The Grand Canyon gets all the publicity, but Northern Arizona is filled with less well-known (almost unknown, it seems) sites of beauty and history. The natural setting, with (in normal years) snow and rain enough to support a thick carpet of grass and desert plants, the extraordinary red rock skylines Walnut Canyon from the rim which can pop up around an ordinary curve, evergreen forests, and long meadow valleys can make just about any drive a special trip.
We drove down Oak Creek Canyon which begins south of Flagstaff and ends in Sedona. The canyon itself is gorgeous -- the winding road reveals ever-changing views of the steep cliffs. Sedona itself is a posh tourist mecca, filled with souvenir shops, restaurants plain and fancy, tour operators, and places to stay ranging from $150 motels up to exclusive $1500 resorts. We are always puzzled how otherwise sensible people can imagine vortexes, but it's their privilege to do so. For us, the scenery is everything. We'd enjoy it more if all the hotels and restaurants would vanish.
Montezuma's Castle is not far from Sedona. It is a National Monument and predictably draws visitors year-round. The name is completely inappropriate but nevertheless expressive. Castles are a European structure and tradition, and naming the central structure here must have been rather like describing a cloud. But the visit is worthwhile as a view of the culture of the Southwestern Native Americans of centuries past. Right off the freeway Walls between cliff homes connecting Phoenix and Flagstaff, it's a short walk on a paved path to an observation point where the visitor can marvel at the large multi-story building bricked into a huge cliffside cave.
The basic principle of cliff dwellings is simple: safety and a sheltered micro-climate, with arable lands nearby. They were made possible by the other-worldy pattern of erosion in the American Southwest which created fantastic canyons and mesas with hollowed-out caves caused by geological strata of varying hardness.
Just a few miles from Montezuma's Castle is the Cliff Lodge Casino, run by the Yavapai Indian Tribe. We can ponder the course of culture change, from creating and trading pottery to managing an extremely busy casino, where this time, unusually for us, we finished winners.
Walnut Canyon National Monument is only some 5 miles from Visitor Center in distance Flagstaff. It's less well-known and more interesting than Montezuma's Castle, and features a strenuous (for us) one mile trail past some 25 different single-family cliff dwellings, each of which is a single walled-in room, about 8 x 10 feet, with a smoke blackened ceiling which makes one believe lung diseases must have been common.
There is a special thrill associated with approaching a special place along an ordinary-looking road. Sometimes, as in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, a stretch of nondescript landscape covers the extraordinary caves. Today, we took Old Highway 66 east of town till we reached the Walnut Canyon Visitors' Center, and it wasn't until we were indoors that we realized we were at the edge of a breathtaking deep, wide and wandering canyon.
From 1100 to 1250 A.D., the walls of this canyon housed members of a Native American culture known to archaeologists as the Sinagua -- because they farmed with little irrigation on the canyon rim. Like the Anasazi and some other communities, the Sinaguans disappeared. Unfortunately, pot hunters cleaned the place out in the nineteenth A black smoke stain and early twentieth century, taking with them most of the clues that might have helped archaeologists understand their lives and the reason for their disappearance. There are hundreds of ancient dwellings at two levels around the cliffs. Hoes were discovered on top of the canyon, and enough artifacts were discovered to indicate that trading took place at least as widely as New Mexico to California. There is evidence that the remnants of the Sinagua people may have been some ancestors of the modern Hopi, who regard the Monument as sacred ground.
The trail is quite civilized, paved and equipped with concrete steps and steel guide rails. Small children scampered up and down while their parents huffed and senior citizens wondered if their arthritic joints would hold out! Each switchback gave the tourist a different view of the intricate, many-armed canyon walls, and the discovery of the cliff dwellings, with their distinctive stone walls A row of cliff dwellings set into caves provided lots of interest.
While the inhabitants at the time simply climbed up and down the cliffs to reach their dwellings, the modern tourist has the benefit of a loop which runs around one canyon formation about 185 feet below the canyon rim (240 steps each way). Some of the dwellings have just a vertical side wall remaining, but others have the full front wall as well, with a narrow door through which one crawled to gain access to the room. In the open rooms one can see the blackened walls and ceilings from fires, and archaelogists have discovered fingerprints in the clay. The floors were periodically renewed with a fresh layer of clay, and some of the dwellings have five layers of flooring.
The canyon itself has two very different aspects. The north-facing walls feature Ponderosa Pines typical of Canada, Rock silhouette and blue sky while the south-facing walls have vegetation found in Mexico. In fact, from one of several rest stops along the climbing part of the trail we sat on a wooden bench and caught our breath, noticing the startlingly different appearance between large pine trees and scrawny cactus, yucca and desert brush from one wall of the canyon to another. The weather was beautiful -- about 50 degrees at the canyon rim, and 10 degrees warmer along the trail below.
There is a lot more to see near Flagstaff: a meteor crater, a hilltop setting of long-vanished Natire Americans, and the ruins of a pueblo where archeological digging is still going on. We never run out of places to visit, and we always know that there is more to see on a return trip!