought, exhausted resources, disease, enemy raiders, discredited religious leaders, bad “signs,” greener pastures or none or some or all of the above. No one knows for sure. It is known, however, that neighboring regions were also being abandoned during the same time period. The Sinagua probably migrated east and south, coalescing with larger villages, near dependable water sources.

Modern Times

Nearly 600 years rolled by after the last lingering note of a flageolet drifted down Walnut Canyon. In all that time, no Spanish or American explorer ever mentioned the area. Then, in 1883, a Smithsonian Institution archaeologist, James Stevenson, arrived on the scene. His reports about Walnut Canyon attracted both scholarly and public attention. Even so, knowledge of Walnut Canyon's archaeological remains didn’t become widespread until tracks for a transcontinental railroad were laid nearby in the mid-1880s, bringing an increased population to the area.

Unfortunately, Walnut Canyon fared better when it was unknown than it did in the decades following Stevenson’s discovery, for it would became the subject of a favorite Sunday pastime for people from Flagstaff. They loaded up their buggies with lunch baskets, beer and shovels and headed out to the canyon to hunt artifacts. Sadly, with their shovels, the scavengers, both amateur and commercial, enjoyed a Roman holiday at the cost of the archaeological record.

One early scavenger, R. T. Cross, reported in the local newspaper that, “In one of the first dwellings we visited, we struck a bonanza and came away heavily laden.” Among the artifacts she found, she said, were arrows, cloth, a child’s sandal and a fishing line—a Sunday digger’s novelties but an archaeologist’s treasure trove.

To try and stop widespread looting, the U. S. Forest Service in 1904 hired William H. Pierce as Walnut Canyon’s first ranger. There are mixed reports about his effectiveness. While he instructed visitors not to dig in the ruins, his wife sold artifacts to tourists from a curio shop located next door to the ranger cabin.

Looting of the cliff dwellings took a serious turn for the worse when scavengers began dynamiting the walls to let in more light to illuminate their plundering. Eventually, concerned citizens began calling for some kind of protective action.

At last, in 1915, the federal government finally mounted a serious effort to protect Walnut Canyon by making it a National Monument. By that time, however, little remained that was worth stealing. Walnut Canyon has been called a “monument to vandalism.” Comprehensive enforcement efforts did not begin until 1933.

For all that, Walnut Canyon remains a rewarding place to visit.

What to See and Do

The entrance road to Walnut Canyon National Monument is a three-mile-long highway that connects with Interstate 40, seven miles east of Flagstaff. Your first stop should be at the Visitor Center, where National Park Service employees will answer your questions. The Visitor Center offers interpretive exhibits that cover the canyon’s geologic and human history and explain how the Sinagua farmed, hunted and traded. A botanical case, a tree-ring dating display, and an A. D. 1150 to 1250 cliff dwelling diorama are also of interest.

From the rear of the exhibit room, rock steps lead to an easily negotiated ledge. Encircling a jutting, chaparral-grown peninsula around which the canyon loops in a hairpin curve, this ledge trail leads to 30 of the best preserved – or, more accurately, least destroyed – ruins. The trail also provides a distant view of approximately 100 more ruins on the opposite wall of the canyon.

The imperishability of ancient fire-hearth soot is attested to by the greasy black coating that still covers the interior of the dwellings. Although I used utmost care in exploring the rooms, my headgear emerged carrying plenty of evidence of contact with the low ceilings.

On the trail, visitors walk through a floral life zone that includes such plants as ponderosa pine, juniper and Douglas fir. A few minutes later, at a lower elevation, you find yourself in an altogether different life zone, where cactus and yucca predominate. The black walnut tree, from which the canyon takes its name, grows in soil pockets of the canyon walls. The trail loop from the Visitor Center through the canyon is three-quarters of a mile long. It involves a steep 200-foot ascent at an elevation of 7,000 feet.

Indian cliff dwellings inevitably fascinate. They are invested with an irresistible charm, for here in the well-defined space in a stony recess, a person can imagine getting close to the aborigines, to enter into greater understanding of their interests, and a greater sympathy with their lives.

Walnut Canyon National Monument is open year-round except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. The hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the week. For more information contact: Superintendent, Walnut Canyon National Monument, Walnut Canyon Road, Flagstaff, Arizona 86004 (Phone 1-928-526-3367 or FAX 1-928-527-4259).

Flagstaff Hotels/Motels

There are hotels and motels in Flagstaff, with something for every taste and price range. For more information and a complete list, click here. (Rates, availability and reservations online.)

Joe Zentner is a retired professor and a freelance writer who has photographed archaeological sites throughout the Southwest. He lives in Cary, North Carolina.


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