Explore the Indian Ruins and Wide Open Spaces of Wupatki
Written by Deb Lauman
Wupatki National Monument is north of Flagstaff, Arizona. It’s a great day trip for those interested in Native American history and culture, geology, and the high desert landscape. You’ll see some of the most beautiful and well-preserved Anasazi Indian ruins in the southwest. The loop road through the Monument is also perfect for RV travelers, with camping options available nearby.
Wupatki National Park CC BY-SA 2.5 Image by Steve McCluskey
Standing at the pueblo known as Wupatki, looking out across vast open space and endless, often blue sky to the horizon-it’s hard to imagine people actually once lived here. But they did.
Until about 800 years ago and for thousands of years before that, Native American cultures made this high desert landscape their home. They grew crops and traded goods among their own and other cultures.
A notable influx of Anasazi, descendants of the modern-day Hopi Indians, occurred following the eruption of Sunset Crater in the 11th century. Ash from the volcano improved the soil for agriculture. Eventually, though — and apparently very suddenly – the residents of Wupatki and other nearby pueblos abandoned these desert dwellings around the year 1250.
Today, the reason these indigenous people left the area is still up for speculation, yet they did leave behind much evidence of their collective life on the edge of the Painted Desert, including several well-preserved Indian ruins constructed from the signature red Moenkopi sandstone found all over the plateau.
Located about a 20-minute drive from Flagstaff to the entrance of what is now a 56-square-mile National Monument, these pueblos are known as Wupatki (meaning “Tall House” in Hopi), Wukoki, Lomaki, Nalakihu, and the Citadel, which appear to emerge right out of the bedrock. I recommend making the time, if you can, to stop and see them all. Here’s a map of Wupatki and the loop road to help you plan your visit.
Do the Loop
You can explore the Monument in one direction, driving and stopping at numerous sites along the 35-mile paved loop road – Forest Service Road 545 — beginning (or ending) in two locations, 15 miles apart, along Highway 89 north of Flagstaff.
The National Park Service website says it will take you about 2 hours to see the 5 main sites within the Monument, but I’ve easily spent a full day here, exploring the ruins and the Visitor Center, learning from the Park Rangers on site, and picnicking under bright blue sky, sometimes watching impressive summer monsoon season storm clouds roll in before retreating to the safety of my vehicle.
There are also some nice walks you can do along the way with amazing views of the San Francisco Peaks in the distance, back in Flagstaff. As you explore the smaller, closer details, keep an eye out for pottery shards. Just be sure to leave them behind for others to find and appreciate.
These are the highlights of the loop, beginning at the entrance 12 miles north of Flagstaff….
• Bonito Lava flow: This impressive old lava flow covers area of approximately 2 miles. You can view some of it right from the road, which passes through it, or walk alongside the flow on the first two (flat but sandy) miles of the O’Leary Peak Trail, which departs from Bonito Campground. If you have the time and inclination, you can continue five more miles up the switchbacks on the gated Forest Service Rd. to the summit of O’Leary.
• Sunset Crater National Monument and Visitor Center: This is the entrance to Wupatki National Monument as well, so you have to pass through this entrance gate even if you won’t be stopping at Sunset Crater. If you do have the time, though, take an hour or two to visit the Sunset Crater Visitor Center, take a self-guided tour along the easy 1-mile Lava Flow Loop Trail, and maybe climb a cinder cone on the steep, 1-mile Lenox Crater Trail.
• Painted Desert Vista: I would take at least a few minutes to pull off and take in the amazing panorama of a rainbow of colors, cinder cones, buttes and lava flows. This is also a great spot for a picnic.
• Wukoki Pueblo: Take the spur road and an easy half-mile walk out to this impressive dwelling, which is more like an artistic extension of the huge rock on which it sits than a separate structure.
• Wupatki Pueblo and Visitor Center: This is crown jewel of the park, with a beautiful interpretive visitor center, then a .5-mile walk to a true work of art with 100 rooms, a community room, and a ball court. Also don’t miss the fascinating geologic feature called the “blow hole.” (The trail is paved and handicapped accessible to an overlook but not all the way to the pueblo itself.)
• Doney Mountain Picnic Area and trail: This is a beautiful spot for a picnic lunch, located about 9 miles before you get back to Hwy 89. You can also enjoy views of the Wupatki Basin from the short nature trail. This half-mile Doney Mountain Trail ascends to the top of the cinder cone.
• The Citadel and Nalakihu Pueblos: These are very short trails – about .2 miles one way – but they’re a bit rocky and uneven in places. Also very much worth the stop and walks.
• Lomaki and Box Canyon Dwellings: Located about 4 miles from Hwy 89 is this two-story, multi-room structure with smaller structures nearby on the edge of Box Canyon.
See the map of Wapatki National Monument
Take a Discovery Hike
You can learn more about the archeological sites, including some you can’t see on your own, rock art, geology, flora and fauna by taking a ranger-guided hike, which are held on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays from January through March, leaving from the Visitor Center at noon. These hikes 2-3 miles in length on what’s described as moderate terrain. The area is typically 10 degrees warmer than Flagstaff but is often anywhere from chilly to quite cold at those times of year, so be sure to wear layers and bring a hat and gloves. Reservations are required for these hikes, and group size is limited to 10 people, so plan ahead and call 928-679-2365 for information.
Wupatki National Monument Information
The monument is open year-round, as is the Visitor Center, except December 25th. Visitor Center hours are from 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM, and the Wupatki Pueblo is open to public only when the center is open. The entrance fee is $5 per person, with kids age 15 and under free, and that fee is good for 7 days at both Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monuments.
Where to RV Camp
Just before the entrance to Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments is Bonito Campground, which permits RVs and trailers less than 42 feet with a 14-day stay limit. There are 44 first-come, first-served sites available at $18/night but no hookups. This campground is open from May through mid-October.
Another nearby, year-round option to the north of Wapatki National Monument is the Cameron Trading Post RV Park, with pull-through spaces and full hookups at $25 plus tax per night or $350 plus tax per month. This is a good location if you’re planning to visit the Grand Canyon via the east entrance near Desert View or planning to continue northbound after seeing Wupatki.