Exploring Indian Cave Dwellings in Walnut Creek Canyon

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Back in Time

You can almost hear the campfires crackling and see tan skinned Indian children racing daringly along the narrow ledges of carved stone that separate the Indian cave dwellings from the sheer drop to the canyon floor.

The roofs of these ancient dwellings are still stained black from the smoke of countless campfires and despite the wages of time and careless tourists, the makeshift walls erected to create some modicum of privacy still stand after all these years.

Below us the canyon floor, thickly forested and alive with life, shows no signs that humankind ever called this secluded canyon home. Over seven hundred years have passed since the Sinagua people last bunked down in these secluded caverns, but you still get a sense of the people as you wander the quiet trails that lead around a pillar of rock known to locals as ‘the island’.

It’s a humbling experience.

Visiting Walnut Creek Canyon

It might sound like crazy talk, but years after the two day stint in which I visited both the Grand Canyon and Walnut Creek Canyon, it is my day spent exploring the ancient Indian cave dwellings that stays with me far better than the brilliant colors and sheer scale of the Grand Canyon.

Exploring the Grand Canyon was not an experience that touched me on any personal level. There was a startling majesty to the place and a beauty that cannot be denied, but it was hard to fully appreciate that as you fought your way through hordes of tourists with their cameras clicking as they tried to capture that elusive perfect picture of a Grand Canyon sunset.

Pulling into the car park of the Walnut Creek National Monument, it was clear we’d have the place largely to ourselves. A solitary crow cawed a greeting at us as we shrugged off sweaters in anticipation of the mile long round trip that would take us out to the island and back again.

A crow atop a tree

The steep ascent on the return was a greater cause for concern than the distance.

Dense ponderosa forest crowds the canyon rim. The water source that the canyon provides in such a dry environment (Walnut Creek Canyon is south of Flagstaff on the road to Phoenix) makes this place something of an oasis in the dry Arizona environment. It’s no wonder the Sinagua people called this place home for so long.

We are briefed by a ranger in a small museum before we embark down the winding stairs that will lead us to the island. Along the way helpful plaques give information on the various forms of plants that grow along the trail as well as their uses to the Sinagua people during their time in the area. True to Native American tradition, the people took all they needed from the land they lived on. It was remarkable to learn just how much could be taken from such a dry and sparse place.

cliff dwellings walnut creek canyon

As we made our way down the stairs, we could spot cave dwellings in places seemingly impossible to reach.

I could imagine how this place must have looked at night. The sky littered with stars and the fat moon peering up over the canyon rim. Dozens of fires wink and dance around the island and in the canyon walls.

It must have been a strangely wonderful way to live. A sense of complete isolation while still being part of a close knit community. Your entire world would have existed within the walls of the canyon and the stream its walls sheltered. I’d only had that feeling once before, and that was paying a visit to isolated Unjusa in South Korea.

It was humbling for me – perched on a ledge underneath the scorching Arizona sun and imagining what it might have been like to live ina  world so small. It’s a feeling our modern lives do not allow us most of the time.

We were joined by a chatty ranger as we made our way around the island and explored a few of the Indian cave dwellings up close. While most of them were little more than overhangs to which rudimentary work had been done to make them more hospitable, some had rudimentary walls put up. Ducking through the low doors to enter, you get a sense for how these spartan caves might have once felt like home.

manly man in a cave

Our walk took us past and through a dozen Indian cave dwellings and our ranger friend – in between talking about his favorite fantasy series – would also regale us with information on the way the tribe lived and his theories as to why they had to abandon such a sheltered location.

All too soon it was time for the long climb back up to the ranger station. With the sun beginning to set and the air turning cool, I cast one glance back at the island and the cliff-faces that were dotted with caves. The Sinagua people may have left over 700 years ago, but their mark on Walnut Creek Canyon remains.

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