After the astronomy and geology science of Meteor Crater, we headed off to do something that was very much more my cup of tea: Walnut Canyon. It was another place that Mr Pict and I had visited in 2000 and it was a place I was keen to return to as it had left a strong impression on me. I was also keen to ensure that the kids had some sense of the history of the indigenous people of the region during our road trip around the Southwest states.
Walnut Canyon is the site of pretty sheer cliffs in which, 800 years ago, a group of indigenous people made their homes. They created dwellings in the face of the canyon from natural hollows in the rock, sheltered by overhanging rocks, and successfully eked out an existence hunting, gathering, and even farming. It is an astounding achievement that they managed to flourish there because even now – with modern access and trails – the place is pretty remote, inaccessible, and terrifying to anyone who (like me) experiences a fear of heights. It is not clear what led these local people to relocate to the canyon nor is it clear why they left. They only lived there for about a century.
The National Park visitor centre is positioned at the top of the canyon so we spent a fair bit of time in there preparing ourselves for the hike in and out of the canyon. I have a new appreciation for cold water fountains and air conditioning so we took advantage of those before we headed out into the heat. There was a small but effective education area for the kids. They especially liked being able to feel the pelts of local mammals, from bears to skunks. Just outside the building, they encountered some actual wildlife as there were lizards basking themselves and our youngest son made friends with a squirrel who followed him around for a while.
The descent into the canyon was easy. The pathways have been upgraded since our previous visit and feel much more stable underfoot and, though narrow, there was enough room to pass people without fearing being knocked off the edge, which was lucky since the canyon was very busy. The scenery was breathtaking and as soon as we dropped below rim height we could see some of the cave dwellings in cliffs across the canyon.
Before long we had reached the dwellings that were accessible on the trail loop. At this point, I assume to preserve the authenticity of the place, the pathway was very narrow and there were no railings or fences. This presented my kids with the opportunity to freak me out. Even when they had ample space on the path – given we were walking single file – they would walk perilously close to the edge. I, therefore, had to transform into Bad Cop Mother and constantly police and chastise them. Our middle two sons were in a cranky mood as it was. They had this notion in their heads that the whole walk would be boring since they were certain (despite being told otherwise) that they would not be allowed inside any of the dwellings and that the whole purpose of the trek was therefore pointless. Seriously annoying. The 10 year old perked up when we reached the dwellings and he was proved wrong. The 11 year old, however, stubbornly refused to emerge from his cocoon of annoyance. At one point he even declared, “I do think this is cool but I am in a bad mood”. Sigh. Sometimes as parents we just have to have faith that as some point our offspring will appreciate and value the experiences we are giving them no matter how resistant they are at the time.
Anyway, we all (maybe even the 11 year old) enjoyed exploring the dwellings, most of which were open to visitors. It was actually quite easy to imagine people living in the spaces, cooking food, laughing together, bringing back food from the rim level farmland, mothers shouting at their children to stay away from the edge of that ruddy path …. Each little recess also offered us some very welcome shade and cool because by then the sun was high in the sky and the air temperature was oven-like. What comes down, must go up when it comes to canyon hikes. We started the return walk and realised just how long the ascent was going to be. Walking uphill in immense heat is pretty exhausting and gross. We stopped for rest breaks wherever there was a patch of shade available. On some corner turns, we could see the visitor centre sitting nest-like at the top of the canyon and for a long time it seemed like it was never getting any closer. By the time I made it out of the canyon, my mouth felt like dry dust and I was so glowing that you could have toasted marshmallows on my cheeks. That fountain’s ice cold water was like the best drink ever in the world ever.