Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Installment Whatever of the Travelogue: Walnut Canyon National Monument.

After spending the night in Flagstaff, the trek continued. Checked out of the motel, got on to I-40, and then three miles down the road got off I-40. Walnut Canyon has to be one of the easiest parks in the National Parks system to visit: conveniently close to Flagstaff and with a dedicated freeway exit.
Walnut Canyon was popular with tourists long before it was designated as a national monument. Its numerous cliff dwellings began attracting visitors in the 19th century. Many of the ancient cave dwellings were vandalized and graves desecrated as pot hunters and tourists roamed through the canyon looking for souvenirs or anything that might be salable to collectors. Concern about ongoing vandalism and looting led to President Wilson designating Walnut Canyon a National Monument in 1915. The site was managed by the U.S. Forest Service. In the 1930s, the Forest Service requested that management of Walnut Canyon be transferred to the National Park Service, probably because preservation of archeological resources was a better fit with the NPS's overall mission.

Following establishment of the the Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC workers developed the Island Trail, a trail that includes multiple flights of stairs and allows visitors to walk down into the canyon and see the cliff dwellings from a closer perspective. It's not a particularly difficult trail, but, wow, after a while you start to hope you've seen that last flight of stairs. And then it hits you -- all those stairs you've come down require you going back up eventually. Anyone with bad knees or a weak heart should probably limit their views of the cliff dwellings to what they can see from the rim.
 One of the more amusing things I overheard on our visit was a woman talking about how she had been to Walnut Canyon about 20 years earlier and at that time the paved trail, concrete steps, and metal hand railings did not exist. She swore it was all dirt and that they'd had to scramble up and down the cliffs. I'm not sure where she'd actually been, but it wasn't Walnut Canyon. The CCC spent four years working in the Monument: they built a visitor center (still extant, but kind of hiding as a more recent addition masks much of the original building), the Island Trail with its 240 steps, and made other improvements. The asphalt in the above photo may be fairly recently, but the stone retaining wall was the CCC.

Walnut Canyon was occupied at about the same time as the pueblos at Wupatki, from about 1100 to about 800 years ago. Scholars have dubbed the peoples living there as being part of Singua culture, Native Americans who were able to practice farming with very little water, and whose culture spread across a fairly large area in northern Arizona. The cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon aren't the spectacular pueblos you see at places like Mesa Verde. They're more typically single family dwellings, one or two rooms that take advantage of a shallow cave or overhang and are the equivalent of one story in height. I heard other visitors speculating about how the people got around when they were basically living on the sides of a cliffs, but if you look carefully, the cliffs are naturally terraced (there are more or less level areas in front of every dwelling, even if it's not always very wide) and you can also see natural routes up and down between the various levels. Eight hundred years of weather and revegetation can make it hard to visualize, but not impossible.

On the day we were there, recent snow meant that part of the Island Trail was closed for safety reasons. The trail normally makes a loop, but thanks to the ice on the shady side of the "island" visitors had to backtrack. In addition to the Island Trail, visitors who want to see more of the monument can sign up for a ranger-guided hike that goes along the terraces in the canyon and gives them a glimpse of the cliff dwellings not normally accessible to the public.

The park was surprisingly busy when we stopped. The parking lot was close to full, and there was a steady stream of visitors going up and down the Island Trail. Lots of families, and once again I was moderately amazed by the numbers of parents who didn't seem particularly concerned about letting kids run on a trail that had some fairly impressive drop-offs. But, as we all know, it's human nature to think that bad stuff only happens to other people's families.

There is a rim trail that's handicap accessible and has two nice overlooks of the canyon. There's also a picnic area that on the day we were there came complete with ravens. But then ravens were everywhere -- Grand Canyon, Wupatki, Petrified Forest, you name it. They were the one form of wildlife we were guaranteed seeing no matter where we went.

1 comment:

  1. Stunning. I would love to learn more about the cultures of the cliff dwellers and their disappearance. Books to recommend?


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