Almost 1000 years ago, the northern Arizona landscape was literally Hell on Earth. A major volcano erupted a few miles south of many small indigenous settlements now known as the Wupatki National Monument. The volcano built a 1000 foot tall cinder cone while also spewing molten lava out of its sides, covering many square miles of this high desert landscape with several feet of lava.
This wasn’t the first volcano in northern Arizona, and it may not be the last. There are over 600 volcanic cones all over northern Arizona and even up into southwestern Utah. In fact, the San Francisco Mountain that stands above Flagstaff, Arizona is the remains of an ancient Mt. St. Helens type of volcano (Volcanoes of Northern Arizona by Wendell A Duffield).
Now I know a thousand years seems like prehistoric, dinosaur times, but let’s put this in perspective. Rome fell to the barbarians in about 450 AD. Charlemagne was ruling what is now France in Europe in the 800s. And the Magna Carta (the first document specifying basic human rights) was signed in England in 1066 AD – almost exactly the same time as Sunset Crater was wreaking havoc on the indigenous peoples of Wupatki. So, this eruption was in the relatively recent past. One of the benefits of living in such a volcanic area is that the ash from the Sunset Crater eruption really helped the soil quality, greatly aiding these indigenous farmers.
Unlike the huge Chaco Canyon Ruins to the northeast in New Mexico, the Wupatki area consisted of numerous small settlements, perhaps extended family units or tiny villages rather than the huge city that was Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. The Wupatki ruin is quite interesting, however, as it has a ballcourt – quite unique in the Four Corners region of the US, and it has much evidence of widespread trade.
On this trip, I visited sites in the Monument that I didn’t see last time I was there. And winter brings such a different perspective to this high desert land. Only a few miles to the west is the Grand Canyon with the South Rim sitting at over 7000 feet (2133 meters), and when I visited in early February, the South Rim was blanketed in around 2 feet of snow. Down here, it felt like spring with temperatures around the low 50s F (12 C). The only snow was in the areas with afternoon shadows.
This was quite an interesting little off trail hike as this ruin was built on a very defensible hill, providing a 360 degree view of the area, and maybe only a mile from the Lomaki Pueblo ruins and only about a mile or so from the Citadel Pueblo across the road.
As I was walking back to the Lomaki parking area, I found another old ruin on the northwest end of another volcanic hill. As you can see, there’s not much left of this one.
After my “off path” exporations, I proceeded up what is called Box Canyon to explore those little villages. The weather was perfect, and I only saw a couple of other people in this area. This was such a welcome relief from the Grand Canyon crowds. For me, it is really hard to get into the proper “seeing mode” when you’re trying to get past the crowds. This was such a nice, relaxing day.
What I found so interesting here is that these small pueblos are all within easy sight of one another. And the more you look, the more ruins you see. I’m sure with more extensive “off trail” explorations, many more ruins would come into view. However, the Park Service doesn’t really encourage those off trail exploits.
We could really learn a bit from these ancient indigenous people about how to construct more sustainable and environmentally friendly settlements. These people lived WITH the land, not overpowering all of the resources. With our modern technologies we could do so much more to reduce our footprints on our lands and at the same time build more relaxing and socially comfortable living spaces.
And finally I arrive at Lomaki, one of the larger and better preserved ruins in the Monument.
I think what a lot of people see when they look at these ruins are old, broken down structures that are fairly unremarkable by today’s standards. But, remember these pueblos were constructed around 1000 years ago using only what was available in the nearby area. These walls are straight and their alignments are reasonably true. I haven’t studied if there are any astrological alignments here at Wupatki, but if you have ever been to, or studied, Chaco Canyon over in New Mexico, you know that most of those ruins were built to align with the sun at certain times of the year – winter and summer solstice as well as the equinoxes.
And what is even more interesting is that many of these ruins are constructed similarly to the old European castles. They are built on defendable positions, usually near a water source with good views of the surrounding area. So, perhaps the Old World thinking about 1000 years ago wasn’t much different from New World thinking 1000 years ago. Agriculture and nearby resources were critically important on both continents.
