Sunset Crater National Monument
One hypothesis of why the people of Wupatki left almost 1,000 years ago is the significance of the neighboring Sunset Crater National Monument. This volcano erupted around the same time and probably affected farming and other parts of these people’s lives.
Many of the local native peoples place the crater into part of their stories including that some of their deities live there or that the volcanoes are guardians of the peaks nearby where the gods live.
This park is found on the same road after driving through Wupatki National Monument. What’s amazing is the dramatic change in landscape as you approach the crater. It turns into an otherworldly place with black grainy soil and craggy, brittle, sharp crust.
Sunset Crater is relatively small with only a few trails, but it is worth the hour or so to stop and explore. There is a trail at the base of the mountain (you aren’t allowed to hike Sunset Crater) that takes you through the geologic wonderland. However, I couldn’t help but thinking that I was walking over some hollow ground that could give way at any moment.
It is beautiful and ethereal and really eye opening as to how a volcano can change a landscape. I’m sure it is nothing compared to real active volcanoes, but being rather recent and untouched scientists can use Sunset Crater to watch an environment reboot itself from such a catastrophic event.
In addition to a short trail through a crusty lava field, I also hiked up the neighboring crater. It is also a short trail, 900 meters, but very steep up the side of a volcano on very loose black sand. I was treated to a spectacular view at the top overlooking its caldera I could see the San Francisco Peaks with the sun starting to creep its way behind them.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
One hypothesis of where the people of Wupatki went is to a settlement of canyon cliff dwellers about 40 miles to the south on the other side of the volcano. At least that’s what one of the signs proposes at Walnut Canyon National Monument.
This was actually the first place I explored when I went north for my Grand Canyon adventure. It is found just south of Interstate 40 just east of Flagstaff. This is completely different from the Wupatki ruins in both construction and look. These dwellings were built into protected coves along the edge of the cliffs of Walnut Canyon. They are small, very rudimentary rooms. On the rims of the canyon they farmed and there are other ruins of pit houses and pueblos. Throughout the park are hundreds of ruins.
The visitor center is perched right on the rim and starts the trail down to an island in the middle of the canyon. This trail offers fantastic access to some of the ruins and great views of others across the way. From the Island Trail you can really get a sense of how many of these rooms there once were.
When I visited the monument, the trail was being renovated, so only part of it was open. Usually, it wraps all the way around the island. After exploring this trail I went back to the rim to see the pueblo and pit house sites.
There is also a rim trail that takes you along the rim to an overlook. It was here that I paused and reflected as a red-tailed hawk glided by on the updrafts of the canyon in front of me and a spider floated down dangling from a fine strand of silk.
I’ll continue to explore the special places of America’s ancestral people and learning about who they were, and I encourage you too as well. There are ancestral sites throughout the United States that are important to visit and learn from. Take the time to listen to their stories and see how they fit into and can help tell the broader story of America.