Wupatki National Monument, AZ

By Ron Goulet

Nestled between the Painted Desert and ponderosa highlands of northern Arizona, Wupatki is a landscape of legacies. Ancient pueblos dot red-rock outcroppings across miles of prairie. Where food and water seem impossible to find, people built pueblos, raised families, farmed, traded, and thrived.

Wupatki National Monument was established by President Calvin Coolidge on December 9, 1924, to preserve Citadel and Wupatki pueblos. Monument boundaries have been adjusted several times since then, and now include additional pueblos and other archeological resources on a total of 35,422 acres.

Places

For its time and place, there was no other pueblo like Wupatki. Less than 800 years ago, it was the tallest, largest, and perhaps the richest and most influential pueblo around. It was home to 85-100 people, and several thousand more lived within a day’s walk. And it was built in one of the lowest, warmest, and driest places on the Colorado Plateau. What compelled people to build here?

Human history here spans at least 10,000 years. But only for a time, in the 1100s, was the landscape this densely populated. The eruption of nearby Sunset Crater Volcano a century earlier probably played a part. Families that lost their homes to ash and lava had to move. They discovered that the cinders blanketing lands to the north could hold moisture needed for crops.

As the new agricultural community spread, small scattered homes were replaced by a few large pueblos, each surrounded by many smaller pueblos and pithouses. Wupatki, Wukoki, Lomaki, and other masonry pueblos emerged from bedrock. Trade networks expanded, bringing exotic items like turquoise, shell jewelry, copper bells, and parrots. Wupatki flourished as a meeting place of different cultures. Then, by about 1250, the people moved on.

The people of Wupatki came here from another place. From Wupatki, they sought out another home. Though no longer occupied, Wupatki is remembered and cared for, not abandoned.

Pueblos

Pueblos at Wupatki are prehistoric villages that were occupied 900 years ago. Though their remains stand as silent sentinels today, they were once homes that echoed with activity, voices, life, and laughter. In parts of the Southwest, some Native American people continue to live in stone pueblos today.

Scenic Vistas

The physical setting of Wupatki, with its vast undeveloped vistas, unpolluted air, clear dark nights, solitude, and quiet, provides a rare opportunity to glimpse something of the prehistoric experience. Modern intrusions are few and distant. Visibility can extend to 60 miles or more. And the silence is deafening. In many respects, this setting would seem familiar to the builders of Wupatki Pueblo.

As the population of the western United States continues to grow, opportunities to view a natural landscape, to enjoy a night sky unpolluted by city lights, and to encounter natural quiet are becoming increasingly rare. As these opportunities decrease elsewhere, the value of Wupatki’s natural vistas and soundscapes increases in importance. Places like this provide a rare baseline against which we can measure the effects of approaching urbanization.

Walking/Hiking Opportunities

All trails are open from sunrise to sunset to self-guided visitation. Please stay on designated trails—the Wupatki backcountry is closed to protect fragile archeological sites. Pets are not permitted on any park trails for the same reason.

Wupatki Pueblo is the largest pueblo in the monument, with about 100 rooms. The ½-mile (0.8 km) loop trail begins at the visitor center’s back door. Don’t miss the ball court or the blowhole, a fascinating geological feature, at the far end of the trail.

You can reach Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos via an easy, ½-mile (0.8 km) trail. These pueblos overlook a pair of small canyons where prehistoric people used dry farming techniques to cultivate corn, beans, squash, and cotton.

Citadel and Nalakihu Pueblos are located along a short, ¼-mile (0.4 km) trail. The walkway is flat to Nalakihu, the ascends a steep hill to reach The Citadel’s stunning vistas.

Wukoki Pueblo appears alone at the end of its ¼-mile (0.4 km) trail. Look for animal tracks in the sand along the trail to see that the pueblo is not as deserted as it seems.

Doney Mountain

The Doney Mountain Trail is a ½-mile (0.8 km) walk from the picnic area to the top of a volcanic cinder cone that offers spectacular views along the way.

Discovery Hikes are short day hikes offered on some Saturdays from November through March. Frequency of hikes will vary depending on available staffing. There is an additional fee for some of the hikes.

