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Wupatki National Monument

Riding with Arizona’s Ancient Pueblo People

Text and Photos by J. Joshua Placa

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As we wander the planet with no real destination except that place in our motoring mind pushed by adrenalin, the sensual beauty of a sweeping curve, and the pure, exultant thrill of discovery. As the miles and years roll by it gets harder to find that fresh road and soul-stretching horizon. But there is one particular place, little known to man and biker alike.
Wupatki National Monument, just north of Flagstaff, AZ, haunts its visitors with ancient Indian ruins, dormant but not dead volcanoes, rivers of cold lava and booming vistas of the Painted Desert. In one 35-mile loop, riders can see centuries of human and geologic history. Entering from the north end of the park, the landscape shifts from desert scrub to towers of petrified dunes and shades of red sandstone to fir and pinon pine forests and rolling fields of volcanic cinder. The high desert is dotted by the stone remains of pueblo settlements whose people mysteriously vanished after centuries of habitation.
At the south end of the park, scores of cinder cones gather like children to the towering mother volcano, Sunset Crater.  The big, black conical pile of volcanic rubble stands at a foreboding 8,049 feet. Snow topped its crater only a day after I rode by on an early fall afternoon.
It’s been estimated up to 600 volcanoes remain dormant in the Flagstaff area, the last eruption only a mere 750 years ago, less than a blink in geologic time. The visible ruins are clustered at the north end of the park but many more are believed to be buried under the ash, Arizona’s own forgotten Pompeii.
Miles north of the major eruptions, the area’s largest ruin is multi-story, 100-plus-room Wupatki Pueblo (a Hopi Indian word for "tall house"), where the national monument gets its name. The well-preserved ruin once was home to some 100 people, a teeming metropolis by pueblo standards when most villages were typically no more than a clan of 10 to 20. This was a crossroads, a center where tribal goods from as far away as Mexico and California were traded, evidenced by the seashell materials used in jewelry and decoration, as well as a broad variety of pottery styles.
Evidence of human occupation goes back 11,000 years, but Wupatki Pueblo and surrounding ruins were populated in large numbers for nearly 300 years from about 1,000 to 1300 A.D. Then everyone vanished, seemingly all at once and in a hurry. Theories abound, everything from the quackery of New Age alien abduction to a decades-long drought to absorption by other tribes, but anthropologists are still baffled by the sudden exodus.
The Sinagua (Spanish for “without water”), Anasazi (Navajo for “ancient people” or “ancient enemy”). Cohonina (Hopi for a collection of ancient tribes) peoples inhabited large areas of northern Arizona beginning around 500 A.D. in ruins still seen today, although human occupation is evident dating back to the Ice Age. No pueblos were as large as Wupatki except for Tuzigoot, located in what is now Clarkdale, AZ, about 100 miles to the south as the crow flies and uncannily similar in size and basic architecture.
The Tuzigoot settlement also disappeared at about the same time, approximately 1250 to 1300 A.D. No evidence of mass disease or violence has been found at either historic site. Extended local drought in a fragile arid environment appears to be the likeliest cause, but it doesn’t explain native cultures vanishing not just in the Southwest, but also sweeping through the Midwest.
Following the black ribbon that wraps around the desert, Wupatki Pueblo is introduced by smaller structures, like little villages surrounding a large city. Archeologists have catalogued some 2,700 sites in the national monument, but only four others are open to the public: Lomaki Wukoki, Citadel, and Nalakihu Pueblos, all reached by short walks. The Wupatki Pueblo, however, is the centerpiece of the national monument.
The pueblo, as with neighboring structures, was built with nearby sandstone, nearly blood red with iron oxides. Walking among its ruins, visiting its two kiva-like structures (one thought to be used as a ball court, the other as an amphitheater for tribal meetings) and the “blowhole,” a fascinating geologic feature, considered by the inhabitants to be where the Earth takes its breath, will send your imagination into another epoch. The site’s Visitor Center doubles as a museum. Admission is $5.
These Wupatki suburbs were almost invariably built on a mesa, hilltop or even a large boulder, presumably for their defensive position and likely doubling as a signal tower, relaying alerts or messages from one high point to the next. Harvesting as much rainfall as possible from intermittent springs, seasonal washes, and using small dams and terraced slopes, corn, beans and squash were grown to supplement hunting and gathering.
