This Park Nourishes Its Forest Service Roots
This park celebrates its 93rd anniversary today, but the area was first protected in 1904 as part of the San Francisco Mountain Reserve. It's not in California, however, and it was managed by the U.S. Forest Service until 1934. Now part of the national park system, its historic ties with the Forest Service continue through an effective cooperative relationship between the two agencies.
Walnut Canyon National Monument is located in northern Arizona, not far from Flagstaff, and was established on November 30, 1915, to preserve cliff dwellings built about 800 years ago. The park now protects a variety of archeological and natural resources on nearly 3600 acres.
The site takes its name from the Arizona walnut, a tree once common in the canyon bottom, but initial proposals for the area in 1915 suggested it be called Cliffs National Monument. The name was changed to Walnut Canyon National Monument to avoid confusion with a nearby railroad siding, mill town, and post office called Cliffs.
This park has done a good job of "recycling" buildings from the Civilian Conservation Corps era. The original Walnut Canyon Visitor Center was built from local stone by the CCC in 1940. It's still there, as part of the expanded building in use today. A stone restroom constructed by the CCC that same year was renovated in 2006 and put back into use.
The entrance road, trails, and visitor center are open all year, except December 25, although snow in the winter months can sometimes limit use of park trails. The park is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Mountain Standard Time) May – October, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. November-April. Keep in mind that the area (like most of Arizona) does not observe Daylight Savings Time.
During inclement weather, the visitor center lobby features views of the canyon and distant mountains, but the best way to enjoy this park is via one or both of two trails.
The Rim Trail is a 0.7-mile self-guided route along the canyon rim. It's described by the park as "easy and fairly level," and the first part of the route is paved and accessible. It offers two overlooks of the canyon and passes a pit house and pueblo set back from the canyon rim.
The more challenging Island Trail is only a mile round-trip, but the paved trail is described by the park as "Strenuous, especially for those not acclimated to 7,000' elevation." It descends 185 feet into the canyon and includes 240 stairs; the same elevation must be regained on the return trip. Those who make this hike are rewarded with "spectacular canyon scenery and plant life." There are 25 cliff dwelling rooms along the trail and more are visible across the canyon.
Two ranger-guided hikes are normally conducted daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and reservations are required. More information on conducted hikes is available on the park website.
Although this area was established primarily to protect its cultural resources, it has plenty to offer in the natural realm as well. At least 69 species of mammals have been identified in the park, as well as 28 species of reptiles and amphibians and 121 species of birds. Elk, mountain lion, black bear, pronghorn antelope and wild turkey are found in the area, along with golden eagles and prairie falcons. The Mexican spotted owl, peregrine falcon, and northern goshawk, among the rarest raptors in the southwestern United States, are residents of Walnut Canyon.
The park maintains close ties with its Forest Service heritage. Since 1990, employees from three Flagstaff Area National Monuments—Walnut Canyon, Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano—have joined forces with their counterparts from the surrounding 1.8-million-acre Coconino National Forest in an effort known as the Interpretive Partnership.
Partnership rangers provide weekend campfire programs, informal ranger talks and nature walks at three popular Coconino National Forest campgrounds. They give interpretive talks and lead hikes at Wupatki, Sunset Crater Volcano and Walnut Canyon National Monuments. They also venture into town to present special programs for the City of Flagstaff Visitor Center, summer youth camps and senior citizen groups.
Utilizing two to four seasonal employees and an increasing cadre of volunteers, the partnership provides programs from Memorial Day through Labor Day to help visitors understand the many stories of northern Arizona.
This park has long been easily accessible to cross-country travelers. In 1915 a spur road to what is now Walnut Canyon National Monument was designated part of the National Old Trails Highway, also known as the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway. That route stretched for 3,095 miles across the U.S. and Walnut Canyon became a short detour from this major transcontinental route. The park is only three miles off the present-day Interstate 40, and it's well worth a stop if you're passing through the area.