Sunset Crater Volcano/Wupatki National Monument loop.
Mar 18, 2010
|Well, we had a slight change of plans! In my last post I thought that we were going to do a guided tour of Sedona on Wednesday. But after checking the weather, we decided that Sedona should be put on hold until later in the week.
So instead, we packed a nice lunch, picked up Dick and Lou and were on our way for an all day excursion of the Grand Canyon Loop. We traveled north on SR 89A through Oak Creek Canyon. Such a beautiful ride! Knowing we'd be on this road again during our Sedona tour, we made a couple of quick stops to stretch our legs and enjoy the beautiful snow before continuing north on I-40. Taking exit 201 we proceeded north on U.S. Route 89 to our first destination today, the Sunset Crater Volcano/Wupatki National Monument loop.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is the slightly tautological name given to an area northeast of Flagstaff containing the results of much igneous activity - several colorful cinder cones formed by extinct volcanoes, and large expanses of lava and ash, mostly unobscured by vegetation and still pure black in color. The dominant peak is Sunset Crater, the most recent in a six-million-year history of volcanic activity in the Flagstaff area, erupting sometime between 1040 and 1100.
As with the other cones, its slopes have distinctive dusky red-brown patches formed by oxidized iron and sulphur, which caused John Wesley Powell, who was the first modern-day explorer of the area in 1887, to name the mountain 'Sunset Peak'. The contrasting colors of the cinders provide the most unusual aspect of the national monument but the jagged and twisted lava fields are also quite spectacular. Sunset, and the neighboring craters, are just one small part of the San Francisco volcanic field, an extensive region of nearly 2,000 square miles that contains some 600 identified volcanoes.
Our first stop was the visitor center where we enjoyed a short film, exhibits and a seismograph station, before moving on down the road, passing a huge expanse of lava, the Bonito Lava Flow. Our next stop was the Lava Flow Trail which was very interesting and informative. Here we learned that the same process that created Sunset Crater also created a sculpture garden of extraordinary forms at its base. As new gas vents opened, spatter cones sprouted from the ground-like miniatures of the volcano itself.
Partially cooled lava, pushing through the cracks in the crust like toothpaste from a tube, solidified into wedge-shaped squeeze-ups, grooved from scraping against harder rock. The entire event may have lasted six months to a year. In a final burst of activity red and yellow oxidized cinders shot out of the vent and fell onto the rim. The colorful glow from these cinders reminded people of a sunset and led to the volcano's name.
We continued on, past the Painted Desert enjoying the changes in scenery before arriving at the turnoff to the Wukoki Pueblo, located in Wupatki National Monument.
Wupatki National Monument is one of several sites preserving pueblos (houses) of ancient peoples, but unlike the Tonto, Montezuma, Casa Grande Ruins and Tuzigoot monuments where there is only one main building, here there are many ruins scattered over a large area of desert northeast of Flagstaff. The pueblos all have a distinctive deep red color and were made from thin, flat blocks of the local Moenkopi sandstone.
In total there are more than 800 identified ruins spread around many miles of desert within Wupatki National Monument, but five of the largest (Wupatki, Wukoki, Lomaki, Citadel and Nalakihu) are close to the main road and are the only sites open to visitors. All the dwellings were built by the Anasazi and Sinagua Indians during the 12th and 13th centuries - the habitation of this region was influenced by the eruption of Sunset Volcano during the winter of 1064-5, as the resulting ash and lava made the surrounding land infertile and so the residents of that region moved further afield into desert areas previously considered too dry and barren. In the early 13th century all the settlements were abandoned, as were most other villages in this part of the Southwest, although it is believed that some of the present day Hopi are descended from the former inhabitants of the Wupatki pueblos.
The Wukoki ruins, perhaps the most distinctive in the park as the house is built on an isolated block of sandstone, is visible for several miles across the flat surroundings. The structure is quite tall, centered on a square, three story tower with a series of intricately-constructed rooms at one side. The bricks have a deep red color, and the building merges seamlessly with the underlying Moenkopi rock. A short trail loops around the ruin and climbs to a vantage point on top.
After exploring a bit we moved on to our final stop (for this post), the Wupatki Pueblo. The Wupatki area is 2,000 feet lower than the volcanic region north of Flagstaff so the vegetation is quite different - the loop road from Sunset Crater descends quite quickly through fir and pine trees to the arid scrub-covered desert, and we soon arrived at the visitor center. The 3-story pueblo (Hopi for 'big house') was once home to 300 people and had over a hundred rooms. The settlement is built on the edge of a small plateau and has unobstructed views eastwards towards the Painted Desert and the Little Colorado River. The ruins are reached by a short, paved, self-guided trail starting at the visitor center, which took about half an hour to walk at a leisurely pace. A leaflet was available, describing 20 points of interest; apart from the main building, these included a circular community room, a masonry ballpark - a recreational feature usually only found much further south, and a natural blowhole. This is a vent of unknown depth linked to underground passages in the sandstone, and either blows out or sucks in air, depending on the ambient pressure. All the rooms at Wupatki are partially reconstructed, and it was interesting to watch the ongoing work. The guys found the conveyor system to be especially interesting.
As we slowly moved along the trail we enjoyed a local native Indian couple played a moving flute tune at the top of the observation platform. Apparently they come everyday to play and pay homage to the spirits. It was beautiful! What a wonderful way to end our visit to this most interesting place.
The weather was perfect as we loaded back into the truck to continue our day's journey. But, this is where I will end for today. Please check back tomorrow as we continue to explore the Grand Canyon's south rim. You won't be disappointed!