The city of Flagstaff is an ideal launching pad for exploring the assortment of national monuments in northern Arizona that protect natural and man-made wonders. Among the latter are villages known as pueblos and cliff dwellings that attest to the ingenuity of the ancient people that inhabited the region many centuries ago.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
At Walnut Canyon National Monument (nps.gov/waca), located 10 miles east of downtown Flagstaff, you can hike the Island Trail, which leads to the canyon floor. Though a round trip is less than a mile, this strenuous trail undergoes an elevation change of 185 feet. Along the way, visitors can see 25 cliff dwellings built deep into the canyon walls where a community of 100 or more inhabitants lived off the natural riches of the canyon approximately 800 to 900 years ago. The shorter and easier Rim Trail encompasses two canyon overlooks and traverses a ponderosa forest.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (nps.gov/sucr), located 12 miles north of Flagstaff, surrounds a relatively young cinder cone that is between 900 and 1,000 years old. Hiking on the namesake volcano is not permitted, but the easy Lava Flow Trail runs along its base. If you are willing and able to undertake a steep hike, you can ascend another cinder cone, the Lenox Crater.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Situated within the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly National Monument (nps.gov/cach) in nearby Chinle encompasses its namesake canyon, as well as the Canyon of the Dead. Built into the canyon walls are the ruins of ancient pueblos. The North and South Rim Drives offer a total of 10 overlooks, while the only self-guided hike leads to the White House ruins. Any other travel, afoot or vehicular, requires the supervision of a park ranger or authorized guide.
Wupatki National Monument
It takes about two hours, according to the National Park Service, to visit the five prehistoric pueblos that make up Wupataki National Monument (nps.gov/wupa), located 33 miles north of Flagstaff. Short, easy and moderate trails lead to the dwellings. The namesake pueblo, the largest, reached its pinnacle 800 years ago. It features 100 rooms, a community room and a ball court.
Navajo National Monument
Preserved within the Navajo National Monument (nps.gov/nava), less than 10 miles north of Flagstaff, are three pueblo cliff dwellings. You can view the Betatakin and Talastima abodes from the outlook on the Sandal Trail. The ranger-led, 2.5-mile hike to the Betatakin ruins is strenuous, as the elevation lost and regained is about 700 feet. A reservation and backcountry permit are required for the even more strenuous trail that leads to the Keet Seel ruins, a journey that requires a descent of nearly 1000 feet. The on-site Sunset View Campground is free and open year-round.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Though visitors to Montezuma Castle National Monument (nps.gov/moca) can no longer enter the five-story Sinagua Indian cliff dwelling the site protects, the 20-room abode is visible from a .3-mile loop trail. Located an hour south of Flagstaff, the visitor center’s museum displays indigenous artifacts. The monument also encompasses the naturally occurring, millennia-old Montezuma Well that resulted from the collapse of a limestone cavern.
Tuzigoot National Monument
The main attraction at Tuzigoot National Monument (nps.gov/tuzi), 75 miles south of Flagstaff, is a 110-room pueblo constructed by the Sinagua people. A loop trail takes visitors around the ruins of the village, the oldest buildings of which date to A.D. 1000. The .3-mile trail also affords views of the Verde River and Tavasci Marsh.