Arizona: Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki ball court
Until its abandonment in 1250, Wupatki was a meeting place where different cultures exchanged ideas in the ceremonial ball court pictured here.

Courtesy of Brian Dunette through Flickr's Creative Commons

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. The farmers relocated to nearby lands in northeast Flagstaff, where less ash and cinder had fallen. Wupatki National Monument protects one of five Ancestral Puebloan ruins on the outskirts of Sunset Crater.

Although the soil in their new homeland contained small traces of ash, 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 Flagstaff was a relatively dry region with minimal water. To sustain their community in the arid climate, the Ancestral Puebloans employed dry farming techniques that allowed them to harvest corn, squash, and beans in the region’s nutrient poor soil. Archeologists named these people the Sinagua, for their ability to sustain their community and farmland “without water.”

Despite the occasional presence of moisture in the air, the amount of rain from tantalizing thunderstorms was minimal.  To conserve the little rainwater that fell, the Sinagua built terraces and small rock check dams. Following the Sunset Crater eruption, farming in Flagstaff became less of a challenge for the Sinagua people, because they discovered that the small layers 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.

Established in the 1100s, Wupatki was the tallest and largest of these newly formed pueblos. Its homes ranged 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 droughts and crop failure. Despite the volcanic moisture in the terrain, unreliable weather remained an important factor and the pueblo Indians often performed religious ceremonies to ask the spirits to bring rain and good fortune to their lands.

The circular ruin at Wupatki resembles a great kiva—a subterranean structure where Puebloans gathered and performed their religious ceremonies. The kiva is the lowest structure in Wupatki. The tallest dwelling at the site stands 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. The ruins illustrate the lifestyle of the different peoples who inhabited and visited Wupatki. Despite the benefits brought to the land by the Sunset Crater eruption, trading with others was vital for the peoples of Wupatki and nearby pueblos since unpredictable weather often determined if crops survived.

Until its abandonment in 1250, Wupatki was a meeting place where different cultures exchanged ideas in the ceremonial ball court and traded goods to meet their needs. Tribes from the Hohokam tradition who were living in the southern region brought shells, salt, and cotton, and the communities of the Ancestral Puebloan tradition traded copper and turquoise. Among those who traded at Wupatki were the Sinagua Indians from nearby pueblos, Navajo families, and other ancestral Puebloans whose descendants still live nearby. Today, the ruins of Wupatki, and the nearby pueblos of Wukoki, Citadel, Nalakihu, and Lomaki continue to be sacred to the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo people.

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 30-minute self-guided tour of the largest of five pueblos located within the boundaries of the Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. Other trails include the .5-mile long Lomaki Pueblo Trail to the Box Canyon Pueblos; the Doney Mountain Trail, another .5-mile long trail from the picnic area to the top of the cinder cone; and several .2 mile long trails to the Wukoki, Citadel, and Nalakihu Pueblos. Touring all five 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 at Sunset Crater Volcano, 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 6400 N. Highway 89 in Flagstaff, AZ. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The Visitor Center is open daily from 9:00am to 5:00pm, except on Christmas Day. The scenic drive, trails, and pueblos are open year-round from sunrise to sunset. There is an admission fee. For more information, visit the National Park Service Wupatki Volcano 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 RuinsWukoki RuinsCitadel Ruins, and Ball Court. The Wupatki National Monument is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: August 7, 2017