The sun was just starting to think about lifting its head above the horizon, but we already had a head start on it. The first cup of coffee was down, the gas tank was full, and my girlfriend and I were ready to hit the highway. She was kind enough to let me spend the summer back on my home turf in Northern Arizona, so I was repaying the favor by showing her as much of the area as possible. Today, the fascinating ruins of Wupatki National Monument were on the list.
The drive from my hometown of Page seemed to fly by. Liz would probably say my foot was a little heavy, but I’d like to say it was just the combination of good conversation and killer tunes on the stereo. Either way, we had quickly left the towering sandstone cliffs, skirted the colorful multihued bands of the Painted Desert’s northern edge, and were now cruising through the grasslands of Northern Arizona.
There are a lot of reasons to get up and get moving early in the desert. Fewer people on the road, cooler temps and the crisp morning light is stunning. Soon the San Francisco Peaks and other remnants of Northern Arizona’s volcanic reign took center stage and we knew we were drawing near our destination.
We passed through the entrance to the monument off of Highway 89 and continued on the drive to the visitor center. The volcanic nature of the landscape became readily apparent as we drove. Hills were covered in cinder of deep red and purple hues adorned with large outcrops of sandstone. Vegetation was scarce until we drew near the visitor center and a seep spring. Amid a dry and dusty landscape, the spring was an oasis with vibrant growth trickling down the hillside of black cinder.
Some of the ruins in the area can be visited before arriving at the visitor center, but I wanted Liz to be able to get the most out of the visit as possible. I also had not been to the monument since a middle school field trip and was happy to seek out a refresher on my knowledge of the area. The visitor center was the perfect place to start.
We were greeted by friendly rangers who collected our visitor fee and provided us with us a handy brochure that corresponded with different features of the structures we were about to view. Very informative displays in the center provided even more knowledge, but it seemed a shame to waste valuable time we could spend with the ruins without a gaggle of other curious visitors. We stepped through the back doors and within just a few steps a massive multi-room structure dominated the landscape.
“Wow...,” was the first phrase uttered. “Yep”, was the second. The ruins still amazed and impressed even though I had viewed them before.
That amazement increased as our guide pamphlet described interesting facts and information about the vibrant society that inhabited the area. Humans had roamed the lands as far back as 10,000 years. They hunted and gathered at a time of more temperate climate and when the deer and antelope didn’t just play but thrived. Later a rich tapestry of communities formed around the cinder fields surrounding Sunset Crater volcano.
The volcanic landscape holds a vast network of caves that conducted water and aided in irrigation of crops. Society thrived and there have been hundreds of ruins discovered in the area. Wupatki was the largest of them all. The massive multi-room structure also featured what was believed to have been a ceremonial kiva and ball court. Wupatki is also located in an area that was surrounded by other unique cultures and there are many pieces of evidence that demonstrate vast networks of trade, influence and interaction. It seems however that not all was well in the area.
According to some sources, legends tell of a people who had become so successful at agriculture that they had immense amounts of free time. They began to follow a life of leisure and promiscuity to such a degree that they ignored their duties and roles in society. The conditions of life deteriorated so much that eventually fire and lava were sent to purify the land and cleanse the hearts of the people.
Those that survived settled among the nutrient rich cinder fields and began life anew. Scientific records indicate people began to gather and build at Wupatki near 1100 AD. Sunset Crater is believed to have last erupted between 1064 and 1085 AD. The population of those that built Wupatki exploded over the next 100 years and then seemingly moved on.
Wupatki is the name of just one of some 800 sites in the Wupatki National Monument. The word has been interpreted as meaning “Long Cut House.” Some sources say it is in reference to the structures large size while others suggest the reference is to a nearby canyon cut into the earth. Another legend indicates that the people of Wupatki had ignored the prior history with sunset crater and had begun to resume a life of decadence. Their leader was desperate to awaken his people from their ways and, in a demonstration of shock and terror, cut something long and important before going into exile.
