It looks like nothing coming in: a highway exit outside of Flagstaff, a quick sharp turn and the road becomes small, quiet. High, arid mountain scenery. Smell of rain coming in. You get out of your car, walk to the edge, and it falls before you: a canyon of dripping limestone and piñon, layers of rock and earth weathered by wind and rain, striated by history.
Look a little closer. You’ll see what they saw, the Sinagua, who lived here for more than a century, over seven centuries ago. You’ll see crevices that could become home, protect you from wind, hold the heat of a hearth fire. You’ll see the river water below, dirt that could become clay, that could become bricks to build houses in the high-walled world. The view of the eagles, to keep watch. Plant life so diverse it is unrivaled elsewhere in the valley. And so you build.
Down the 185 steps from the ranger station, the canyon is so quiet you can hear a child sigh from the far end of the trail. You can hear your own breath as it stumbles from your lungs, unaccustomed to the 6,700-foot elevation. You can smell, on the warm wind, the black walnut in the creek bed below, and when you look down to find the source, you’ll find instead a hawk, lumbering below you, working his way up on the current, until he soars above your head, and still beneath the canyon ceiling.
You can duck into the empty houses tucked into the wall and stare at the residue of hearthfire smoke on the ceiling, and wonder what it was like to live here. And while tucked in this studio apartment that used to house a family, you’ll look across the canyon and realize those striations you see in the rock, half of them are filled with homes just like this one, scattered across the area. If there were still families here, you could holler to your cross-canyon neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar.
No one really knows what caused the Sinagua to homestead in Walnut Canyon, or why they left. The name itself is a misnomer: these are native peoples, not speakers of Spanish. Here, just as at Montezuma’s Castle and Tuzigoot, the settlements aren’t far from water. Though climbing more than thirty stories of steps to carry it isn’t ideal, the safety gained from living in an almost imperceptible hole in a rock is worth the effort.
Sinagua settlements up and down the Verde Valley, now mapped by Arizona Highway 17 running south from Flagstaff to Phoenix, all share this same mysterious fate: their development appears at various times, and then they are deserted. Some groups, like those at Montezuma’s Castle, stayed more than four hundred years. Others didn’t last. Around 1250 AD, after less than 200 years of habitation, Walnut Canyon was abandoned, leaving behind evidence of ample, healthy trade with people as far away as Central America, but no reason for departure. Hopi legend claims the Sinagua as an origin people of their own. Other theories say the Yavapai came and pushed out the Sinagua. Whatever the reason, they left , gifting us this trove of historic mystery in their wake.
For more images of Walnut Canyon and Montezuma’s Castle, please visit the Ruins of the Southwest Gallery.