It had never been a primary destination, not a town where we’d spend a lot of time. It was a place to pass through on our way to somewhere else . . . on our route to the Grand Canyon . . . returning home from Zion and Bryce. Until now, with the conditions so perfect, with us attempting to delay our journey home, with average temperatures exceeding their normals, why not pull in and linger awhile? When we learned new Airstream friends we’d met in Prescott, Lynette and Dan, were planning some days camping here, the decision was easy to make. For the coming few days we’d be seeing what Flagstaff had to offer.
First, find a place to camp—not as easy as it sounds. Lynette did her search while we did ours. Seemingly plenty of campgrounds to choose from, with a mix of all kinds of ratings, the trick was to locate a place up and running this second week in March. Interestingly, we both came up with the same selection—they’d be leaving Prescott a day before us and send back a report about Woody’s—Woody Mountain Campground & RV Park, that is.
With a total of 196 sites, it turned out to be a very good choice, at least when nearly empty. Located in a forest of tall pines, the ambiance was perfect albeit the sites were extremely close to one another. Not a desirable place when nearly full, on this first week that they were open it ended up being an ideal place. Additionally, it was very close to town—just a couple miles to the west. Perfect for getting around. Good times, new friends, perfect weather—who could ask for anything more?
Located at the base of an extinct volcano, Flagstaff (simply known as ‘Flag’ to the locals) held quite the allure for us. Positioned on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, the gorgeous, snowcapped San Francisco Peaks are the town’s backdrop. Easily seen from the high points we had hiked while in Prescott, those peaks continued to tempt us to come closer. With mountains always having been a huge draw for both of us, like a siren’s call we were powerless to resist.
It’s the highest mountain range in Arizona, the tallest peak soaring to 12,633’. Named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi by the Spanish friars that settled here in the 1620s, these scenic mountains are referred to as the Peaks by those who live here. They are a huge attraction for the thousands who come here throughout the year, being a place for great hiking, skiing, camping, wildlife viewing and wilderness solitude. They are a refreshing change from the desert areas that surround them.
The Peaks are made up of 6 summits that circle a caldera of a now quiet volcano. Unusual for eruptions to occur on this dry arid plateau so far from the edge of a tectonic plate, these mountains were formed between 500,000 to a million years ago by the most dramatic of those eruptions. The inner basin has been quiet ever since.
So many hikes . . . so little time . . . that’s what I was realizing once I began investigating possible trails. Since Flagstaff was an addendum to this trip, I hadn’t researched all the possible trails. Consequently, a cursory check on a few websites revealed a head-spinning pot load of possibilities. The conundrum was in selecting just a few. Actually, I don’t think we could’ve gone wrong with any one of them . . . in an area such as Flagstaff there just can’t be a bad trail around.
The Old Caves Crater Trail was a great starting point. Winding through a forest of towering Ponderosa Pines, we were hit with a startling revelation. Having just spent the past two months primarily in desert regions, this one particularly verdant trail accentuated a landscape we’d been missing. Ahhhh, back to the pine-scented air! The emerald green colors! The soft, cushiony, needle-strewn ground. What delights! What freshness! What a difference!
Flagstaff might have many superlatives, but here in this particular spot we were to learn that the town is smack-dab within the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest IN THE WORLD! Yes, you heard it here and it is true, pure documented fact. The ecosystems that surround Flagstaff span from pinon-juniper woodland to alpine tundra, but it is the pine forest in between that dominates the area. Growing only at elevations between 6,000’ and 8,000’, Flagstaff’s 7,000’ elevation makes for the Ponderosa pine’s perfect home.
The trail eventually begins to climb, first through a volcanic cinder field and then switchbacking up the side of an old volcano. Several hundred feet of elevation later we’re up on top where the views open to impressive vistas. The trail’s namesake ‘caves’ are actually lava-formed chambers called “bubbles”. The indigenous Sinagua Indians built their village above these bubbles, using them as rooms, then carved out storage alcoves. The pueblo walls have long since crumbled, but the chambers remain. It’s not uncommon to find sherds of pottery still scattered among the caves.
Who would’ve known just 7 miles east of Flagstaff and a couple miles south of I-40 was a little-known national monument? Not us, to be sure. How many times had we driven right by, little suspecting what we were missing? But anxious to bag yet another unit of our national park system, our first afternoon was spent exploring Walnut Canyon.
In the densely-wooded plateau country the small seasonal stream, Walnut Creek, has carved a 600’ deep canyon as it flows east to eventually join with the Little Colorado River, and then on to the Grand Canyon. The exposed limestone that forms the upper third of the canyon walls is made up of different layers of hardness. Some layers, eroding more rapidly than others, have formed shallow alcoves within these steep cliffs. Eight to nine hundred years ago, the native Sinagua Indians constructed cave-like dwellings along these ledges, high above the canyon floor. Today, the appearance of the canyon with the ruins is quite similar to the more well known Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, just on a smaller scale.
The park has a good visitor center. Perched on the cliff edge, it has panoramic views both to the east and west. Many of the ancient dwellings were built around a U-shaped meander in the canyon, where the creek circles around three sides of a high rocky plateau. Almost creating an ‘island’, this is the central attraction of the monument.
There are many other ruins within a 10×20 mile area, but no others except those on the Island are accessible to the public. As many as 600 people probably lived in this area, divided into many family groups.
The dramatic location of the structures and their good state of preservation gives Walnut Canyon the reputation for being the most interesting of the NPS historical sites in Arizona.
The Island Trail is very steep as it descends part way into the canyon. For those with good lung capacity, it provides a good feeling of what it would have been like to live in this environment. Circling around the ‘island’, the pathway passes alongside the remains of about 20 separate dwellings. Looking down the steep incline to the streambed below, it was the route taken when more water was required. Looking out over the span of the canyon, you can see other dwellings built on opposing cliff walls. Their ‘neighbors’ were just a loud call away.
The Rim Trail is a much easier walk, following the edge of the cliff for a short distance. With two scenic viewpoints you can look out over another segment of the rock walls leading down into the canyon.
In the summer we learned that staff personnel lead the Ledges Hike to cliff dwellings off the main trail, as well as a moonlight/starlight walk in the area.
Our last hike in Flagstaff turned out to also be our last hike of this trip, and it was shared with now good friends Dan and Lynette. Having spent time together around the campfire as well as a couple of fun dinners out on the town, we had come to realize we shared several common interests—hiking being one of the more significant ones. It seemed only fitting that our last day together would find us all trekking together along a good scenic trail.
The Sandy Canyon Trail leads down one of the side canyons of Walnut Canyon. After a short descent to the canyon base, you can hook up with the Arizona Trail leading through a segment of Walnut Canyon. Once down in the valley the going gets easy, along a flat, even pathway surrounded by wide grassy fields and flanked by towering stone walls. A beautiful day for a beautiful trail!
From the top of Fisher Point across another vast Ponderosa pine forest, once again we have views of the snowy summits of the Peaks.
With the mountains fading behind us,
Chris & Melinda
OTHER PERTAINING LINKS:
- More background on Flagstaff, click HERE
- Other campground listings, click HERE and HERE
- More hiking trails, click HERE