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Wupatki National Monument: 12th-Century Native American Ruins in Arizona

Arizona is a fabulous state filled with beauty and natural wonders. Amazing canyons (Grand!), mountains, and desert scenery await visitors.

Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument

Arizona National Monument

One February after my husband and I had already viewed Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument in the north-central part of Arizona just 15 miles north of Flagstaff, we decided to see the ancient Native American Anasazi and Sinagua Indian ruins known as the Wupatki National Monument, which are located another 15 miles on down the road.

The small National Park Service entrance fee covers both of the national monuments, and they are tied together historically. As of 2019, the price to enter both national monuments was $25 per vehicle and less for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. There are fee-free days as well as annual and lifetime passes. Tour-group pricing and a fee-waiver pass for young students can all be determined ahead of time by going to the National Park Service fees and passes page.

Had it not been for the volcanic eruption of Sunset Crater and the resulting ash-strewn land enriching the soil, perhaps the Native Americans would never have moved back to this area of the Colorado Plateau and settled in this region, creating these large pueblos.

Their crops of corn and squash thrived with the added nutrients of the volcanic detritus. Even though this was an extremely arid upland region by conserving rainwater, they were able to prosper for a time. Naturally, when the eruption first took place, Native Americans vacated this part of Arizona for a time.

Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument

Native American Ruins

The Wupatki National Monument has a significant number of ruins (numbering in the hundreds!) spread out over many miles. Archaeologists will undoubtedly be uncovering areas long into the future, learning more about these ancient pueblo building people if there remain continuing interest and adequate funding.

Fortunately for visitors to this area, there are paved pathways, and one can easily see all of the significant points of interest and read about what one is viewing with the help of a guidebook within a short period. People are encouraged to stay on the pathways to preserve this historic site.

At the Wupatki National Monument, one can wander through the structures deemed safe. It is indeed a photographer's paradise, especially with the contrasting colors of the red building stones and the surrounding lands, including the Painted Desert, scrubby but hardy vegetation and mountains in the distance.

The Native Americans who settled here built permanent stone structures using the local sandstone called Moenkopi, which is of a reddish color. They were terrific stonemasons and spent much time chipping away and creating many stones of similar sizes, which were then mortared together, creating many individual rooms as well as communal spaces where they all gathered to have ceremonies or even play games. One of the most extensive ruins was a one-hundred room pueblo!

As far as Native American ruins are concerned, this was one of the largest pueblos built back in that time frame of the 12th to 13th centuries in Arizona.

Native American Indian Tribes

Three tribes were found living near this part of Arizona. They include the following:

  • Sinagua: These people are recorded as having lived from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries in areas of Arizona around these parts and further south. They became friendly with many other tribes of Indians and absorbed some of their ideas and cultural aspects. They were hunters, gatherers, and farmed using irrigation practices. After the fifteen century, any recorded history seems to have disappeared.
  • Cohonina: Evidence of these people living between the years 500 to 1200 A.D. exists because of pottery, building remnants, and arrowheads left behind. They also co-existed with the Anasazi, and some think that the Yuman, Walapai, and Havasupai Indians descended from them.
  • Anasazi: Much evidence of these people exists in the Four Corners region, where the States of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet. They were road builders and early astronomers. They migrated several times due to other marauding Indian tribes and also due to periods of famine. It is thought that their descendants include the Arizona Hopi tribe as well as New Mexico's Zunis, Pueblos, and Acomas.
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Five Largest Pueblo Ruins

Built during the 12th and 13th centuries, the five most massive structures that are on view at the Wupatki National Monument are the following:

  1. Wupatki: This is an enormous pueblo structure that contained 100 rooms built upon a rock outcropping. In the Hopi language, Wupatki means "Big House."
  2. Wukoki: This "castle-like" structure with a standing 20-foot tower probably housed several families and had an adjacent courtyard or plaza for communal activities.
  3. Citadel: This stone structure was built on a mesa at the edge of a cliff and had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. It would have contained some 50 rooms at one time.
  4. Lomaki: One can walk through the rooms of these ruins. Be sure and duck when going through those doorways! They are much smaller than doors today!
  5. Nalakihu: A little distance from the others, this Hopi word means "House standing alone" and is found at the foot of the Citadel mesa.

All five of these pueblo ruins can be easily seen with access to the nearby road.

Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki Blowhole

Another interesting phenomenon is at the Wupatki National Monument. It is a geological blowhole. Depending upon pressure differences in an underground cavern, air speeds up to 30 miles per hour can be experienced coming out of the hole. It also, at times, sucks air inward. This hole in the ground is protected by cement and wire to prevent small things or beings from being sucked into it.

Wupatki National Monument

This ancient Pueblo Indian ruin is at a 5,000-foot elevation northeast of the San Francisco Peaks. Near the arid upland region was the Little Colorado River, which lies on the northeastern edge of the national monument.

So why did the Indians who had settled there and were living in these well-built stone structures and successfully hunting and farming the enriched volcanic lands vacate the area? It is thought that a severe drought brought about by climate change sometime in the 13th century drove them out to seek a friendlier environment in which to live.

Left behind for all the many visitors as well as archaeologists who study this site are the many remnants of their habitation. My husband and I were genuinely impressed with this national monument. It is a site well worth preserving for people who come generations after this to see, study, and enjoy.

My hubby at the Wupatki National Monument.

My hubby at the Wupatki National Monument.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Peggy Woods

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