Take this short detour to Wupatki and Sunset Crater on your trip south

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Waupatki pueblo. Photo by Bob Difley

By Bob Difley

Snowbirds descending from the Pacific Northwest, the Plains states, or the Midwest into southern Arizona for the winter have several routes to choose from, though most often they take the most direct.

Get to the destination in the most efficient and timely manner! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Maybe this year, rather than choosing the most direct or fastest route, try a different way, with side trips and stopovers on the way.

Instead of focusing on your destination of Phoenix and its environs, fix your sites on Flagstaff, only a couple of hours driving time away. You will pass through some scenic, high-country pine forests before dropping down to the scrub, juniper, and rabbitbrush of the high plateau along Interstate 89. On your way, you could even stop off at the Grand Canyon for a couple days.


Twenty-seven miles north of Flagstaff, a two-lane paved 35-mile loop turns east into Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments, and back to 89 just 12 miles above Flagstaff – an easy, non-stressful route.

Wupatki National Monument

Until eight hundred years ago a far-reaching Native American pueblo civilization spread like ants across this high volcanic plateau, raising beans, corn and squash. They built intricate structures using the abundant uniform slabs of red sandstone stacked like bricks and reinforced with mud mortar atop the natural rock outcroppings, a solid foundation to build upon.

These pueblos acted as a passive solar heat source, absorbing heat from the sun in the daytime and warmth through the night, and offered the inhabitants a wide view across the landscape to see approaching visitors and traders.

Present-day Hopi, the descendants of these former inhabitants, refer to them as Hisatsinom, meaning “people of long ago.” The Navajo word, Anasazi, and the Pima or O’odham word, Hohokam, also refer to these ancient peoples. The Spanish called them Sinagua (sin = without, and aqua = water).

Hundreds of archeological sites are scattered across the plateau, and several have been uncovered and preserved so visitors can see how these early dwellers lived. Short access trails lead to several pueblos.

At its peak occupation during the 1100s, the Wupatki Pueblo contained almost 100 rooms and housed about 200 residents. The pueblo also contains a central circular amphitheater (kiva), and a ballcourt, used for religious as well as sport and social uses.

Like many pueblos, the Hisatsinom built the first rooms into the bedrock, and as the population grew, they added rooms around and above. Inner, older rooms, some used for storage, were ventilated with a series of small openings in the walls.

Near the ballcourt, a unique geologic feature called a blowhole consists of a large network of small underground cracks. When air below ground builds up to a greater pressure than the above, the air blows out the hole – often with considerable force. When the below-ground air pressure is less, the air is reversed and sucked in.

By the mid-1200s, Wupatki had been mysteriously abandoned. “People throughout history have gathered, dispersed, then gathered again, for a variety of reasons, which are seldom mysterious or sinister,” says Ranger Steve. “Perhaps due to over-population or drought, they may have migrated into the Rio Grande Valley and the Little Colorado River area and became Zuni and Hopi.”

Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Continuing along the loop you will pass Sunset Crater, Lava Flow, and Lenox Crater Trails before arriving at the visitor center, which is two miles before rejoining 89. Lava Flow Trail, a self-guided loop, depicts a variety of volcanic features such as hornitos, where lava is forced upward through cracks into strange horn-like protuberances.

Lenox Crater Trail, a more strenuous two-mile round-trip, climbs up the side of a cinder cone where you can see the same top layers as in the Grand Canyon – 250-million-year-old rock – before there were dinosaurs, trees or plants, and before the separation of the continents.

The eruption in AD 1065 blanketed 800 square miles under black volcanic ash. The eruption took place before the masonry pueblos were built about AD 1150, although some Sinaguans lived in pit houses at the time. The volcano continued with lesser eruptions for more than 200 years.

The loop road is suitable for all types and sizes of rigs and adequate parking is available at the view sites and visitor centers. Bonito primitive campground at the Sunset Crater visitor center can accommodate rigs to 35 feet and – weather permitting – stays open through October.

I know you could have arrived at your winter campground two days earlier, but look at what you would have missed. And soon it will be too cold for that excursion. Enjoy your winter.

Check out Bob Difley’s RVing e-books on Amazon Kindle


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