This year, Walnut Canyon is celebrating a hundred years of protection as a national monument—protection that came none too soon because its prehistoric sites were being seriously damaged.
It was people known to archaeologists as the northern Sinagua who built some three hundred rooms in the limestone alcoves of this hidden canyon near the San Francisco Peaks. They lived, farmed, and hunted in the canyon and on the rim from the 1100s into the mid-1200s.
By the 1880s, archaeologists were getting to know the ancient cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon. But so were many other people who came to northern Arizona with the arrival of the new transcontinental railroad. With easy access from the nearby town of Flagstaff, people were coming out and digging and removing many artifacts from the ruins.
To provide some protection, one Forest Service ranger did his best, but the damage persisted. Concerned community leaders—the Riordan family, a Catholic priest, and others—pushed for better protection.
On November 30, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the national monument, which was transferred to the National Park Service in 1934. Now, its boundaries include 3,600 acres.
Thanks to those early grassroots efforts, Walnut Canyon visitors can now walk the Island Trail, peer into small stone rooms, and imagine how people lived more than 800 years ago. And Flagstaff citizens continue working to gain even greater protection for the place. Many are advocating for a special conservation designation for the national forest lands surrounding the monument.
Earth Notes is produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.
The National Park Service is marking Walnut Canyon’s centennial with special activities in every month of 2015, including honoring the 100th visitor to enter the park on the 30th of each month. For more information go to www.nps.gov/waca.