Wupatki National Monument preserves several excellent examples of ancient Native American architecture, dating back to the 1100’s, when groups of people migrated into the area. Wupatki is one of three monuments in the area, and one of two on a scenic loop drive off of US 89.
The scenic loop that starts at Sunset Crater National Monument changes drastically, as you approach Wupatki.
It’s right about here that the road drops down from a cool, lush forest to a desert landscape. The sudden change is somewhat jarring.
If you’re coming from Sunset Crater, the first opportunity to see a 900-year-old wonder of architecture arrives at Wukoki Pueblo.
This towering structure is about 2 miles off of the loop road, accessed via a paved side road, and then a short walk.
This would be a visually striking building, even if it had been constructed in modern times. The tower is perched on a bluff, and rises over the desert. Ancient dwellers enjoyed incredible views of the surrounding area.
You’re allowed to walk around Wukoki, and up into it. Of course, use caution, and don’t do any damage.
Archaeologists believe Wukoki was occupied by Ancestral Puebloans between 1120 and 1210. The tower once had three stories, and the entire structure had six or seven rooms, and was likely home to two or three families.
Drive back to the main road, then go less than a mile, and you’ll reach the Monument’s visitor center, and the park’s namesake Wupatki Pueblo.
Pass through the Visitor Center and head out the back door, and follow the walkway down to these impressive ruins.
Here, you’re not allowed to walk into the ruins, but you can circle around them, and see dozens of ancient rooms. Be sure to pick up a guidebook at the start of the trail, so you can read the story behind all the locations.
Wood beams in this part of the structure have been in place for about 800 years. Archaeologists have used tree-ring dating to figure out that most construction centered around three years: 1137, 1160, and 1190.
A great deal of Wupatki had to be excavated in the early 20th century, since hundreds of years of decay caused rooftops and some walls to collapse. Many of these walls were covered with mud at the time, which added to the debris as it crumbled.
In the 1930’s, back early days of the Monument, some rooms were reconstructed, and used as offices and a museum. Park rangers even lived in a few of the rooms! Those “improvements” were removed in the 1950’s, in order to return the structure to a more historically accurate appearance.
It’s not unusual for ancient cities to have public gathering spaces for rituals and recreation. Wupatki has two of them.
One is known as the Ballcourt. It’s located down the hill slightly from the ruins. The Ballcourt may have been used for competitive sports, or as a place for children to play. It may also have been used as a reservoir after heavy rains.
Just beyond the Ballcourt is an odd geological formation, known as the Blowhole. This hole opens into a giant crack in the earth’s surface. Changing weather conditions cause air to either rush into, or out of, the hole. There are several of these holes at Wupatki, although it’s unclear how the ancient people used them.
The other round court is known as the Community Room. It resembles a kiva – a ceremonial room used for rituals. Most kivas are covered, but excavators found no evidence of a roof here, leading them to believe that it was an open-air space for community gatherings and ceremonies.
After you leave Wupatki, there are a few more opportunities to see ruins. Citadel, Nalakihu, and Lomaki Pueblos are further west on the scenic loop road, not far from US 89.
The final few miles back to US 89 are especially beautiful. I stopped a few times to take pictures of the road running through the colorful desert.
The Bottom Line
It’s truly amazing that these works of architecture have survived for the better part of a millennium. A visit to Wupatki won’t take up your whole day — just an hour or two — but it will expand your knowledge of some of North America’s original inhabitants, how they lived, and what they were able to construct.
Wupatki National Monument is located northeast of Flagstaff on US 89. From I-40, take exit 201 and head north for about 12 miles, then watch for a right turn. The loop road to Sunset Crater, and later Wupatki National Monument, begins here. Sunset Crater is about 4 miles from the turnoff, and Wupatki is about 16 miles further, via the loop.
Alternatively, if you wish to bypass Sunset Crater and the scenic drive, continue on US 89 another 14 miles, turn right, and drive 14 more miles to the visitor center.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Flagstaff to Sunset Crater ….
… Sunset Crater to Wupatki…
… and Wupatki back to US 89 and Flagstaff: