Arizona: Wupatki National Monument

A red sandstone pueblo with shrub vegetation against a blue with wispy clouds and a full rainbow.
Wupatki Pueblo is the largest free-standing pueblo structure in Northern Arizona. 900 years ago, it was the largest trading center for 50 miles.

NPS - C. Cooksey

Wupatki National Monument protects over 2,600 ancestral Puebloan sites 20 miles north of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Over 900 years ago, the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano in Arizona forced the people living in the region of present-day Flagstaff to evacuate their homes and the lands they had cultivated for 400 years. Although the community near Sunset Crater had enough warning to vacate the area, the lava and cinder debris burned and covered the ancestral Puebloan pithouses. The eruption not only destroyed homes, but it also changed the land, making it difficult for the Sunset Crater community to grow crops. Eighty years after the eruption farmers established a successful community in nearby lands to the northeast where less ash and cinder had fallen.

Residents of Wupatki and nearby pueblos realized that their agricultural community could benefit from the unique volcanic terrain. Until the eruption of Sunset Crater, the land in the Wupatki Basin was mostly hard sandstone rock.  Following the Sunset Crater eruption, farming became less of a challenge because they discovered that the few inches of cinder and ash blanketing the northeastern lands helped keep the soil moist. As a result, a new agricultural community spread in the northeastern part of the region where the people built larger multi-level pueblos--instead of smaller scattered pithouses as had been their tradition before the volcanic eruption.

Even still, ancestral Puebloans employed dry farming techniques that allowed them to harvest corn, squash, and beans in the region’s nutrient poor soil.  To conserve the little rainwater that fell, people built terraces and small rock check dams. Lines of stones were placed next to newly planted crops to protect them from the drying winds and harsh sun. 

Built in the early 1100s, Wupatki Pueblo was the tallest and largest of these newly formed pueblos. Pueblos here range from one-story single-family structures to multi-level 100-room dwellings. Although most of these rooms served as residences, some were for storage and others were for processing food. The Wupatki design demonstrates that the people recognized the need to store food in case of drought and crop failure. Despite the volcanic moisture in the terrain, unreliable weather remained an important factor. These communities likely would have performed religious ceremonies to ask the spirits to bring rain and good fortune to their lands.

The large circular room at Wupatki resembles a ceremonial room called kiva, a subterranean structure where people gather and perform religious ceremonies, because of its shape, bench seating, and central hearth. Called the Community Room today it is uncertain if this area was used strictly for ceremonies or if it was also utilized as a general gathering and trading area. Traditional kiva structures also have roofs but there is no evidence that the Community Room ever had one. The location of the structure, below but near the main pueblo, suggests that it was built so all residents would be able to hear and view the activities inside. 

The tallest rooms at the site stand three stories high, with double walls measuring up to six feet tall. To fill in these double walls, the Wupatki pueblo people used rubble, and to build their masonry dwellings, they used sandstone slabs, limestone blocks, and chunks of basalt cemented with a clay-based mortar. The Wupatki residents also designed a ventilation system that allowed them to build fires within their homes. 

To support these structures, the people at Wupatki placed wooden beams and covered the ceilings with timber. Today, although the roofs no longer exist, and despite the effects of weathering, many components of the sturdy Wupatki dwellings remain intact. These buildings illustrate the lifestyle of the different people who inhabited and visited Wupatki. Despite the benefits brought to the land by the Sunset Crater eruption, trading with others was vital for the people of Wupatki and nearby pueblos since unpredictable weather often determined if crops survived. This was a thriving community until the mid-1200s when a combination of drought and the cultural importance of migration caused people to move into other areas.

During the height of occupation in the late 1100s Wupatki Pueblo was a meeting place where many different cultures exchanged ideas and traded goods to meet their needs. Trade routes existed for hundreds of miles in all directions. Copper bells and Macaw Parrots from Mesoamerica, shells from the coastal areas to the south and west, turquoise from the north, obsidian, and hundreds of pottery styles are all evidence of a larger cooperative community. Intricate examples of textiles were also found within the pueblo and may have been the local export item. 

Although these sites are no longer physically occupied, descendant communities including Hopi believe the people who lived and died here remain as spiritual guardians. All the Pueblos continue to be remembered and cared for.

Visitors can begin exploring Wupatki National Monument at the visitor center, where museum exhibits feature the stories of the people who lived in Wupatki and surrounding pueblos. Behind the visitor center, the Wupatki Pueblo Trail takes visitors on a .5-mile, 30-minute self-guided tour of the largest of seven pueblos seen along four trails. The Lomaki Pueblo trail is a .5-mile loop featuring three different structures, The citadel and Nalakihu Trail is a .2-mile out and back taking visitors to the top of a small cinder hill, and the Wukoki Pueblo Trail is .2-mile loop with a 3 story tower structure. The Wupatki, Wukoki, and Citadel trails are all partially accessible. Construction is ongoing at the Lomaki Pueblo Trail to create an accessible route. Touring all the pueblos takes approximately two hours.

Tourists are also encouraged to visit nearby Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, where the visitor center displays exhibits on volcanoes. Here, visitors can learn about Sunset Crater and its impact on the pueblo communities while taking the one-mile Lava Flow Trail. Although there is no camping in Sunset Crater Volcano or Wupatki, campsites are available at the Bonito Campground across from the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument visitor center. 

 

Wupatki National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located at 25137 N Wupatki Loop Rd. Flagstaff, AZ 86004. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00am to 4:30pm, except on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. The scenic drive, trails, and pueblos are open year-round from sunrise to sunset. There is an admission fee of $25 per vehicle; all America The Beautiful Interagency passes are also honored. For more information, visit the National Park Service Wupatki National Monument website or call 928-679-2365.

Many components of the Wupatki National Monument have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey including: the Wupatki Pueblo, Wukoki Pueblo, Citadel Pueblo, and the Ball Court

Last updated: August 7, 2017