Walnut Canyon National Monument


Overview | Climate/ Map |Things To Do | Camping/ Lodging | Nearby


Ancient Farmer Walnut Canyon

Native Peoples

Harold Sellers Colton, who gave the Sinagua the name by which we know them, began the first archaeological survey of Walnut Canyon in 1921. In 1928 the Museum of Northern Arizona was founded as a community effort by a group of Flagstaff citizens and Dr. Harold S. Colton and Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton. In 1932, Colton and colleague Lyndon Hargrave finished the first excavation and restoration of a Walnut Canyon ruin.

Between 1932 and the present, archaeologists conducted numerous studies at the monument. They have completely surveyed both the north and south canyon rims and most of the canyon itself. The archaeological data of the Sinagua include cliff dwellings, pueblos, field houses, pithouses, a community room, fortifications, petroglyphs and extensive artifact scatters, in spite of the fact that extensive looting occurred for more than half a century. Walnut Canyon has approximately 500 recorded archaeological sites.

The oldest artifact discovered at Walnut Canyon is a projectile point dated to 8,000 years ago, a remnant left by hunters and gatherers of the Pinto culture. But it is the Sinagua who were the primary residents of this area between their arrival about 500 and migrating from the area by 1300 AD. These ancient dry farmers are identified by a number of traits including the use of a pottery called Alameda Brown Ware.

Along the rims of Walnut Canyon, evidence of Sinagua farming devices such as check dams are preserved. They are frequent and intact enough to provide the best archaeological evidence of these features in the Flagstaff area. These cultural resources hold nationally significant value for scientific assessment of the prehistoric Sinagua settlement and land-use patterns.

For reasons unknown, the Sinagua abandoned the Walnut Canyon area between 900 and 1100 AD, then returned to build most of the cliff dwellings and occupy the area for the next 200 years. A similar pattern at Wupatki is explained by the eruption of the Sunset Crater volcano.

Sinagua cliff dwellings Walnut canyon
Sinagua cliff dwellings

Exploration & Settlement

By the early 1880s, before Smithsonian Institution scientists "discovered the ruins of Walnut Canyon in 1883, the Sinagua cliff dwellings had become a popular local destination for picnics, club outings and treasure hunting.

Trail Walnut Canyon
The Island Trail

John Wesley Powell navigated the Grand Canyon in 1869. Powell later became head of the U.S. Geological Survey and, together with James Stevenson, visited the Walnut Canyon area in in 1885. They were joined by lumber magnate Michael Riordan, who was recuperating from tuberculosis in nearby Flagstaff.

Riordan was probably the best known and most publicized of those pothunters who explored the ruins and removed artifacts over the next 25 years. But as early as 1891, local citizens became alarmed at the scale of looting and destruction of ruins, which occasionally involved dynamiting walls and rooms to allow for more light.

The Chamber of Commerce, recognizing the tourist value of the ruins, denounced the mutilation of the cliff dwellings in 1891, but no formal steps were taken to protect the ruins until they became part of the San Francisco Mountain Forest Preserve in 1904. Administered by the Bureau of Forestry (later the U.S. Forest Service) an aging Civil War veteran, William Henry Pierce, was placed at Walnut Canyon and named ranger in charge of the area.

Park History

The campaign to make Walnut Creek a national monument began as a grass roots movement about 1910. After the successful circulation of a petition by local concerned citizens including the Daughters of the American Revolution and Father Vabre, Presidential Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the ruins a national monument November 30, 1915.

Although most national monuments were transfered from the U.S. Forest Service to the National Park Service in 1916 (thus affording them greater care and protection), looting of Walnut Canyon ruins continued until it was finally transferred in 1934.   The monument was expanded in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt, increasing visitor services. A second expansion in 1994 protected resources and extended the boundaries to their current 3600 acres.

Natural History

Plants & Animals

Walnut Canyon lies in an ecozone between the Montane forests along the crest of the Mogollon Rim Plateau and the desert regions of the Little Colorado Valley. Ponderosa pine forests are dominant to the west and south and overlap with the pinyon/juniper woodlands to the east and north. Micro-environments, created by the meandering course of the canyon, made Walnut Canyon unique from its surroundings and offered a rich habitat for plants and animals -- thereby attracting the ancient peoples to utilize the diverse resources found here.


The 400-foot-deep Walnut Canyon meanders through Permian-age Kalbab limestone and Toroweap sandstone formations to the Mogollon Rim Plateau, then northeast toward the Little Colorado River. Very little water runs in Walnut Creek anymore, because it is held back in Lake Mary, which provides water for the city of Flagstaff.

The Sinagua built their cliff dwellings in the low-ceilinged alcoves of the lower portion of Kaibab limestone, which surfaces most of the Coconino Plateau and and rims both the Grand Canyon and Walnut Canyon. Below these thick, resistant ledges of limestone, sandstones of the Toroweap Formation occur near the canyon bottom. Both these formations were deposited near the shores of the ancient Kaibab Sea about 275 million years ago.

The Kaibab limestone here contains significant amounts of dolomoite, which differs from limestone because it contains magnesium in addition to calcium carbonate. Along the trails to ruins, fossils occur in the Kaibab Formation, including snails, clams and a plump brachiopod called Dictyoclostus.

Overview | Climate/ Map | Things To Do | Camping/ Lodging | Nearby



Related DesertUSA Pages



Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms


Enter Email:


Home | About | Contact Us | Feedback | Privacy | Site Outline | Advertising on DesertUSA | Aquis Towels | Hotels

Copyright © 1996- DesertUSA.com and Digital West Media, Inc. - -