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Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater

Wupatki National Monument

From the main ancient pueblo at Wupatki National Monument, you have a sweeping view East, all the way to the Painted Desert. From the Lomaki pueblo, you see the San Fransicso Peaks looming majestically on the horizon. But from any vantage in the 35,000-acre park, you're afforded more than a glimpse into the ancient past of the Colorado Plateau, right down to a fateful geologic event that changed the landscape and the lives of its people forever.

"Wupatki" is the Hopi word for "Big House," the name given to the aforementioned structure as well as the entire preserve, but the people who lived here were pre-modern Hopi inhabitants. They were the Anasazi and Sinagua people, two groups who lived in the area from about 800 BC to the early 13th century AD. For hundreds of years they eked out an existence farming this arid country and hunting. They initially built pit houses and rudimentary individual dwellings, but around 1100 AD began to build large communal dwellings that became known as "pueblos" and are now associated with many Southwest tribes.

"Wupatki" is the Hopi word for "Big House," the name given to the aforementioned structure as well as the entire preserve, but the people who lived here were pre-modern Hopi inhabitants. They were the Anasazi and Sinagua people, two groups who lived in the area from about 800 BC to the early 13th century AD. For hundreds of years they eked out an existence farming this arid country and hunting. They initially built pit houses and rudimentary individual dwellings, but around 1100 AD began to build large communal dwellings that became known as "pueblos" and are now associated with many Southwest tribes.

Sunset Crater Volcano in the San Francisco fields of Northern Arizona.Sunset Crater Volcano in the San Francisco fields of Northern Arizona.

Most of the pueblo- style structures throughout the area were built around 1100 AD, around the same time as the Hopi and Acoma pueblos that still function as communities today. It is speculated that when the Anasazi and Sinagua mysteriously disappeared around 1250 they may have been absorbed into various tribes around the Colorado Plateau, including the Hopi. The Hopi today consider the pueblos and artifacts in Wupatki links to their ancient and sacred past.

You can explore these ancient housing "developments" via a series of short, accessible trails throughout Wupatki National Monument, which contains in total around 2,700 archaeological sites, including pueblos, pit houses, petroglyphs, reservoirs, and even an amphitheatre and masonry ball court.

The truly unique aspect of these ruins, however, is their relationship to Sunset Crater, a natural "ruin" just 18 miles to the South. About 940 years ago, this was the site of a firey volcanic eruption of hot cinders, rock, lava and ash that could be seen for miles away. Giant lava flows subsumed homes and farms, and the explosion buried others under piles of ash and rock. Cinders piled up around the main vent of the eruption, creating what geologists call a "cinder cone," the formation known as Sunset Crater.

We can only imagine the horror this caused the people living here at the time, as they struggled to escape the immediate danger of the eruption, then contemplated an entirely new landscape that was for all intents and purposes hostile to their former way of life. Where there were once Pinon pine forests and arable meadows, there were now lifeless fields of cooled lava, or just barren desert floor, burnt to a crisp by the wildfires that followed the eruption. With a resilience and apparent acceptance of minimal comfort that seems to characterize the Sinagua way of life, they simply moved their dwellings and farms further north, to land that was previously less appealing, and began again, living here for centuries more. They built one of their smaller pueblos, The Citadel, to echo the shape of Sunset Crater, perhaps as some kind of acknowledgement of the land's influence over their lives.

There are five main historic pueblos in Wupatki National Monument, and it takes about .2 hours to explore them, all with relatively easy and accessible trails of a half-mile or less. Be sure to include Doney Mountain trail, which travels to the top of the cinder cone.

Hard-core hikers have a fantastic opportunity to explore ruins not normally accessible to the public during the "Crack in the Rock" tours, offered in April and October. These are 16-mile overnight hikes with 30-40 pound packs, and are led by a ranger expert in the area's geology and archaeology.

Visit Wupatki National Monument or Sunset Crater online for complete information on hours, fees and directions.

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