There are several national park units in Arizona. And I bet you can name at least one… *cough* the Grand Canyon *cough.* And there are also a variety of Native American sites in Arizona that are both famous and quite popular with visitors and locals alike. Montezuma’s Castle comes right to my mind, when I think about this. Less people have heard of one of my favorite Arizona national park units – Walnut Canyon National Monument. This smaller, less crowded park has exceptional natural surroundings, is home to a fascinating and ingenious ruins of an ancient indigenous culture, and it is readily accessible from Flagstaff. So, what is there to do in Walnut Canyon? Come with us to find out!
What Is There To Do in Walnut Canyon National Monument?
There is something for both my history and nature lovers in Walnut Canyon (perfect).
For my history buffs, the National Monument has a beautiful museum where you can learn about the ancient, indigenous peoples that created the buildings that we now get to explore in the park. Even for those of you that aren’t traveling for the history, don’t miss the museum. The installations will add a lot of context to what you will see on the trail. Linked with the information in the visitor center, the primary trail takes visitors up and close to the ruins of the park. There you will find even more information about the people that integrated their lives with this exceptional place. There are many steps leading down to the trail, however, so the trail may not be accessible to all.
For the hikers and nature lovers out there, there are a variety of trails for anyone wondering what is there to do in Walnut Canyon. The must-do trail is the main path that leads out from the visitor center, to the ruins. But if those trails are too crowded for your taste (or closed) when you arrive, there are also rim trails with beautiful views. The natural canyon is very unique in its form. The grey stone that make up its ways is striated and dappled in twisting patterns that look like overlapping waves. All of this is crowned by the evergreen trees of the higher elevation plateau. Hiking Walnut Canyon is a great activity for anyone looking to explore the whole breadth of the park.
Need to Know Information
Hours: 9-4:30p all week; note that the park is not accessible after close.
Contact: 928 526-3367
Hours: (Strict! You can’t access the trail when the visitor center is closed.)
Bathrooms at the trail head? Yes
4WD necessary? No
Entrance Fee: $25 per vehicle (credit card only)
Trail Difficulty: Rim trails (easy); Island Trail (moderate due to stairs)
It is pretty easy to get to Walnut Canyon National Monument. It is close to Flagstaff, and right off the I-40 highway. Just take the 40 east out of Flag and hop off at the exit for Walnut Canyon Road. You will then take a short, paved road south to the parking lot and visitor center.
Ancient Cultures of Arizona
Luckily, for anyone wanting “learn more about Arizona history” as an answer to – what is there to do in Walnut Canyon National Monument – it has got you covered.
There are some who might not realize that Arizona has been a thriving hub for human civilization for hundreds if not thousands of years. There is much that has been lost to the proverbial sands of time. But Walnut Canyon National Monument offers us a glimpse into a period of life here that is otherwise quite mysterious and unknown to most.
Currently, Arizona is `home to many indigenous cultures including (but not limited to) the Hopi, the Dine (or Navajo), the O’odham, and the Apache peoples. As with all human landscapes, Arizona has changed over time. Cultures have evolved, and the ways of living in this varied landscape have shifted along with the conditions and technology available.
At Walnut Canyon, there is a unique prehistoric culture that is represented. But they lived within a network of cultures that stretched across the state. Peoples then traded with one another, developed and shared their spiritual beliefs, and they innovated in order to survive and thrive.
National Park Museum
When considering the question – what is there to do in Walnut Canyon National Monument – you shouldn’t discount the visitor center and museum. This is the go-to place to learn more about the ancient cultures that the park showcases. While the ruins may be a little unassuming to some, the museum does a great job painting a picture of prehistoric life on the plateau. And I think it also builds an appreciation for the ingenuity of the people who built this place.
Walnut Canyon, like many places in Arizona and elsewhere, is a landscape steeped in human history. Without understanding how people lived in this place, it is hard to really grasp how special and important the monument is.
The museum is also a great place for the geology buffs among you. As you can see from pictures of the canyon, there is something very special about the rock formations here.
And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the natural history of the area. Arizona is one of the most biodiverse places in the world (believe it or not), so there is always something fun to learn about the natural world here. The visitor center will deliver a bit of that as well.
Walnut Canyon Trails
There are essentially two sets of trails in Walnut Canyon National Monument. The Island Trail is the primary trail. It is the more difficult of the two, and is less accessible due to the stairs. The Rim trails are flat, and offer beautiful views of the canyon itself. They are also open after the visitor center closes, unlike the Island Trail.
Main Trail aka the Island Trail
The primary trail when considering the question what is there to do in Walnut Canyon is the Island Trail. This is the primary trail of Walnut Canyon National Monument. The name might be a bit confusing to those of you who have never seen this place, but in fact, it makes a lot of sense when you see the towering stone island that the trail loops around, out into the canyon.
The trail starts inside of the visitor center, and is only open when the center is open. Immediately, you will be let out onto switchbacks and stairs that lead down from the rim. (You will need to climb up the same way on your way out, so keep that in mind).
Once you get down into the canyon, the trail will become a loop. This will take you around the island of stone. From here, you will be able to get up-close and person with the ruins that line the entire island top.
For hikers, I would describe this trail as paved. It is wide, and flat, and where there is elevation change, stairs are used.
Outside of the visitor center, there are two sets of short and relatively flat trails. The first is the rim trail. This will take visitors along the rim of the canyon, to two different viewpoints. From there, you can observe the canyon, and its beautiful wildlife. You might also be able to make out other ruins tucked away along the canyon walls. With no stairs, this is a more accessible trail for people who might be wondering what is there to do in Walnut Canyon if you can’t do the stairs on the main trail.
There is also a short trail that heads up north in the park, from the parking lot. This little trail goes to a nice picnic area that’s perfect for nice days in the early summer. It will also take visitors to some pueblo and pithouse ruins that were built into the flat parts of the plateau, in the shade of the forest.
I will say that neither of these are my favorite trails when it comes to hiking Walnut Canyon. But they still have unique elements that can serve to complete your trip if you want to explore as much of the park as possible.
More About Arizona
If you were thinking about what is there to do in Walnut Canyon, I am guessing some of our Arizona guides might be good for you. Whether you are a visitor planning a trip or a local looking to explore more deeply, we have posts on popular and lesser known places in the state. For example, we have a guide on the popular Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. We have also written about trails like the hard-to-reach Quartz Peak. And so much more!
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