There are several reasons and factors that may have lead the people to move on, but the area was not abandoned. Just as rich as the history of the ruins, is the history of its other occupants and caretakers. One caretaker couple lived on site in the ruins for almost 10 years
after having only been married to each other for two weeks. This legacy of caring for the structures and preserving the history of the cultures that once called it home is carried on today.
Our brochure guide outlined for us what different rooms in the Wupatki structure may have been used for and unique feats of engineering such as ventilation throughout the adobe building. Every once in a while, we would just gaze out over the open plains and the great expanse that was their domain. Nothing but blue sky save the lone cloud or two in the distance.
Coming from a background of guiding and exploring, my girlfriend and I loved the ability to self-guide and at the same time loved having access to the team of National Park Service custodians. While they were mostly seeing to the maintenance of the Wupatki structure, they were never too busy to answer questions or provide insight that can’t be gained from simply reading about a place.
As we walked among the structures, we came to realize our private time imagining life here was soon to be interrupted as other curious minds joined the trail. We returned to the visitor center to learn more before heading out to other sites within the monument and thanked the rangers for their time as we left.
Next, we visited other sites within the monument that demonstrated more of the unique construction and ingenuity in completing the structures. The ruin of Wukoki appears to simply be an extension of a large sandstone outcropping that seems to defy gravity on its own. It is an amazing example of the structures blending with the landscape that would later influence the work of famous architects in Arizona.
The Citadel structure is unique in that little is known about it. It commands stunning vistas and overlooks a large depression and what appears to be a sinkhole. Was it a place to keep watch? Guard a water source? So much of the area still remains an unknown to be studied.
There are many ways that one can experience the ruins besides self-touring. The National Park Service includes available guided hikes, talks and a junior ranger program for the little guys. Guided back country hikes can also be organized with the Park Service for overnight treks to view sites not available for general viewing.
The overnight hikes are an option that my girlfriend and I are very keen to pursue when the fall and winter seasons approach. As it was, our time for visiting was growing short as the heat was increasing, and we still had so much to see. Other amazing monuments and parks are within striking distance of Wupatki including visiting the lava fields of Sunset Crater or going for a loop through the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert for a full day.
Wupatki National Monument is only about a two-hour drive from Page and about an hour from downtown Flagstaff. Going for a walk with a ranger around the Wupatki Ruin will typically run 45 minutes and the back country trek to Crack in the Rock will take two days and involves permits. It can be easy to make a visit to Wupatki National Monument a full-blown expedition or an interesting stop to break up a long drive across the beautiful landscapes of Northern Arizona.
We looped through the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert and Sunset Crater before retiring in Flagstaff for a delicious meal and a night out on the town. But not before my girlfriend kindly reminded me that I still had the laminated guide brochure for Wupatki in my possession. I was mortified but secretly excited to go back. I decided to ride at dawn, as the trails are open from sunrise to sunset and thought it might make for an amazing sunrise opportunity. I was right.
Summer monsoon weather had rolled in during the night and bright bolts of lightning tore the sky all around as I drove out to the monument. It was one of those mornings where everything lined up right and almost seemed as a reward for not just ignoring the brochure in my possession. The rain stopped and the clouds parted to reveal a sky on fire.
I climbed the steps and stood on the patio at Wukoki Ruin to snap a few photos and completely forgot about the storm in the area. The morning was quiet and beautiful; the only sound a gentle misting of rain. Thunder suddenly cracked over my head, and I nearly jumped out of my skin as blazing blue bolts ripped overhead through vibrant clouds. Realizing I was standing on a high place with lots of open space around me I decided it was time to move on.
Thunderbird’s call may have not been so much a warning to duck as to simply look all around me. As I came down the steps, I couldn’t help but laugh as a nearly perfect rainbow stood within running distance from me. It had been forming behind me as my gaze had been fixed on the opposite horizon. The amazing spectacle only lasted for a few moments before the clouds shifted, the light changed and the colorful specter vanished.
Lightning crashed, the rain now poured and I was off to the visitor center. A grin could not be held from my face as I entered and chatted with the rangers. After handing over the very important and informative document I had another reason to grin. Another visitor to Wupatki had just stepped out the back door and uttered the magic three letter word, “Wow…”