Around the time some plucky English barons forced King John to put quill to parchment and sign the Magna Carta and Genghis Khan was the scourge of Central Asia and China, the people of 12th century Wupatki had built what anthropologists believe was the richest and most influential pueblo in the region, a far reaching trade center and home to one the largest Southwestern populations of the period.
Their success was in no small way built on the ashes of Sunset Crater volcano, which had erupted only about 100 years before settlements grew to significant size. It must have been spectacular. Volcanists estimate it destroyed all plant life within a five-mile radius. A fountain of fire shot 850-feet into the sky and an ash cloud rose 2.5 miles, leaving falling ash to blanket some 64,000 acres. In nearby present-day Flagstaff, where fall temperatures can drop 40 to 50 degrees by sunset, I sometimes hope the volcanoes will wake up just long enough to spit some nice, warm lava on me.
The cinders turned out to be a blessing. Not only do they enrich the soil, but more importantly, the cinders retain moisture, making agriculture practical in a parched environment. As Wupatki and neighboring pueblos flourished, trade networks expanded, bringing everything from turquoise to copper bells and even exotic birds to the seemingly barren area. Some 2,000 people were estimated to settle the area after the eruption, according to archeologists.
Today, the nearby Hopi tribe believes the Sinagua and Anasazi people who lived here remain as spiritual guardians. The Wupatki pueblos live on in Hopi oral tradition and passed among neighboring Zuni and Navajo. The Hopi Bear, Sand, Lizard, Rattlesnake, Water, Snow, and Katsina Clans return to the area periodically to come face to face with their clan history. In this way Wupatki is not abandoned, but a standing remembrance of their history.
No matter your heritage, riding a bike through this place of cultures past feels like a gallop back to basics, where human relationships alone determined survival. Pueblo people had virtually no technology beyond stone tools, rudimentary masonry, pottery making, basket weaving and the bow and arrow. The wheel was never invented nor was any written language; there was no metallurgy nor simple, hand-driven machinery, nor even the apparent use of levers, pulleys or fulcrums. They did not domesticate animals; build pyramids or colossal, iconic statues, nor swords or plowshares; and yet they thrived in an infertile land.
Horses, once common in a variety of species, had gone extinct in North America and wouldn’t be seen on the continent until Spanish conquistadors reintroduced them almost two hundred years after the pueblo people vanished. Transportation and the technology Europeans brought to the New World changed everything, allowing large populations to flourish, but not without a price.
The ride through these ruins, senses and instincts heightened, takes us into deeper mystery. For all our great civilization and wondrous technology, all the gadgets supposedly designed to keep us linked, communicating and together, our humanity can be left behind, leaving us disconnected. At Wupatki, we’re reminded how attached we are to each other and the world around us at a fundamental level that traverses time, whether we like it or not. Maybe motorcycling helps us understand life at a more common denominator, in a world where ultimately we cannot survive alone and apart—a ride worth taking anytime.
For more information about Wupatki National Monument, Click Here
Call the Wupatki Visitor Center at 928-679-2365, or Flagstaff Area National Monuments Headquarters at 928-526-1157.
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Operating Hours & Seasons
Scenic drive, trails, and most pueblos are open all year, from sunrise to sunset.
The Visitor Center is open all year, except December 25. 
Hours: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM MST
Wupatki Pueblo is closed to public use when the Visitor Center is closed. This means visitors are prohibited from walking around the visitor center to access the Pueblo when the Visitor Center is closed and staff are not present. Exceptions include ranger-led activities, official functions or by special use permit.
NOTE: Most of Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time. We stay on Mountain Standard Time year-round. 
Individual  $5.00 - 7 Days
Fee is per person, good for 7 days at both Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments. Free entrance for children under 16. Major credit cards are accepted.
Flagstaff Area National Monuments Annual Pass
$25 - Annual
Admits passport holder and 3 adults (16 years and older) to Wupatki, Sunset Crater Volcano and Walnut Canyon National Monuments for 1 year, beginning from the month of sale. Major credit cards are accepted.
Other Passes
We honor and issue the America the Beautiful - National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands passes including the Annual Pass, Senior Pass and Access Pass.
Did You Know?
The sites at Wupatki were first described by Lorenzo Sitgreaves during his expedition in 1851. Camping near Wupatki Pueblo, he recorded that the sites must have been the remains of a large town covering 8 or 9 miles, and that the pottery was thickly strewn over the ground. 

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