Going Down is Optional. Returning is Mandatory!

Situated in Flagstaff, Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument is home to ancient cliff dwellings and incredible rock faces. Though the geological formations of the canyon itself are remarkable, what truly sets this site apart are the pueblos nestled into the curved canyon walls. However, visiting these pueblos is no easy feat.

In order to walk in the steps of those who came before, visitors have two trail options. You can either casually walk the easy 0.75 mile Rim Trail which provides you with a nice overlook of the canyon and cliff dwellings, or you can choose the more physical, strenuous Island Trail that takes you into the canyon. Guess which one we took?

“Going down is optional. Returning is mandatory” are the words emblazoned on the Island Trail trailhead at Walnut Canyon National Monument. With the steep one mile trail dropping 185 vertical feet into Walnut Canyon where the cliff dwellings could be explored, did we dare undertake the 273 stair step journey? Yes, yes we did.

Before beginning our descent, park rangers posted in front of the trailhead offered me and Joe water and assessed our physical prowess. Joking! Kinda. At the start of the Island Trail, there are signs asking you to consider your physical condition before hiking. As if the 273 stair steps into the canyon aren’t enough, the trail loop follows the cliff edge and has 190 stair steps spread out over its length, as well as a lack of continuous hand railings. It is definitely wise to take a moment of introspection before undergoing the descent. Remember, “Going down is optional. Returning is mandatory!”

Despite the 6,690 ft. elevation and the combined 463 stair steps, Joe and I were ready to conquer the Island Trail and explore its hidden treasures, and boy am I so glad we did! Pictures don’t fully capture the beauty and grandeur of both the canyon and its ancient pueblos, and as we were hiking, I couldn’t help but be amazed by what I was seeing and ponder the Ancestral Puebloan people who called the sheer cliff faces home.

From collecting and storing snow melt in preparation for the dry season when water was scarce, to farming various crops, this resilient tight-knit group of people adapted to the land and its environment. I am in awe of their culture, community, and lifestyle.

I think it’s needless to say that Walnut Canyon National Monument is a historical site worth visiting. It is a sacred place full of rich history, and we cannot recommend visiting enough!

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