Even 10 centuries ago, it seems, real estate was all about location.
There's no way to know why the people who built Wukoki Pueblo back around 1120 chose its site. But standing amid its ruins, on the enormous shiplike boulder of Moenkopi sandstone that serves as a base for the three-story stone house, I could see for miles and miles, across the glorious Painted Desert to the north and west to the snow-shouldered San Francisco Peaks.
It had to be the view.
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For visitors to Northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon is the major attraction, as it should be. But among the many fascinating places to visit as an easy day trip from Grand Canyon or nearby Flagstaff, consider a trio of lesser-known parks.
Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater National Monument and Walnut Canyon National Monument curve in a north-south arc just a short drive east of Flagstaff. Each one offers unique vistas as well as intriguing windows into the past.
At Grand Canyon National Park, the accent is on the splendor of the natural landscape, and the timeline stretches back millions of years. At these three parks, visitors walk through the traces of human history from a thousand years ago.
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I began my day at the parks in the geographical middle, at Sunset Crater. On a cool, sunny day in mid-December, it was far from crowded — I saw exactly one other person, a young woman who passed me on the boardwalk and turned up again later at Wupatki, where we greeted each other and swapped phones to take each other's photo.
But my solitary state only added to the park's eerie beauty. Sunset Crater is named for the volcano in its midst, which erupted about a thousand years ago.
Geologists consider Sunset Crater unique because the cinder cone left by the eruption is still relatively fresh and unweathered. The cone is about 1,000 feet high and a mile wide at its base, with a crater at the top about 400 feet deep. Don't expect to get a look into that, though — hiking on the cone has been forbidden for years after decades of open access led to severe erosion.
You can, however, take trails and boardwalks through the lava flows extruded by the volcano. Jumbles of shiny black lava rock fill narrow valleys and heap up around them, still looking as if caught in stop-motion as they poured from beneath the earth. In the deep silence found far from highways, with the parking lot in the distance the only reminder of the 21st century and a dazzling sun throwing sparks off the top of the cinder cone, it was easy to imagine that lava starting to move again.
Sunset Crater is part of the San Francisco Volcanic Field, which stretches across Northern Arizona. Many of its volcanoes have left cinder cones — more than 600 of them — but Sunset is the most recent major eruption.
When it blew, between 1040 and 1100, the area around it was populated, probably by the Ancestral Puebloans, which included the Sinagua, Anasazi and other groups who are thought to be the ancestors of the modern Pueblo tribes, such as the Hopi and Zuni. They built houses and towns, farmed, hunted and traded across the Southwest going back 15 centuries and more.
The volcano's eruption left a blanket of ashes and cinders over 800 square miles. That likely killed some of the closest inhabitants and destroyed their homes and farms; survivors probably migrated farther away from the volcano.
Some of them might well have ended up at the cluster of pueblos whose ruins now dot Wupatki National Monument, about 20 miles to the north. The two monuments are contiguous, with a 34-mile scenic loop drive tying them together. It swoops through mountainsides clad in pinyon and juniper, and grasslands gone silvery in the winter light, then opens to vast views of the Painted Desert.
Wukoki, which is visible for miles atop its high base, had six or seven rooms and was probably home to two or three families over about a century.
Wupatki, the monument's namesake pueblo (located right next to the visitor center), was much larger and older. Probably inhabited at some points as far back as the 6th century, it grew to more than 100 rooms and at its height might have housed 300 people. The structure was built of thin blocks of local Moenkopi sandstone mortared with clay and probably plastered with mud. Roof beams of spruce or fir trunks came from the pine-covered slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, more than 20 miles away — quite a moving project for people who had no draft animals. (Horses and cattle arrived in North America only with Europeans in the 16th century.)
Wupatki (its name is Hopi for "Tall House") was abandoned by about 1225, as many human habitations in this area were, for reasons unknown. Theories include climate change that brought famine, enemy invasion or cultural practices that led whole towns to move to new locations periodically.
In any case, Wupatki had fallen into serious disrepair by the 20th century. Archaeologists stabilized the ruins and partially rebuilt the pueblo — at one point, park rangers and their wives lived in a reconstructed second-story room.
Today, visitors can take a self-guided tour around the structure and enter some of its rooms. The trail also takes you downhill from the pueblo to its ball court, a walled and excavated oval about 100 feet long. The ball court is the northernmost example of its kind, a feature that links the inhabitants of Wupatki not only to the Hohokam culture of central Arizona but perhaps to the Mayan culture far to the south, in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The exact nature of the games played in these courts isn't known — they might have been anything from pure sport to human sacrifice — but hundreds of them were built across Central America, Mexico and the U.S. Southwest.
Not far from the ball court is another unusual feature: a natural blowhole. An opening through the sandstone to an underground channel creates a strong current of air that, depending on barometric pressure, flows out of or into the hole. On my visit it was a blast of cold air shooting upward. As with the ball court, the blowhole's significance to Wupatki's ancient inhabitants is unknown — breath of the gods, weather forecasting, maybe tourist attraction? Wupatki's location, archeologists say, put it square among ancient trade routes, and pottery and other artifacts found in the area came from as far away as the Pacific and Gulf coasts.
The blowhole made me wonder for a moment what archaeologists 10 centuries from now might make of the ruins of our tourist attractions. And the walk uphill reminded me that I live at sea level, and Wupatki sits about 7,000 feet above it.
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Walnut Canyon National Monument lies south of the other two, on the other side of Interstate 40. The pueblos of Wupatki were built on the surface of the desert, often on high, visible vantage points. Walnut Canyon offers examples of another type of dwelling the Ancestral Puebloans are well known for: cliff houses.
Among the many canyons carved by water deep into the rocky bones of the Southwest — the Grand Canyon is just the largest example — are countless niches eroded into limestone cliff walls by water and wind. The people who lived in the region a thousand years ago built homes in those caves, taking advantage of the natural protection they offered.
In Walnut Canyon, between 1125 and 1250, Sinagua people built about 80 small cliff dwellings. The water in the canyon floor was precious in that arid climate ("Sinagua" is Spanish for "without water"), and they used the cliff rooms for storage of crops as well as living space.
To get a closeup view of about 25 of those ruins, take the park's Island Trail. Be prepared, though: It descends 185 feet down into the canyon and then back up the same way, and passes through many spots with steep dropoffs. But the glimpses into the cliff dwellings are amazing, as is the revelation of how their inhabitants got up and down the cliffs: ingeniously engineered, nearly vertical paths and, in some places, hand- and footholds carved into sheer rock.
If you're leery of heights (or not in shape for a vigorous hike at an elevation of 7,000 feet), try the Rim Trail. I had done the Island Trail on a previous visit, but at the end of my recent day the Northern Arizona weather had done a typical backflip, from sunny and nearly 60 at noon to blustery and dropping toward the 30s in late afternoon.
With rain clouds looming, I set off along the north rim. The canyon's south walls are thickly clad in pine trees, but from the rim you can still see the cliff dwellings strung among them and marvel at the ingenuity and endurance of the people who built them.
Once again, I seemed to be the only person in the park except the friendly ranger in the visitor center. One eye on the sky, I carefully skirted the prickly pear cactus and listened to a chorus of birds, singing as they headed for home. They fell silent all at once, and ahead I saw a bobcat cross the trail, giving me just one alien yellow glance before it went straight over and down the cliff, finding its own path, just like those cliff dwellers of a thousand years ago.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.