Ruth and I planned to return to Walnut Canyon near Flagstaff on February 25, 2019. We made it there but could not do all that we planned because a massive snowstorm the previous day closed most of its trails or made them treacherous. The deep snow in Flagstaff was a record amount, 40 inches. Walnut Canyon, which is 10 miles east of downtown Flagstaff, was similarly affected. However, the staff had done a good job of clearing the road, and the rangers were very attentive to the few visitors. The snow covering made is easier to understand the hardships faced by the Sinagua people.
Walnut Canyon was a pretty perfect environment for native people. The Sinagua came after thousands of years of seasonal habitation by archaic peoples, but the Sinagua were year-round dwellers in the canyon, where they lived for just a little more than 100 years. No one knows why they left. Some experts assume they were simply absorbed into the larger Hopi culture. They moved into Walnut Canyon, now a National Monument, about 1,400 years ago. Their name, the Spanish word for “without water”, became a tribute to these residents ability to turn a dry region into a bountiful homeland as I looked around. They farmed on the canyon’s top growing the usual corn, squash, and beans at 7,000 feet above sea level. Below their fields were one-room pit houses facing south where they lived. Most of the time water coursed through the canyon’s bottom, but it was far below and often raging like in Zion National Park. More than 20 species of plants were nearby for gathering. They ate wild grapes, yucca, and the Arizona black walnut. Evidence of hunting, pottery making, and trading remained all around what became an archaeological site. Turquoise, feathers, and bits of seashells were found.
However, this canyon was extensively looted by early settlers long before Arizona became a state. Cliff dwellings became party places. Artifact hunters even dynamited walls to let in more light. Visitors on non-snowy days can take 2 trails from the excellent Visitor Center,. Called Rim and Island, they let visitors see what’s left because they pass cliff dwelling rooms. Both trails were closed the day we were there due to sheer drops, snow piles, and 240 icy steps. The Visitor Center from which a lot of what is below can be clearly seen mostly focuses on 100 years of research and super watercolor paintings of Walnut Canyon. The “Ancient Times” newspaper-like handout I read later called the trails strenuous and said that one ledge path required 1½ hours to complete. It was better, therefore, and far more weirdly scenic to enjoy the snow and skip trails that we had hiked on a previous visit.