Creatures and Caves – Hiking Canyon Vista and Walnut Canyon

An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.
An old jeep track leads into a dark, wooded area near Canyon Vista Campground.

In July, I was off to Flagstaff for more a bit of fun. For my wife, it was hard work – she was competing in the Mountain Man Half-Ironman Triathlon around Upper Lake Mary.

I woke up at 4:30 a.m. right along with her after a fairly fitful night of sleep at the Travelodge on Butler Street (thanks, trains, for blaring those horns!). The Travelodge isn’t too bad if you can manage to get a room on the side of the hotel that doesn’t face the tracks.

Anyway, my plan was to get her on her way, cruise out somewhere for a hike, then return by the time she was switching from the bike portion to the running. I grabbed a ranger at Lake Mary, who told me to head to Canyon Vista Campground. I did as he said, including following the path to the back where there was parking for a trailhead. There was also a map, but it actually didn’t seem very up-to-date.

I stepped into my La Sportiva Trango Trek boots (just in case it was a rocky trail), fired up the GPS, double-checked my water and headed off. For those who wonder about such things, I was also carrying my Pentax K100D-Super, an assortment of lenses, some energy bars, a Leatherman and a sturdy knife. My mistake was not packing my headlamp. More on that later.

A biker pedals past the canyon walls.
A biker pedals past the canyon walls.

If you bear left, the path first goes past a cool rubble field (you can also veer right if you want to go rock climbing). I’m not sure what its origins are, but I’d bet on volcanic. From there, I wound through the forest before descending down into the canyon. Up to this point, you’ll get some nice canyon views. The path starts getting rocky on the downhill, which made me happy I’d picked my more rugged set of boots. Yeah, you could get away with light low-top hiking boots or running shows, but why bother?

During this early portion, you can hear traffic from nearby I40. But that soon fades away, especially early in the morning. I went about two miles before seeing another person – a mountain biker right near a rock outcrop with a small cave (see photo). From there, I went into the Walnut Canyon Wilderness Area. Bikes and any sort of motorized contraptions are not allowed in here. It’s incredibly verdant – unfortunately, that also meant a lot of bugs, which I didn’t count on! No repellant for me. Oddly enough, I only wound up with one bug bite.

This is where I found a really cool cave, and where I also regretted not having my trust Petzl Tikka headlamp. That meant I could only go about 100 feet into the cave before losing too much visibility. I’m not sure how this cave formed, but I’m not betting it’s limestone. It seemed like a crack in the surrounding rock. It was very solid and damp, with lots of bugs standing sentinel at the mouth.

Another cool thing about Walnut Canyon is how many creatures you’ll see – huge wasps, hummingbirds, even eagles (I think that’s what they were). Find a nice place, preferably near some bright-colored flowers. Be quiet. Just listen. You won’t believe the awesome racket of all these animals. The hummingbirds are my favorite, especially when they chase each other around.

An industrious hummingbird takes a break.
An industrious hummingbird takes a break.

I knew it was getting time to head back. So I snapped a few more photos and retraced my steps, but with a little extra speed to get me back in time. A few miles later, I started encountering more people on their way out. Obviously, an early start is the way to go. That way, you’ll enjoy the solitude and then be enjoying some espresso from one of Flag’s fly baristas when everyone else is just showing up.

Total trip: 6.5 miles
Check the Maps & More Page for a map!

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