For a special ranger-guided backpacking experience, consider the Crack-in-the-Rock hike, offered on weekends in April and October. This trip explores fantastic rock art and pueblo architecture in an area not normally open to the public. Hikes are led by a park ranger and a subject matter expert.

This is a strenuous, 16–20-mile (25–33 km) cross-country overnight trip, carrying a 35-45 pound pack. Each hike is limited to 12 people; the minimum age is 10 years. The cost is $75.00 per person, and participants are selected through a lottery system.

Guided hikes provide the only public access to many areas of the monument. These areas are home to a rich cultural and biological landscape.  Hikes follow strict Leave No Trace principles.  GPS devices are not permitted.

Editor’s Note:  This is a premier experience!  There’s no other way to see the most spectacular and extensive ruins and rock art hidden in the Wupatki backcountry.  They are very carefully protected, for good reason.

Please call for more information: 928-679-2365

Photography Tips

The arid climate conditions here and intense sunlight makes capturing landscape moods and pueblo ruins difficult during mid-day sun.  The bright sun washes out the colors.  The best images are captured in the early morning or late evening, sunrise and sunset.  The colors of the rocks and the scenic vistas are more intensely red and yellow at these times when the sun is low.  

www.nps.gov/wupa

Getting to Wupatki National Monument & Scenic Drive

From Flagstaff:  take US-89 north for 12 miles (19 km). Turn right at the sign for Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments. The Wupatki Visitor Center is 21 miles (34 km) from this junction. The drive time from Flagstaff to the Wupatki Visitor Center is 45–60 minutes.  The scenic drive through Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments terminates after passing through Wupatki, again at US 89. Turn left (south) to return to Flagstaff, turn right (north) to go toward Cameron, Arizona.

The entire scenic drive takes you through open meadow, beautiful ponderosa pine trees, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, juniper grassland with views of the Painted Desert, and the open red rock landscape of the Wupatki Basin.

Wupatki National Monument Hours

The scenic drive is open year round, day and night.  The Wukoki, Lomaki, and Citadel trails are open from sunrise to sunset.

Visitor Center

The Wupatki Visitor Center is open year-round from 9:00 AM until 5:00 PM MST, except December 25.

NOTE: Most of Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time. We stay on Mountain Standard Time year-round.

The Wupatki Visitor Center includes museum and restroom facilities. The building is styled after a traditional Navajo dwelling called a hogan. Park rangers are present, and Junior Ranger activities are available.  Visitor Center telephone: (928) 679-2365.

Entrance Fee

The following fees cover entrance to both Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument for seven days:

  • $20.00 per passenger vehicle
  • $15.00 per motorcycle
  • $10.00 per cyclist or pedestrian

Flagstaff Area National Monuments Annual Pass – $40, admits all occupants of the passholder’s vehicle to Sunset Crater Volcano, Wupatki, and Walnut Canyon National Monuments for one year from the month of sale.

Wupatki National Monument honors and issues America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands passes including the Annual Pass, Senior Pass and Access Pass.

Camping

None in the immediate Wupatki area or in the national monument itself. Check on camping information for Flagstaff, Arizona, or Coconino National Forest.

Weather

Lower than Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in elevation, temperatures at Wupatki are a little warmer.  Weather can vary widely, especially with elevation. At Wupatki you can expect cool nights year round. Expect windy conditions most of the year.

Spring is usually mild, but heavy snowfall can occur into early April! Summer days are warm with temperatures in the 90s; afternoon thunderstorms are likely July to September. In winter, snow and freezing temperatures alternate with mild weather, but heavy snows do occur.

Be prepared for abrupt weather changes in any season. Best advice – dress in layers.

Food/Dining

Flagstaff has over 200 restaurant choices from fast food to family, casual restaurants and fine dining.  Visitors may also wish to head to Cameron, Arizona, for meals at Cameron Trading Post.

Local Police

Contact the Wupatki National Monument Visitor Center (928) 679-2365, or dial 911 for Coconino County Sheriff or emergency services.

Hospital/Emergency

Contact the Wupatki National Monument Visitor Center (928) 679-2365, or dial 911 for Coconino County Sheriff or emergency services.  Nearest hospital is Flagstaff Medical Center, 1200 N. Beaver Street, Flagstaff, Arizona, 86001