Wupatki National Mon.
The pueblos at Wupatki are like no other. Wupatki was the tallest, largest, and one of the most influential pueblo in the area. During its peak in 1180 A.D., about 100 people lived in the Wupatki Pueblo, with thousands living within a day’s walk.
When Sunset Crater erupted in 1064 A.D., it forced communities that lived near the volcano to move north. As they moved north, they realized that the cinders that covered the grounds north of the volcano provided excellent planting conditions. As they moved, some of the small, spread out houses began to be replaced by large pueblos. These pueblos, Wupatki, Wukoki, Lomaki and the Citadel to name a few, were surrounded by smaller pueblos and villages. Trade networks expanded bringing all sorts of exotic items such as shells, turquoise and copper to Wupatki.
Nakikuhu in the foreground and the Citadel in the background.
Life at Wupatki was very culturally mixed. Wupatki was at the crossroads of the Sinagua, Cohonina, and Kayenta Anasazi Indians. This mix of people can be seen in the artifacts, trade items, and even in the pueblos themselves.
By 1250 A.D., Sunset Crater quieted and those living at Wupatki moved on, some going north to the Colorado Plateau, while some stayed there and others moved south. Descendants of those living at Wupatki include the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo Indians.
The people of Wupatki started as hunter gatherers progressed to farmers, and more recently have become rangers and herders. It is still unknown whether it was many different types of Native American’s that lived there, or if it was just Sinagua Indians living in different ways under different influences. Evidence from the pueblos can support either conclusion.
The many settlement sites scattered throughout the monument were built by the Ancient Pueblo People, more specifically the Cohonina, Kayenta Anasazi, and Sinagua. Wupatki was first inhabited around 500 AD. Wupatki, which means "Tall House" in the Hopi language, is a multistory Sinagua pueblo dwelling comprising over 100 rooms and a community room and ball court, making it the largest building for nearly 50 miles. Nearby secondary structures have also been uncovered, including two kiva-like structures. A major population influx began soon after the eruption of Sunset Crater in the 11th century (between 1040 and 1100), which blanketed the area with volcanic ash this improved agricultural productivity and the soil's ability to retain water. By 1182, approximately 85 to 100 people lived at Wupatki Pueblo but by 1225, the site was permanently abandoned. Based on a careful survey of archaeological sites conducted in the 1980s, an estimated 2000 immigrants moved into the area during the century following the eruption. Agriculture was based mainly on maize and squash raised from the arid land without irrigation. In the Wupatki site, the residents harvested rainwater due to the rarity of springs.
The dwelling's walls were constructed from thin, flat blocks of the local Moenkopi sandstone giving the pueblos their distinct red color. Held together with mortar, many of the walls still stand. Each settlement was constructed as a single building, sometimes with scores of rooms. The largest settlement on monument territory is the Wupatki Ruin, built around a natural rock outcropping. With over 100 rooms, this ruin is believed to be the area's tallest and largest structure for its time period. The monument also contains ruins identified as a ball court, similar to those found in Mesoamerica and in the Hohokam ruins of southern Arizona this is the northernmost example of this kind of structure. This site also contains a geological blowhole. Other major sites are Wukoki and The Citadel.
Today Wupatki appears empty and abandoned, but it is remembered and cared for. Though it is no longer physically occupied, Hopi believe the people who lived and died here remain as spiritual guardians. Stories of Wupatki are passed on among Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, and perhaps other tribes. Members of the Hopi Bear, Katsina, Lizard, Rattlesnake, Sand, Snow, and Water Clans return periodically to enrich their personal understanding of their clan history.
Amidst what would seem a generally inhospitable area due to the lack of food and water sources, several artifacts have been located at the site from distant locations, implying that Wupatki was involved in trade. Items from as far as the Pacific and the Gulf Coast have been located at the site, such as many different varieties of pottery, during numerous excavations stretching back to the site' exploration in the mid-1800s.
Planning your visit
The scenic Loop Road traverses a large portion of Wupatki National Monument that includes many of the area’s best views and historic sites. Start your journey at the park visitor center, located at milepost 21, where you can plan your adventure and learn more about the history of the region. Along the scenic Loop Road, you will also find access to the park's famous pueblos. Most are located along short, level hiking trails within half a mile of the main road. Be sure to visit the Wukoki Pueblo, one of the more remote structures in the park, where visitors get a chance to go inside its ancient tower.
At Wupatki National Monument, you can also stop for lunch at the Doney Mountain Picnic Area, take a guided tour of the ruins, or explore the park's many hiking trails, including the challenging Crack-in-Rock Hike. This route is open to guided group hikes only, which are available on weekends in April and October. The Crack-in-the-Rock Hike involves a strenuous 16-mile overnight backpacking trip that winds through some rarely seen pueblo rock art and architecture.
Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos
Thank you for helping us protect this important heritage site by not climbing on walls, leaving all natural and cultural items in their place, and staying on designated trails.
