Walnut Canyon Arizona – Unexpected Ruins in the US

When I was in Arizona I stumbled upon one of the most interesting historic sites I’ve been too, but had never heard of, Walnut Canyon National Monument. It is actually a National Park and you can get in free with a National Parks pass, but not what you think of being called a “monument.” Surprisingly I found it on Bring Fido as a dog friendly attraction. From the description on the app, it was a hiking trail around the rim that allows dogs, but not much else. I guess they assume if you are in the area, you will know what it is.

Since I had the National Parks pass I decided it would be a good place for a hike and do some photography one afternoon. It wasn’t until we got there and were greeted by Park Rangers that I got the full information on why it’s a National Monument. Yes, it’s a Canyon, but it has historical significance because deep along the inner walls are some of the earliest, manmade dwellings in the North America. There are actually two areas to the park, the rim of the canyon, with views and a hiking trail and the area below the rim, where you can go and tour what’s left of some of the most intact dwellings. At one time there were many, all in the Canyon, but the only ones you can visit are the ones that were built on somewhat of an island in the middle of the Canyon. To get to them you must take 240 steep, steps down a set of concrete stairs…….and then back up. Because of this, dogs are only allowed around the rim, so the first day I did not make the trek down.

The first day we got to do most of trail around the rim, with Bella in her new hiking harness, happy to be out. I thought I had timed it to be there after the afternoon showers of the day, which provided some great opportunities for working with my macro lens.

Even if you can’t do the stairs the greenery and flowers along the hiking trail are worth the trip. There are some examples of the dwellings that were built above ground I did get to see that day as well. They were usually dug into the ground and then covered with limbs and grasses for insulation from the cold. This dugout is one of the few, above the rim, dwellings still intact.

Unfortunately, I was wrong about my rain timing and about a half a mile from the visitor’s center a severe storm formed, with thunder and lightning. We got a good workout getting back to shelter, me mainly being drug behind Bella, trying to run, while carryings a backpack, and carrying the camera on a tripod. I had planned for getting to the truck, but once we got to the visitor’s center, which had a covered porch, she wasn’t going any further. We ended up sitting there, with her in my lap, waiting for the rain to stop for at least 30 minutes.

Although rain cut that day short, I was intrigued and went back the next day without Bella, but with all my hiking and hydration gear, to head down into the canyon. The first section of stairs going down have been constructed by the parks department and have handrails, as can be seen in the last section before the cliff, in the picture in the left. However, once you get down to the area where the dwellings are, the stairs look more like the picture on the right, more like a hike than just climbing stairs, so be prepared. One thing that makes it a little easier is that it’s not 240 stairs all at once. Yes, the first section is a long way down, but after that you will go down and up a few at a time as you make your way around the island and along the dwellings at each level.

When you hear about the dwellings of ancient people in cliffs you get a picture of the stereotypical caveman, but that is not at all what these are. These were actually well-designed homes that used the topography as a solid foundation. In many ways similar to how Frank Llyod Wright designed his homes to utilize and be a part of the landscape. All along the canyon walls were natural overhangs and the people who lived there used these as their floors and roofs and constructed stone and mortar walls between the two to form solid, well insulated homes.

Archeologist believe they were actually one the most advanced early dwellings in the US, not just because of the use of existing rock formations as basis to build, but because the people who built them had observed that when the storms get bad in the area, the winds stayed above the canyon and that the naturally occurring cliffs were also a natural, waterproof roof. They also clearly had a vast knowledge of masonry and understood how to cure mortar to hold rocks. The stonework of the walls is much more advanced than a typical mud structure.

Although a lot of the walls have collapsed, from a distance, in the picture below, you can see how they fit within the natural rock formation. This picture also shows just how close to the edge these dwellings were built. The pathways you walk along have been reinforced and have stone borders, but they are still a path along the side of a cliff. Walking around the island and among the remaining homes, you are continually reminded how precariously these people lived, perched on the side of a cliff.

The picture of the left shows the typical trail to dwellings. There were not overhangs all along the cliffs large enough for homes, there were a lot of areas right along the edge, like this, that you must take to get to the sheltered areas. This gives you the best idea about how remote these homes were and makes you realize the complications that choosing to build dwellings here must have encountered.

The remains were originally found 1890 and many were raided for their contents at that time, so they were not able to be studied undisturbed by modern day influences, but based on the reports of the contents found, and later exploration, it was clear that there was what we consider a home-like room structure among the dwellings. There are sets of connecting rooms, as if a single-family home and within each set there were also smaller rooms where the remains found suggest they were storage rooms for tools, clothes, food and water for winter. This is definitely a much more structural and planned out type of dwelling than what we think of as “caveman” dwellings.

Another advantage to these types of dwellings, in this location, was that they were naturally fire-proof. By being a stone and dirt structure on all four walls, they could burn fires within the home to keep warm during the winter without fear of catching the home on fire. The evidence of many fires burned can be seen on the rock inside and right above the dwellings. This blackness is not soot and does not wipe off. The continual exposure to fire has permanently changed the coloring of the rock.

While it is believed that they probably hauled in most of their firewood when the weather was good, there is surprisingly a lot of green growth on the cliff’s edge, sometimes growing in the oddest places, at the strangest angles. There a lot of more mature trees growing in the bottom right picture, which may account for more broken cliff edges and wall collapses in that area.

There are actually quite a few areas of the canyon that are too dangerous to visit due to rock slides and damage. Although there is no up close access, the view across the canyon, from the island, really shows how many levels of homes there were and how highly populated this area probably was at one time.

It’s hard to see but the marker in the picture of the right says “stay on trail” which I found amusing in it’s location because really, there was nowhere to go but down, other than the trail. The remaining pictures are great example of the phrase “life finds a way” and honestly kind of frustrating that these plants will grow in a spoonful of dirt in a rock, and I can’t get plants to live in ideal conditions.

Although the trek to the bottom is not easy, I would recommend visiting these ruins if you are in the area. I have visited the ruins of ancient cities in other countries but it’s not something you expect in the US. After my visit I started reading the book In the Hands of the Great Spirit by Jake Page and learned a lot of newer theories on how the earliest inhabitants of North America actually lived and how discoveries of places like Walnut Canyon are showing us that they may have been much more advanced societies than we previously thought. A big reason why is that the lack of written history when Europeans settled on the continent has jaded our views and left much of that history up to speculation. But I look forward to finding more places like this in the US and seeing where the discoveries and research lead.

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