Visiting Walnut Canyon, Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments


Last Updated on April 30, 2024 by Grant

Today is an important day. It’s June 8, 2017, the 111th anniversary of the Antiquities Act of 1906. The law gave the President of the United States the ability to set aside land to preserve it for the generations to come. In short, it gave the president the ability to create national monuments.

The Importance of National Monuments

Forgive me. I am about to get a tad bit political and gush a bit. Bear with me.

I know national monuments have become a political hot button issue of late with the last-minute creations of monuments in Alabama, Utah and Maine. Some folks will argue these were land grabs by outgoing President Obama. Others will say they are necessary to preserve our past for future generations.

Recently, President Trump ordered a review of the national monuments created over the past 21 years. In all, 27 national monuments are under review in 11 states, plus all of the marine national monuments. President Trump could reverse the designations of those national monuments, depriving future generations of those amazing places.

Bonnie and I  support of the National Park Service. We fully support the president creating national monuments. Congress works very slowly these days and some of these sites can’t wait.

Since we started traveling together in 2009, we have visited 25 national monuments, ranging from the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. to the battlefield at Little Bighorn. They have preserved everything from the birthplace of George Washington Carver to fossil beds in five states. We are better people because of the national monuments we have visited and what we have learned from them, not to mention the natural beauty found there as well.

To highlight both the immensity and the diversity of our national monuments, let’s examine the three we visited in the Flagstaff area just a few days ago: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument.

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Walnut Canyon National Monument

Located just east of Flagstaff, AZ, Walnut Canyon just seems like a particularly pretty canyon covered in Ponderosa pines. It really is a pretty canyon which warrants preservation, but it is also home to the ruins the cliff-dwelling community of the Sinagua.

To go back 700 years in time, just walk down the 240 steps to the Island Trail which leads you through 24 cliff dwellings with many more visible on the opposite walls of the canyon.

What a way to live! There is a nice breeze blowing through the canyon, which cools it down significantly. The ledges provide a great view of the canyon and ample space for the Sinagua to live and work.

The walk isn’t too strenuous, but the hike back up is 185 vertical feet. I was huffing by the end of the walk.

A quick note on the history of the canyon:  the area became a popular location of the locals in Flagstaff in the 1880s, which resulted in significant looting of the artifacts in the area. The looting continued until 1915, when Woodrow Wilson designated the area a national monument.   

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Located just north of Flagstaff, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument preserves one of the most recent volcanic events in the San Francisco Volcanic Field: the Sunset Crater Volcano erupted about 900 years ago.

Sunset Crater Volcano still has large portions of its slopes covered in lava thousands of years since its last eruption.
Sunset Crater Volcano still has large portions of its slopes covered in lava thousands of years since its last eruption.

The event had a massive impact on the entire region, affecting Native American migration, not to mention covering a large area with lava which still remains to this day.

We hiked three short trails experiencing the lava fields up close. The amount of ground still covered by lava is immense. Indeed, one side of the volcano is still without vegetation, leftover from an eruption almost 1,000 years ago.

Like Walnut Canyon NM,  President Hoover preserved Sunset Crater Volcano to prevent human destruction of the area. Indeed, even after the creation of the national monument in 1930, the Park Service closed the trail to the top of the volcano due to significant erosion.

Wupatki National Monument

Our final national monument of the day brought us to Wupatki National Monument. Located about 35 miles north of Sunset Crater National Monument, Wupatki NM, a Forest Service road connects to Sunset Crater Volcano NM.

Settled about 100 years after the eruption, the monument preserves multiple pueblos, including the impressive 104-room Wupatki Pueblo, located at the visitor center. The Wupatki Pueblo also had a ball court and a unique geological formation called a blow hole.

The blow hole is a vent to an underground cave system which expels or draws air based upon the air pressure. This is very similar to the original entrance to Wind Cave National Park.

The pueblos supported a much larger group of people who lived nearby, but it is unknown if the various other pueblos in the monument worked together or competed with each other.

Like the other national monuments, President Coolidge designated Wupatki a national monument in 1924 to preserve the area from looting. 

Wupatki NM and Sunset Crater Volcano NM are truly best visited as one park. They even have one admission price for both and the Coconino National Forest surrounds and connects the two with a loop road, making for a 49-mile journey.

The terrain differences between the monuments are pretty amazing as well. Whereas Sunset Crater Volcano is located at a much higher elevation and is covered in Ponderosa pine forest, Wupatki is squarely in the Antelope Prairie and the Painted Desert can be seen to the north.

Planning Your Visit

You can easily visit all three national monuments in one day. We started fairly early in the morning (around 9:30) with Walnut Canyon NM in order to avoid the heat.

We easily made it to Sunset Crater NM by lunchtime. We walked nearly all of the trails at both Sunset Crater and Wupatki NM. After our visit, we then drove back and were easily back at our campground by around 4:30 p.m.

Take some sturdy shoes for walking through the lava fields and plenty of water in the summer. It gets hot.

We planned on returning to Flagstaff in April 2020 with my family but, alas, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to cancel that trip. Our host through VRBO, Jeff, was great about giving us a full refund on a weeklong rental. If you are looking at visiting here with a large family, be sure to check out his home.

Final Thoughts

I had no idea the Flagstaff area was so different in terms of climate and geography. It was such a welcome change after staying near Winslow for a couple of nights.

I am so thankful a president many years ago thought these places were worth preservation.

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