An opening through one wall may have been an interior doorway. Pueblos often have the primary entrance through an opening in the center of the roofs. Cultural and Historical Importance
Lomaki means "Beautiful House" in the Hopi language. Located at the end of this trail it had nine rooms constructed from local limestone and sandstone in the last decade of the 1100s. Both the interior and exterior walls may have been coated with plaster, though none of the coating remains today.
Although this area does not look like farmland today, the inhabitants of Lomaki were skilled dry farmers who probably used techniques similar to what contemporary Hopi people use today. Fields were located on the flat mesa tops, in washes, and on terraced hillsides. The presence of just a few inches of black cinders created a mulch layer which helped hold moisture.
The two smaller structures on either side of the earth crack may have housed extended family of the people living in Lomaki. These dwellings are only a few of dozens surrounding both Lomaki and Citadel. With a keen eye you can spot other walls on top of nearby mesas. At one time this was a thriving community who traded with other communities for hundreds of miles.
Although it is no longer physically occupied, Hopi believe the people who lived and died here remain as spiritual guardians. These places are remembered and cared for, not abandoned.
The Lomaki Pueblo in 1941 during stabilization
The Lomaki and Box Canyon pueblos have undergone several stabilization projects over the years, starting in the early 1930s. Even though reconstruction was common during this time, efforts concentrated on stabilization of existing walls to prevent future damage. Excavations of these sites have also been minimal.
In October 1955, archeologist Roland Richert conducted a comprehensive stabilization project of the Box Canyon Pueblos. Work included repointing of eroded mortar joints, re-setting capstones and "capping" the wall tops, and clearing away stone rubble that was causing walls to lean and nearing collapse. All repointing, resetting and capwork was done with cement, tinted with buff and orange colors to match the original mortar. This work was then concealed over with a soil mortar that was obtained from the mesa top, near the structure.
Use of cement in archeological preservation and reconstruction of pueblos was common during this time but is no longer used. Over time the salts and other chemicals in the cement cause damage to the wall stones and prevent water from moving through to evaporate. Current techniques use a mortar mixture similar to the original materials used by ancestral Puebloan people made with cinders and local soils.
The largest historical stabilization efforts of Lomaki Pueblo were conducted in 1941 and 1954. Several wood supports were installed in the first project but were no longer effective and were replaced by hidden metal supports in 1954.
Current preservation includes annual inspections of all pueblo walls, repointing of mortar when necessary, covering of fragile pueblo floors with geotextiles and backfill dirt and monitoring of visitor impacts.
Lomaki Pueblo with wooden guardrails
Management of Human Impact
The National Park Service is always working to maintain a balance of visitor enjoyment and protection of park resources. The ways in which this is accomplished has evolved over the history of the agency and within Wupatki National Monument. At one point, wooden guardrails with stone corners were common in order to keep visitor on designated trails.
These guardrails no longer exist at Lomaki or anywhere within the monument. While visitors are still limited to travel on designated trails, physical barriers have been replaced by education and thoughtfully placed signage.
One factor in this decision was the preservation of what is called a cultural landscape. In other words, an attempt has been made to create a visual experience that is as authentic and free of modern impediments as possible.
Me & the Ghosts of Wupatki National Monument
It was the end of the day in Arizona and I was alone. I’d passed the day’s last visitors on the way in, watched them pull out of the parking lot, a little dust kicking up behind them as they faded into the desert. Then, it was just me and the ghosts of Wupatki National Monument.
When I visited Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, I spent 15 minutes talking to a volunteer about what it feels like to be there first thing in the morning, to wander through the ruins before the tourists arrive. He talked about the people who used to live there, the ones who built the centuries old site, who used to call the place their home. He told me he knew they were still there, that he felt them in those quiet morning moments.
I explored the ruins hoping to feel what the volunteer felt, but I didn’t and I was sad I wasn’t able to be there when the site was quieter and calmer.
When I found myself alone at a pueblo within Wupatki, more than 200 miles north of the Casa Granda ruins, I understood what he was talking about. I got it. I felt it.
I didn’t feel alone. I knew I was the only person there, knew the last visitors had left, that there weren’t any more cars in the lot and I could see the whole site and know that it was just me there, but I still felt them, still felt like I was a guest, one invited to stay just until the sun started to set. I felt welcome there, but there was a warning, too, that the place wasn’t for me once the sun went down.
Around 800 years ago, Wupatki was one of the largest and maybe most influential pueblos around. Archeological research suggests the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater Volcano pushed people toward Wupatki and aided in the site’s rising influence.
Today, Wupatki National Monument includes the remains of Wupatki Pueblo, the largest pueblo within the monument, as well as Lomaki, Box Canyon, Citadel, Nalakihu and Wukoki Pueblos. I found myself alone at most of these smaller pueblos, and that’s where I felt them, the ghosts.
I visited a total of seven National Park units while I was in Arizona, including the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park, but there was something I felt at Wupatki National Monument that stayed with me. Maybe it was that I had the place to myself or maybe it’s just a really, really special place.
