Walnut Canyon National Monument
Like Homol’ovi, Walnut Canyon tells another part of the great migration stories of the peoples who lived in the Southwest in the 11th – 15th centuries. Following the volcanic eruption that created Sunset Crater in the mid-11th century, groups of people settled in the Flagstaff region, likely enticed to pause in their migration journeys by the superior water-retaining capabilities of the volcanic pumice mixed into the native soil. In Walnut Canyon, the Sinagua – as early archaeologists referred to the people whom they theorized lived “without water” – found ready-made shelters in the eroded limestone alcoves of the walls and began to construct cliff dwellings surrounding a sharp bend in the creek bed where they could gain passive heating and cooling as necessary from the sunny and dark sides of the canyon.
The differences in temperature created by the direct sunlight on one side and the lack of light on the other also resulted in a much greater diversity of plant life than could be found elsewhere, providing settlers with increased variety of food sources and natural materials to create fibers and ornaments. On the canyon rim the Sinagua found rich soil that could be used to farm corn, beans, and squash, in addition to plentiful game and abundant trees that were used for construction and firewood. Pueblos were constructed here too in the form of above-ground room blocks and pithouses though the comfortable cliff dwellings below the rim must have been prized for their temperature control, greater protection from the weather, and for passive defense abilities.
Many rooms built into the cliffs required little to no excavation and provided leak-proof ceilings, a floor, a back wall, and an overhang that provided shade and channeling of precipitation away from the ledges. In fact, many were created by merely stacking limestone blocks across the front of the opening and between rooms and then cementing them with mortar. Interiors were most often plastered on the inside for heat retention and on the exterior as a buffer layer against precipitation.
Because of the superior protection of the overhangs, the cliff dwellings remain in remarkable condition, even despite widespread looting in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. It was fascinating to see how the varieties of alcoves had been transformed for use as well as evidence of their modification as the residents’ needs changed over time. Contrary to expectations however, most of the rooms I viewed were not used for habitation but for storage, primarily for water. Availability of water was limited to the perennial Walnut Creek on the canyon floor below and from snowfall; inhabitants religiously stockpiled large pots and jars of water when possible in order to provide drinking, cooking, and irrigation water over the summer and fall months.
Some of the cliff dwellings can be viewed across the canyon from the rim, but the best way to see them is to walk the 1 mile Island Trail, which descends halfway down to the floor and then encircles the peninsula located at the bend in the canyon. Walking along the length of the ledge provides access to approximately 25 rooms, some of which may be entered and explored at your
leisure. Along the top of the canyon rim is the three-quarter mile Rim Trail, which crosses the land farmed by the inhabitants of Walnut Canyon and also provides access to two surface pueblos.
By 1250 AD the people of Walnut Canyon moved on, it is believed to Anderson Mesa to the southeast where they adapted to a new environment. Eventually they were assimilated into the burgeoning Hopi culture. Evidence of many of their remarkable achievements and rich culture remain however in the standing cliff dwellings and pueblos as well as the tools, pottery, and ornaments left behind.