May 31 2017
The Arizona Republic
Flagstaff’s Walnut Canyon, which splits the landscape southeast of town, is the work of an ancient river that carved its way through dolomite-rich limestone and sandstone.
The geological wonder is rife with history and recreational opportunities. Think prehistoric Sinagua dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument, that grueling staircase, hikes along the rim and a scenic passage of the Arizona Trail.
As if these attractions weren’t enough, there’s another place tucked into a tributary at the canyon’s western edge that explores its wilder side.
To get to this surprisingly green destination, begin on the popular Sandys Canyon Trail, hike 2 miles through the wide, pine-fringed valley to the equestrian bypass post and veer right toward a hub of signs and activity where the Arizona Trail branches into various options for hiking and riding through or around Flagstaff.
Just around a bend, first glimpses of the petrified sand dunes that characterize the trail stand out in a massive blob of cross-bedded stone. The appearance of the landmark below Fisher Point can be described as having the shape of Star Wars villain Jabba the Hutt and the texture of dinosaur hide.
Because Jabba did his dirty deeds a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away we cannot be sure of when he lived. But we know for sure that Walnut Canyon’s odd geological features are older than the dinosaurs of our own little planet.
The sand dunes formed between 299 and 251 million years ago during the Permian Age when Earth’s land masses were coalescing into the supercontinent of Pangaea. This was a period of climate extremes and harsh conditions.
This domain of reptiles and other species that would later evolve into mammals ended with a mass extinction of terrestrial and sea species. What happened? Well, theories include climate change due to volcanic eruptions, methane poisoning and asteroid impacts. Death Star, maybe?
Regardless, the fossil remains of that time form the backbone of a fascinating hike. From the sign-post hub, hike over to the Jabba-looking formation to explore the cave at its base. At the back of the cavern, look for a slot that lets in a sliver of sunlight.
After checking out the cave, continue east along an unmarked trail to a sign that marks the beginning of the Walnut Canyon Trail. Beyond the sign, the canyon tapers into a tunnel of oaks and willows with an understory of redosier dogwood and scratchy brambles. Canyon walls tower 400 feet on both sides as the thin trail plows through damp aspen woodlands, mossy pines and sun-washed meadows.
Along the way, two spur paths lead to caves scoured from striated limestone walls. The first is just a shallow overhang while the second is a deep shaft with water seeping from above. Bring a flashlight for this one because it goes back about 25 dark, dank feet.
The trail goes on to a point roughly 1.8 miles from the Jabba cave where an overgrown drainage and impenetrable nursery of aspen saplings deny further passage.
Length: 8 miles round trip.
Elevation: 6,820-6,580 feet.
Getting there: From Interstate 17 in Flagstaff, take Lake Mary Road (Exit 339) and go 4.5 miles south to the Sandys Canyon trailhead turnoff on the left.
This article originally appeared in The Arizona Republic.