The only way I know how to describe it is that this place continues to haunt me. I felt it when I was there, I felt it on the plane when I was heading home and I feel it still, the gentle pull of curiosity that comes from brushing up against otherness.
A LITTLE LIGHT HISTORY
The ruins within Wupatki National Monument were built by the Ancient Pueblo People.
The Wupatki Pueblo included somewhere around 100 rooms and experienced a population boom after the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano in the late 1100s. It was the largest building in a 50-mile radius and was home to around 100 people.
In addition to the other pueblos, there’s a ball court, a visitors center and a geological blowhole, and, of course, a whole bunch of history.
GOOD TO KNOW
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument are adjacent to one another. There’s a 34-mile scenic route that connects the two sites, leading visitors through ponderosa pine forests and then dipping into a painted desert. It’s beautiful and varied and an excellent primer to exploring the variety of Arizona’s landscapes.
Both Sunset Crater and Wupatki are just a short drive from Flagstaff, Arizona, and I spent about three and a half hours exploring the two sites, but if you’re interested in doing a longer hike or are someone who likes to read everything in the historical exhibits, I’d allow another hour or two.
The trails and pueblos of Wupatki National Monument are open from sunrise to sunset every day, while the visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, except for Christmas.
2) The Largest Pueblo is the Wupatki Pueblo
Flickr User Wayne Stadler
This largest pueblo is the namesake of the national monument. Once the home of over 100 people and only a day’s walk from thousands more, this pueblo was an important epicenter. One main feature of the Wupatki pueblo is its a big community room. Historians believe that inhabitants met here to discuss important issues like trade and local community issues. What an interesting mental image — a town hall meeting of sorts, but back in 1250 A.D! Directly behind the visitor’s center, you’ll find a trail that leads to this historic gem. Rated easy to moderate, the trail will take you about two and a half miles round trip. Not only is it paved, but it also features an outlook point that lets you check out the Wupatki pueblo from above!
Wupatki National Monument
Less than 800 years ago, Wupatki Pueblo was the largest pueblo around. It flourished for a time as a meeting place of different cultures. Yet this was one of the warmest and driest places on the Colorado Plateau, offering little obvious food, water, or comfort. How and why did people live here? The builders of Wupatki and nearby pueblos have moved on, but their legacy remains. The monument was established by President Calvin Coolidge on December 9, 1924, to preserve Citadel and Wupatki pueblos. The boundaries have been adjusted several times since then, and now include additional pueblos and other archeological resources on a total of 35,422 acres. Wupatki represents a cultural crossroads, home to numerous groups of people over thousands of years. Understanding of earlier people comes from multiple perspectives, including the traditional history of the people themselves and interpretations by archeologists of structures and artifacts that remain. The site offers several different trails for visitors to walk, hike, and see the various pueblos.
We hope you enjoyed this essay.
Please support this 70-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.
Citadel and NalakihuThe citadel ruin is at the top of the hill and the Nalakihu ruin is at the right of the trail.
Farther in, there is a ruin called the Citadel. This ruin is atop a narrow butte, too. It stands high above the juniper covered plain, giving a commanding view all around. The trail is only 1/4 mile and is flat to the Nalakihu ruin, but then climbs steeply up to the Citadel ruin. This trail was closed for restoration when we drove through, but this is another short, easy stop.
Photo Adventure : Wupatki National Monument, Arizona
When I was in Europe, it was amazing to me how much history was in every turn. Churches were centuries old and some homes had been used for generations upon generations. That is a very different experience than I have in America. We’re a young country, and our history is young history. Of course, our nation’s history doesn’t begin with the Europeans. The Native Americans were here first, and have rich traditions as old as the ones I observed in Europe. However, a lot of their buildings were created to be temporary and easily moved to fit tribes’ lifestyles.
The exceptions are the cliff dwellers and pueblo builders of the Southwest. We were able to see homes built by both, but by far my favorite stop was Wupatki National Monument. Located somewhat near Flagstaff, it is a great stop between Sedona and the Grand Canyon. It is really two National Park Service sites in one because it is right next door to Sunset Crater Volcano – which is historically significant.
Wupatki means “Tall House” in Hopi, and it really was. The Sinagua pueblo was multi-story and had more than 100 rooms and was first inhabited around 500 AD. After Sunset Crater erupted sometime between 1040 and 1100, the rich soil probably improved the growing potential of the desert soil, and an influx of people brought the number of inhabitants to about 100. But by 1225, the site was completely abandoned – probably the result of another eruption of Sunset Crater.
Today, Wupatki National Monument takes care of several pueblos in the area of varying size and state of ruin. It is amazing to me that these people with no visible water source were able to make a home in such an inhospitable environment. It is a site I highly recommend for all travelers – including families with children. While my kids haven’t started an in-depth study of Native American history, it was very beneficial for them to see a home very different from their own.
Everything Everywhere is also a podcast!