top of page

Let's Not Blow Up History (Walnut Canyon, Tuzigoot, & Montezuma Castle NMs)

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

Monday, 23 May 2022, Phoenix AZ

My, how times have changed.

In the late 19th century, railroads brought growing numbers of settlers into the Southwest. As they spread out, the people discovered many sites where ancestral Native Americans had lived - pueblos, cliff dwellings, and the like. People would flock to those sites - often as weekend family outings - and dig through the ruins, taking away ancient pottery and artifacts. Certain people approached it as a business, looking to resell the priceless antiques. They would even dynamite the walls of the dwellings so they could have more light on where they dug!

Imagine today if someone went to the Philadelphia Art Museum and decided that the statue of Rocky would look better on their back deck. Or if they saw the obituary for your grandfather, and rushed to his home to pilfer it of those family heirlooms. Crazy, right?

That was the mindset of the times. Rejection of that ethic spawned the conservation movement that resulted in Lacey's Antiquities Act, allowing presidents to establish National Monuments and preserve those lands. Presidents used that law three times in the early 20th century to set aside lands near Flagstaff. I had those three parks on my list as I headed south to Phoenix to wrap up my tour.

Walnut Canyon, less than ten miles from Flagstaff, received protection in 1915.

I arrived there at 9:10, right after opening, surprised to see a dozen cars already in the parking lot. By the time I left after 10:30, 40 cars filled the lot - far more than I expected for a park with only two short hiking trails.

The ranger at the entrance took extra time to warn visitors about the park. "This area looks forested, but you should be careful out there. It can still get very hot, so take water with you if you take the hikes. Plus, we're at almost 7000' elevation here. The Island Hike is steep going down and coming back - if you get winded or feel light-headed, be sure to stop and pause, drink some water. Will you do that?"

After viewing the park film (which mentioned how pothunters would dynamite the dwellings), I turned my attention to the Island Trail. From the Visitor Center on the rim, it dropped 185' into the canyon, covering a total of 736 steps

in its one-mile loop. The trail offered impressive views into the steep, winding canyon as it descended to the cliff dwellings on the promontory called The Island.

The trail only descended partway down the canyon to reach the dwellings, carved out of alcoves in the rocks.

(After I completed the trail, I asked the ranger if they had any trails that descended all the way to the river/creek at the bottom. "No," he said, eyeing my warily. "It's off-limits to everyone but archaeologists. We can't even go down there.")

As the trail circled the promontory, I noticed the different ecological niches. The north-facing slopes stayed cooler, with more trees and high-elevation plants. As it moved to the sunny, south-side slopes, more cacti and desert plants took hold. On that side, I could look across the canyon and see several more cliff dwelling remains.

When finished with the trail, I passed on taking the Rim Trail, not knowing how long the other parks would take me. (With 20/20 hindsight, I see I should have taken it. The other parks were very small.) I looked forward to the drive south, which took me through Sedona. I had never visited that area before, but had heard of its beauty. Indeed, the drive south enchanted me. My only complaint was the lack of turnouts from which to take pictures of the scenery.

I pointed my car southwest to visit Tuzigoot (pronounced TWO-see-WHOOT) NM. This site lay in the flat Verde Valley,

a small mound sticking up from the plains. For years people saw it simply as a pile of rocks, until scientists discovered the remains of a forgotten pueblo there. FDR protected the site in 1939, and archaeologist have resurrected a portion of the pueblo.

The mound does provide views over the valley, with larger mountains in the distance.

This small park offers only a half-mile hike through the pueblo, and artifacts inside the Visitor Center.

Montezuma Castle NM - consisting of two sites a few miles apart - became the second National Monument (following Devil's Tower) in 1906. (Montezuma Castle, Petrified Forest, and El Morro in New Mexico were all established on the same day.) I first drove to Montezuma Well. No Visitor Center at this outpost, simply a shack and another half-mile loop trail. I followed it a hundred yards, rising through scraggly desert terrain, when suddenly the well came into view.

Beautiful! A gem in the desert.

I admired the view for several minutes, looking down on the oasis. (I would have taken the trail down to the water, except they had closed it for 'bat maternity roosting'.) Looking around the well, I noticed cliff dwellings in the walls of the hole.

Interested in biology? The sign on the rim stated that the well contains too much dissolved CO2 to support fish life, but that it does host five different species, including a water scorpion and thousands of swimming leeches. Thanks, but I don't think I'll come back to go for a swim there.

How can a water hole exist in the desert? There are vents in the bottom of the hole through which 1.5 million gallons/day enter the well. Evaporation steals some of that; the rest of the excess escapes through a cave-hole in the side that feeds a shady creek.

The loop trail angles over to that outflow, before crossing the desert scrub back to the visitor shack.

One more stop to go! A few miles away, I found the main Montezuma Castle NM. Again, the only option was a half-mile trail along the base of the cliffs - the easiest trail of the bunch. The trail stayed close to the creek,

allowing for a flat, tree-shaded walk. When I rounded a bend to see the Castle -

a five-story structure carved out of the cliff - I could see why Roosevelt had protected this area. A short distance further along the trail, I could see the eroded remains of an older dwelling - they call it Castle A.

My National Parks exploration for May were now completed! Time to head to my cousin's home in Phoenix, where I have one more excursion planned for tomorrow, before my red-eye flight home...

30 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page