Tuesday, 01 September 2009 00:00    E-mail
Cliff dwellings give glimpse into history
By Ann Haver-Allen, Earth Odyssey Editor
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Thumbnail imageWalnut Canyon National Monument is a world renowned jewel in Arizona’s crown of historical indigenous sites.

Visitors to the canyon come from all over the world to catch a glimpse into Arizona’s past.  “We’ve gotten university groups from England and Germany,” said Park Ranger Jessica Sillin. “They are usually accompanied by a professor and spend about one-half again as much time as the average visitor.”

Sillin said the canyon is a popular destination for school trips as well. Some groups come from out of state, but most are from Arizona schools.

“We get about 100 to 120 school trips a year,” she said. “Spring is definitely the busiest season.”

The Sinagua —thought to be the ancestors of today’s Hopi — moved to Walnut Canyon and began to build cliff dwellings after Sunset Crater exploded (see related story, p. 13).  They occupied the canyon for a little more than 100 years (between 1125 and 1250) and left for reasons still unknown.

Although the Sinagua were the canyon’s only permanent residents, artifacts found in situ indicate that Archic peoples who traveled throughout the Southwest probably occupied the canyon seasonally. These nomadic peoples were long gone by the time the Sinagua arrived.

Sinagua—Spanish for “without water”—is a commentary on this tribe’s ability to live in a relatively dry region. Walnut Canyon, however, provided a reasonably dependable source of water.

“Before the dam for Lower Lake Mary was built, the creek in the base of the canyon ran seasonally—during monsoon and after the snow melt,” Sillin said. “Now, only when Lake Mary fills and overflows is there water in the creek.”

The dam, which was constructed in

1904, prevented the creek from flowing and changed the geomorphology and ecology of the canyon bottom—centuries after the Sinagua had abandoned the area.

The Sinagua dwellings at Walnut Canyon are built in natural recesses in the canyon’s walls, which were created over millions of years by flowing water eroding the softer rock layers and creating shallow caves.

Archeologists believe that Sinagua women made the homes. To wall up their cliff dwellings, they gathered limestone rocks, cut and stacked them and cemented them together with clay found in the canyon. The walls were plastered with clay inside and out. If one examines the clay walls closely, handprints can still be seen inside at least one of the dwellings.

Homes in Walnut Canyon were generally built on the south and east facing cliff sides to take advantage of the sun’s warmth. A few homes face north and west and may have been “summer homes” to escape the heat.

The Sinagua farmed the flatter land on the canyon’s rim. They cultivated corn, beans and squash. Additionally, their diet included many wild plants, including yucca, serviceberry, elderberry, Arizona black walnut and wild grapes. Sinagua also hunted deer, bighorn sheep and many smaller animals.

The proximity of five distinctive biological communities makes Walnut Canyon an ideal location for settlement. Within the canyon and its rim, one can find a riparian community, mixed conifer forests, upper Sonoran desert, pinyon and juniper woodland and ponderosa pine and Gambel oak forest. One can hike from top to bottom (about a 400 foot descent) and encounter all five biological communities. Such diversity would undoubtedly increase odds of survival.

The cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon remained largely undisturbed until the 19th century when the area was opened to souvenir hunters by the coming of the railroad.

Subsequent looting and destruction prompted locals to undertake conservation measures that drew national attention. In 1915 Walnut Canyon was declared a national monument.  Sillin recommends visiting the canyon in the fall.

“You can almost have the place to yourself,” she said. “You can see wildlife and enjoy the setting. You can have an intimacy here with 800-year-old ruins and that’s my favorite thing.”

If you go

Walnut Canyon National Monument is 10 miles east of downtown Flagstaff. Take exit 204 off 1-40 and follow signs to the entrance. Walnut Canyon is open every day except Christmas day. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance fee is $7 for adults. Free to children younger than 16.

NOTE: The Island Trail, which descends from the visitor’s center to the cliff dwellings, has 240 stairs.