"Back to the Stone Age" Walnut Canyon National Monument by Jonathan_C
Walnut Canyon National Monument Travel Guide: 27 reviews and 83 photos
When you visit Walnut Canyon National Monument you will be travelling back over 800 years to a stone age life where families lived in primitive dwellings underneath overhanging cliffs. These cliff dwellings, built between 1125 and 1250, were homes for the same Sinaguan Indians that built the lovely pueblos at Tuzigoot, Montezuma Castle and Wupatki. The difference is striking and it is difficult to imagine why some would choose this lifestyle over life in the pueblos.
Much has been made of the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater in 1064-1065. Early theories suggested that volcanic ash increased soil fertility and moisture retention throughout the region, encouraging migration into the area around Flagstaff, including Walnut Canyon. More recent findings attribute the Sinaguan cultural flowering to increased rainfall and new farming practices.
I have my own theory about why some chose to hide out in cliff dwellings. Perhaps the people who lived here, like Asterix and Obelix's Gauls, were afraid of 'the sky falling on their heads'. With a volcanic eruption as part of their living history, wouldn't you have slept better with several feet of overhaning rock to protect you?
That's the joy of visiting a place like this -- there's lots of room to use your imagination.
The canyon itself is a little hotspot of biodiversity. This is undoubtedly part of what attracted the first inhabitants to this steep canyon and what can keep any naturalists among you here for hours. Plant communities range from Upper Sonoran desert with yucca and prickly pear cactus to Pacific Northwest forest with shade tolerant shrubs and Douglas fir. (Or so says the brochure. It didn't look like home to me!) At the bottom of the canyon, of course, is the lifegiving riparian zone which includes the Arizona black walnut for which the canyon was named.
Those visitors that paid attention to the geology lessons at the Grand Canyon will also recognize layers of Kaibab limestone resting on top of Coconino sandstone.
If you go for a brief walk on the rim trail you will see something that should give you pause. Many of the pine trees here are dead or dying, many more have already been removed. In their place you will find yucca and prickly pear. The mixed conifer forests on the rim are reverting to Pinyon/Juniper or even all the way back to Upper Sonoran desert plant communities.
Arizona is in the midst of a severe long term drought -- the worst in 500 years according to some. Yucca growing over tree stumps somehow places the problem squarely before you in a way that defies an engineering solution. Of all the theories about Sinaguan migrations, mine included, the most convincing are those that revolve around devastating long term drought. Periodic drought is the history of Arizona and has been for millennia. On your visit to Walnut Canyon you should ponder what that would have meant for the early Sinaguans ... and what it may mean for modern day Arizonans if the rains stay away.
You can pick up booklets about the Sinagua people and Walnut Canyon in the Visitor's Center but they will pale in... more travel advice
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