By now the light was getting difficult, so I decided to move on. There is another major ruin to the east – Wukoki Pueblo. While it is not a large as Wupatki, it is in excellent condition and presents quite the imposing view as it is built upon a small mesa. Wukoki has some really impressive architecture, and the stone work is magnificent.
In fact, Wukoki still has a room with a complete and intact wooden beam ceiling. What I find impressive is going into these ancient rooms in the heat of summer and finding the interior rooms still quite comfortable. I have been in Chaco Canyon in the 100 plus degree F heat (38 + C), and the interior rooms are really still comfortable. We think of these indigenous people as primitive, but their architecture says otherwise.
I must wonder this – will any our our homes still be standing 1000 years from now, especially those here in the US?
Another question I have is that since the pueblos in the more western part of the Monument are all within sight of one another, where are the other pueblos near Wukoki, and Wupatki, for that matter? I know that some of the ruins were pillaged for building materials for the early white settlers, and other ruins were just vandalized and some (many) materials were taken as souvenirs, but where are those remains?
The area has been so abused and vandalized over the years prior to its Monument status, that the Park service doesn’t want much “off trail” exploration. I asked this question to a ranger named Paul. He told me that if you really start exploring around in detail, that there are almost countless ruins. However the Monument staff keeps many of these locations hidden to prevent further scavenging and vandalism. And of course with the use of the indigenous building materials, many of these ruins are in plain sight, yet mostly undetectable to the casual observer.
There was a cool path that took off toward the back side of Wukoki, which is from where I took the above photo. And a bit further to the west was a dry creek bed as well as some really interesting rock formations on the far side of the creekbed. The creekbed was pretty sandy with some bits of lava gravel. I figured that I wouldn’t hurt anything by walking up the creek bed a ways. Boy what a cool visual surprise. Just a bit north of the Wukoki were some really fascinating rock formations and other things.
Walking a bit further north, I found this cool scene where another small creek came into the main one where I had been walking. Evidently when the water runs strong here, the lava bits get pushed over the red sand forming some awesome color patterns.
In my opinion, removing the colors and just focusing on the shades and textures really improves this photo. The curve of that little side stream becomes much more prominent. And with the stk being so deep blue, that allowed the black and white conversion to really darken down the sky to add more mystery to the scene.
With all of the volcanoes around, I decided that on my last day in the area that I would hike up one to check it out. That morning I had arisen at 4:30 am in order to capture the first light up at the Grand Canyon, so the rest of the day was just for kicking about. About two-thirds of the way into the Monument from the north end is a little turn off for Doney Mountain – a set of very old volcanic cones. The park road drives right past the western edge of Doney Mountain.
I am not sure how old Doney Mountain is, but the cinder cone has a lot of vegetation now. Nevertheless, the hike was really fun. It was quite a bit cooler this day, which made the steep trail easy.
As Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park – “life finds a way.”
The light looking south wasn’t good for photos by this time of day, but Doney Mountain lies along an ancient fault line that dramatically changed the landscape here. Some if it is visible in the above photo. Well, by now that 4:30 am wake up was beginning to be felt, so I hiked back down and headed out for Cameron.
I guess that about all for my Wupatki Monument exploits. I hope you a have enjoyed the virtual tour and didn’t mind my soapboxing too much. Anyway, here is one last photo for the road.
I really want to thank everyone who has stopped by to read my story about these ancient people trying to live in this even more ancient land. Happy and safe travels!
3 thoughts on “Wupatki – An Ancient World”
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A beautiful tour. I agree the monochrome is best on the lava bits over the red sand contours.
I also agree we could put our tech and advancements to excellent use providing more sustainable living across our planet, but that would take a shift from personal profit to other values. As long as those who build and ‘make’ are focused on encouraging consumption to raise their monetary gains, we humans will continue to ravage nature and perhaps our own inner peace.
At least there are still many wide open spaces in the U.S., and it’s fascinating to see some of these older cultures. As you said, they were more advanced than we give them credit for, and it definitely makes me think when I see ruins in place of their once thriving societies.
Thanks for sharing you images, travels and thoughts!
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Sheri, thank you for your wonderful comments, and I am glad that you like the monochrome image as well.
Very glad that my “soapboxing” wasn’t offputting. Thanks again for reading, and have a wonderful day.
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