Wupatki National Monument


Overview | Climate/Map | Description | Things to Do | Where to Stay | Nearby

Cultural History

Most of the prehistoric sites at Wupatki National Monument show an amazing diversity of cultures: Sinagua, Kayenta Anasazi, Winslow Anasazi and Cohonina.

Evidence of the earliest cultures at Wupatki are represented by two spear points dating to 11,000 and 8,000 years ago. They were constructed by desert peoples -- nomadic hunters and gatherers who utilized this region until about 500 AD. They made use of the gravel terraces along Little Colorado River where they selected stones (lithics) for toolmaking.

The next phase of cultural development at Wupatki extends from about 500 AD until the major eruptions of Sunset Crater between 1064 and 1066. This period is represented by about a dozen sites where the cinder and ash cover has eroded away (there are probably a great many still buried under lava and ash). The desert archaic period represents the rise of horticulture, the construction of pit houses and community interaction as evidenced by a variety of pottery styles. The later portion reveals increased dependence on farming over hunting and gathering with above-ground dwellings being constructed.

The Sinagua people quickly moved out of the area as Sunset Crater began its eruptions. Once the volcano quieted down, great numbers of Sinagua -- along with Kayenta Anasazi from the east and Cohonina from the west -- migrated to the region and constructed a great number of above-ground dwellings and pueblos northeast of Sunset Crater.

The ash from the volcano may have enriched the soil for farming, and/or a change in the climate may have made precipitation more plentiful. Although these groups had long been trading partners, they now advanced as never before, sharing technology and social activities. This cultural mosaic in the Wupatki basin grew and flourished for over 150 years until it was permanently abandoned by 1225.

By 1825, the Navajo were using Wupatki, and the Hopi occupied the area within the century. Pueblo villages, such as Old Oraibi of the Hopi and Sky City of Acoma, were built at the same time as those at Wupatki and Walnut Canyon, around 1100 AD. There are a number of sites in Wupatki that are still considered sacred to the Hopi and Navajo.

Since the early 1900s, archeologists have discovered and studied hundreds of sites at Wupatki. By 1988, over 2700 sites within the Monument were mapped, marked and identified. At each area, springs, rainfall, and intermittent streams offered a precious source of drinking water. Corn, beans, and squash were planted along the washes and placed on terraced slopes to take advantage of rain runoff. Check dams also helped to ensure crop success.

The largest ruins at Wupatki National Monument are open to the public along the Loop Road:

Wupatki: A Hopi word for "Tall House," is a multi-story dwelling with more than 100 rooms. There is a short trail leading through the ruins that begins just behind the Visitor Center. A booklet provides a self-guided tour. The tour describes 17 stops along the way and includes views of the Amphitheater and the Ball Court.

Wukoki: The "Big House," stands solitary atop a huge boulder, and it may have housed three families.

Citadel Ruin: Left unexcavated for future archeologists, shows decorative uses of various types of rocks in the construction of the pueblo.

Lomaki: The "Beautiful House" -- a short trail leads to ruins.

Exploration & Settlement

The prehistoric Sinagua and Anasazi dwellings at Wupatki were long since abandoned when Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves arrived in 1851. He was the first Euro-American to document these ruins while looking for an overland route to California from Santa Fe, New Mexico. John Wesley Powell, who had navigated the Grand Canyon in 1869, returned to this area in 1885 as head of the U.S. Geological Survey to explore the San Francisco volcanic field and Sunset Crater.

Archeologist Jesse W. Fewkes was the first to map and photograph Wupatki at the turn of the century. Lyndon Hargrave conducted the first excavations in 1931. Many other archeological excavations and restorations have occurred since, eventually establishing that Wupatki was inhabited both before and after Sunset Volcano erupted in 1064 AD. Both the advent of tree-ring dating (dendronchronology) and paleomagnetic rock dating have helped establish the precise dates at which the various ruins were constructed and eventually destroyed.

As Navajo and Hopi occupied the Wupatki area during historic times, two trading posts were established during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some amount of ranching and mining occurred in the region prior to its establishment as a national monument in 1924. Wupatki remains well known to academicians and researchers and is often included as a destination by visitors touring other Southwest archaeological sites.

Park History

Due to the efforts of Harold S. Colton and Samuel A. Barrett, Wupatki National Monument was established by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924. It comprises 56 square miles (35, 254 acres) protecting these cultural artifacts on the southwestern Colorado Plateau. In a 6-year survey conducted by archeologist Bruce Anderson between 1981 and 1987 for the National Park Service, more than 2,700 sites were photographed, mapped and analyzed within the Monument.

Natural History

The Wupatki National Monument region differs considerably in elevation, climate, geology, plant and animal life. For early inhabitants each area offered a distinct advantage. Because of the changes in elevation and precipitation, many distinct ecological zones are represented. We can appreciate this diversity today as well.

Plants & Animals

Higher elevations at Wupatki have Pinyon Pine and One-seeded Juniper and various grasses which provided habitat for Jackrabbits and Pronghorn Antelope. The lower elevations are the more sparsely vegetated high desert community with its characteristic plant community of Sagebrush, Yucca, Rockrose, Mormon Tea, etc. At these elevations lizards, snakes, Coyotes, Mule Deer and Bobcats abound.


At Wupatki, ancient washes exposed layers of younger, red Moenkopi Sandstone -- an ideal building material -- as well as Kaibab Limestone and basalt. The uniform slabs of sandstone, arranged in an orderly stack, reinforced with clay-based mortar, resulted in extremely well built pueblos. The pueblos were constructed on existing rock outcrops, isolated by erosion that provided wonderful vistas of the surrounding region. The multi-stored Wupatki ruin is a good example of this Moenkopi Sandstone construction.

Other interesting geologic features at Wupatki National Monument include:

  • Blowhole: Near the Amphitheater is a good example of a blowhole, an opening in the Kaibab Limestone that inhales and exhales air moving through interconnected underground cavities.
  • Earth Cracks: Earthquake activity has created fissures in the limestone called earth cracks, which are found in the western half of the monument.
  • Spatter Cones: These formations rise like tiny pyramids throughout the San Francisco volcanic field.

For more information on local geology, see Sunset Crater National Monument.

Overview | Climate/Map | Description | Things to Do | Where to Stay | Nearby



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