Location/Geography: In north central Arizona, Coconino County. Nearest settlement: Cameron; nearest city, Flagstaff. Area: 35,254 (50 square miles). Northeast of Sunset Crater/Bonito Lava Flow. Overlooks Painted Desert region and accentuated by numerous spatter cones.
Spotlight: Once one of the largest pueblos in northern Arizona. Dominant and popular focal trading point for various tribal people); also occupied by different tribal groups over the years. Amazing backdrop of volcano country. Focus: human history, archeological ruins, dry farming and volcanoes.
Snapshot: Wupatki's ruins, as an overall setting, is some 2,000 feet lower than the volcanic region north of Flagstaff. Hence, the monument's desert scrub vegetation is quite different. The three-story Wupatki Pueblo was once home to many people at different times, and agriculture was vital to sustain them. The settlement is built on the edge of a small plateau with unobstructed views eastward toward the Painted Desert and the valley of the Little Colorado River, entering the Grand Canyon region just east of the canyon at Cameron (notably, the famous Trading Post), and not too far from Wupatki. All the rooms at the ruins are partially reconstructed. Less than eight hundred years ago, Wupatki was the largest pueblo throughout the region. It was also a relative newcomer for a constructed settlement on the outskirts of a broad desert terrain. Purportedly, this site had about one hundred rooms and between eighty and one hundred inhabitants during part of the 1100s. Wupatki flourished for a time as a dominant meeting place for different cultures living in the Southwest. It was also the warmest and driest place on the Colorado Plateau; however, water, food, even comfort were scarce. Wupatki was declared a national monument sometime during the 1930s.
Guided Tour Essentials: Chiefly, Wupatki NM's great ruin was once home to the Sinagua, Cohonina and Kayenta Anasazi people at different times. There are hundreds of small and larger ruins spread over miles of desert terrain within Wupatki's boundaries. The five largest are Wupatki, which represents the main ruins, followed by Wukoki, Lomaki, Citadel and Nalakihu. A major population influx into this region began sometime after the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater less than one thousand years ago.
Indeed, this entire region is punctuated with spatter cones (volcanos), whose telltale and darkened hummocks rise like small round-topped pyramids out of the volcanic field.
In the distance, the largest volcano, a so-called stratovolcano, rises in the distance (also, Arizona's highest summit––12,633 feet above sea level):
Although Wupatki appears an abandoned site, the Hopi believe the ancient dwellers of this setting still remain as spiritual guardians. Indeed, stories of these earlier inhabitants are often passed on among Hopi, Zuñi, as well as the newcomers, the Navajo. For the Hopis, however, members of the Bear, Sand, Lizard, Rattlesnake, Water, Snow, and Katsina clans periodically return and refresh their personal understanding of clan history. In this sense, Wupatki is remembered and cared for, not abandoned.
In a way, the wide, far view from this desert seems like a lonely and isolated setting, especially considering the prevailing arid climate of Wupatki's Painted Desert locale.
Pronghorn, what some people mistakingly refer to as antelope, are also frequent visitors in the monument (as are coyotes, foxes, and a variety of avians, insects, reptiles and lizards).
Of course, at one time this entire region was beset with the noisy drama of volcanic activity––flowing rivers of molten magma from a variety of outlets, the last major flow a mere 900 or so years ago.
The volcanic field in this vicinity produced many such fire and smoky outlets.
Yet such volcanic activity eventually subsided and a wetter climate (at the time) proved auspicious given the fertility of the soil for growing the typical three sister crops: corn, squash and beans, supplemented by favored plants, seeds and wildlife. Of course, the Ancestral Puebloans who settled here likely favored the view of today's aptly named Painted Desert, especially engaging sunsets that brought visual relief after a long, hot day.
Geology: Why was this site selected for a settlement? Ancient washes exposed layers of younger, red colored Moenkopi Sandstone (from the Mesozoic Era), providing ideal building material. Kaibab Limestone and basalt were also plentiful, especially basalt due to the expansive volcanic field throughout this region. The construction consists of uniform slabs of sandstone arranged in an orderly stack and reinforced with clay-based mortar, often on sites of existing rock outcrops, creating sound fortresses for their occupants. Isolated by erosion and with excellent vistas of the surroundings, these pueblos are an ideal setting for panoramic views of the area.
Remarkably, the dwellings were not only well-made citadels in their own right, but the builders implemented foundational slabs and boulders into the village layout, thus fortifying structures wherever possible.
Human History: A thick blanket of volcanic ash and lapilli (a pyroclastic material that falls out of the air during a volcanic eruption), created by Sunset Crater, formed the slightly sloping territory. These sporadic eruptions not only choked and fired the atmosphere but in time improved agricultural productivity. This is especially the case with the soil's ability to retain water. Check dams were used to capture excess water to supplement springs and seeps that dot the arid landscape. Today, most wells are at least 900-feet-deep. Once the volcanic activity subsided, some two thousand people moved into the area probably a century following the last major eruption and sometime between 1080 and 1150. Before the volcano became inactive, its literal fallout covered 810 square miles. Afterward, atmospheric conditions improved, with more rainfall on the enriched soil.
The Ruins: The dwellings are scattered throughout the monument and beyond its protected boundaries. At Wupatki, especially, the walls of many ruins still stand. They were constructed from flat brown-red slabs held together with mortar. Each settlement was constructed as a single building, sometimes with scores of rooms. The largest settlement is the Wupatki which, in the Hopi language, means Big House, and was built around a natural rock outcropping. This spacious settlement is believed to be the area's tallest and largest structure for its time.
The monument also includes a ball court (a ball game with origins in Mesoamerica dating back some three thousand years to the pre-Columbian people).
At the far end of Wupatki, there's a rarity of sorts: a geological blowhole. This small limestone cave feature is quite notable because it formed as a major sea cave, growing toward land and upward into a vertical shaft.
Air (atmospheric pressure, really) is either blown out or sucked into a small hole at the surface of this so-called geologic blowhole because of a difference in pressure between a closed underground cavern system and the surface. If one studies the changing weather, such as did ancient shamans, one can seen a barometric change in the ever-changing direction of air blowing in or out of the blow hole. This change can be used to indicate an imminent turn of the weather, which was very useful information for ancient farmers. Wind speeds in the blowhole can also approach upwards of 30 m.p.h. (26 knots).
Neighboring Pueblos: Wukoki Pueblo is located on a side road and branches eastward to the ruins. This ruin is considered the most distinctive pueblo in the park because it’s built on an isolated block of sandstone and is visible for several miles across the flat surroundings. The structure is quite tall, centered on a square three-story tower with a series of intricately constructed rooms at one side. The bricks have a deep reddish tincture and the building merges seamlessly with the underlying Moenkopi rock. Lomaki Pueblo, also in this area, can be reached by a short trail starting at the north end of the park road.
The dwelling is built right on the edge of a shallow vertical-walled canyon, which was probably formed by faulting or other volcanic activity. Further along the rim of the box canyon are several smaller ruins. All buildings sit on flat, thin layered strata. The erosion at the edges of the monument has littered the lower canyon floor with fallen boulders. These broken rocks also complement the crumbling masonry walls of the pueblo. In contrast to the startling color of the rock foundation, the soil around the canyon is mostly black volcanic ash.
Lomaki Pueblo, another worthwhile dwelling to see, is less than 1/2 mile from the main ruins.
The final two major ruins in this area include Nalakihu Pueblo, featuring a small and partly restored pueblo built alongside the main road. It's also close to the northern entrance (toward Sunset Crater).
The other, Citadel Pueblo, lies in the southern sector, standing atop a small hill overlooking the undulating surrounding. Citadel is unreconstructed. Still, the ruin in the midst of the Painted Desert is impressive, especially during late afternoon when the sun is farther west and the Mesozoic rocks take on a stunning array of colors.
Directions: From Flagstaff, take Hwy. 89 north toward Page for 12 miles, then right at the sign for the Sunset Crater Volcano/Wupatki. The Visitor Center for Wupatki is 21 miles from this junction.
Here's a handy tourist's map in case you want to take in more regional sightseeing places:
Contact Information: Wupatki National Monument Visitor Center. Phone: 928-679.2365; Fax 679.2349 Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)
And so, DKos community, we come to the end of another trail, another armchair tour. There will be other scenic places to tour and more supplemental topics to read and think about, so stay tuned for a continuation in this series.
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