A Blessing in Disguise: Sunset Crater and the Anasazi of Wupatki
Winter had settled over the lands surrounding Nuvatuk-iya-ovi, the sacred peak and home of the Kachinas, the Guardian Spirits of the ancestors. The recent harvest of corn, beans, and squash had been gathered and stored safely in the granaries, and the people were thankful for the warmth of the winter sun that heated the walls of their rock and adobe dwellings. The peak of the sacred mountain was white with snow, and the alignment of the sun told them that a new year was approaching along with a new planting season and hopes for new life. Fires glowed in the ceremonial kivas where prayers were being sent to the Gods, asking for their blessings in the coming year.
The recent harvest had not been good. The Kachinas, who appeared as rain clouds during the summer, bringing moisture to their parched fields, had not appeared very often during the past year, and the people were worried. This was a dry land. Though hunting and gathering of wild animals and plants were important, good yields from their domestic crops were essential. Without sufficient moisture the crops would die, and without good crops what would happen to the people. If done with sincerity and good hearts, the Gods might hear their prayers and bring more rain in the coming year. Would the Gods be listening? And what would their answer be?
Suddenly a deafening sound like thunder filled the air, the ground shook violently, and a nearby volcano that had been sleeping peacefully awoke, spewing fire and glowing lava hundreds of feet into the air like an angry demon rising over them. The people fled in terror, abandoning their homes and belongings. What had they done wrong? Why were the Gods so enraged?
This eruption is thought to have occurred during the winter of 1085 AD and was the latest in a series of eruptions that had been occurring for hundreds of thousands of years. Blanketing an area of more than 800 square miles in cinder and ash and creating the 1,120 ft. cone now known as Sunset Crater, it forced the abandonment of several villages of the Sinagua, a branch of the Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan) people, who had occupied this area for centuries.
Time passed, and people began to wander cautiously back into the deserted area. What had happened to the lands that had been the home of their people for so long? Near the base of the new crater thick lava had made the land uninhabitable, but not far away the eruption had left only a thin layer of ash which had acted as a mulch, retaining more of the precious moisture that fell as rain and greatly improving the land’s productivity. People began to return, and the sound of laughter was once again heard throughout the new villages that were being built on ancestral lands that were soon more populated than ever. Instead of the eruption being seen as a curse, it was now seen as a blessing, and prayers again rose with the smoke from the kivas. But now they were sent in thankfulness instead of fear.
Though unoccupied for nine-hundred years, these villages are not considered abandoned by the Hopi, Zuni, and other Puebloan people that consider them the homes of their ancestors who remain as spiritual guardians, and regular pilgrimages are still made to honor the “Hisatsinom”, the “Long Ago People”.
Visiting the Monuments Sunset Crater and Wupatki are adjoining national monuments in north-central Arizona, and are within the San Francisco Volcanic Field, a region of over 2,000 square miles containing over 600 volcanoes including Sunset Crater. Rising to a height of 12,637 ft., Mt. Humphries, the sacred Nuvatuk-iya-ovi of the Hopi, is the tallest of six peaks in the San Francisco Mountains, four of which are the tallest in Arizona. Seasonal visits into these towering peaks to pray, gather medicinal plants, and leave offerings are made today by the Hopi and Zuni, whose villages are located on the mesas to the southeast. According to an old saying among the native people, “If something happens once, then it will happen again and again and again”. While sleeping and quiet today, the ancient Gods of the mountains and clouds are alive and well, and will awaken again someday.
Within Sunset Crater National Monument are large expanses of lava and ash as well as several cinder cones which are a distinctive reddish brown in color due the large amounts of oxidized iron covering their slopes. Glowing brightly in the setting sun, the name “Sunset” was given to the largest of these cones by John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer of the nearby Grand Canyon. The shape and contrasting colors of the cinder cones provides the most unusual aspect of the monument, but the jagged and twisted lava fields are also spectacular and contribute to its uniqueness and beauty.
The monument’s entrance is located twelve miles north of Flagstaff and Rt. 66 on U.S. Highway 89, and the visitor’s center is reached in another two miles. From here the self-guided Lava Flow Interpretive Trail, where the lava appears nearly as fresh as it did shortly after the eruption, skirts the Bonito Lava Flow along the base of the crater. And the more strenuous Lenox Crater trail offers an opportunity to climb a small cinder cone nearby. Though backcountry hiking is not permitted in either monument in order to protect the fragile environment and archaeological features, a seven mile forest service trail near the visitor’s center allows you to hike to the summit of nearby O’Leary Peak.
From the visitor’s center, a scenic drive, open year-round from sunrise to sunset with numerous pull-outs and great views, winds through fields of lava and ash below the crater. The drive then continues on into Wupatki National Monument, which covers 35,000 acres protecting ancient Ancestral Puebloan ruins of the Sinagua, Cohonia, and Kayenta Anasazi. The first stop here is the visitor’s center and the multi-storied ruins of Wupatki, which means “Tall House” in the Hopi language. First inhabited around 500 AD, a half-mile interpretive trail leads you through the ruins which contain more than one hundred rooms, and secondary structures including two kivas and a ball court. The ball court is similar to those found in Meso-America and in the Tohono O’odham ruins of southern Arizona, and artifacts from the Pacific and Gulf Coasts attest to Wupatki’s ties to those other cultures.
Further down the road is the Doney Mountain picnic area and a short hiking trail leading to the top of a small cinder cone with spectacular views of the surrounding area. From here, the drive continues past the ruins of Wukoki, Nalakihu, Lomaki, and Box Canyon. There are short interpretive trails at each stop, and interesting rock formations with the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks in the background provide fascinating views and photographic opportunities. The scenic drive then reconnects with Highway 89, twenty miles north of the Sunset Crater entrance
Both visitors’ centers are open year-round from 9AM to 5PM except Christmas day. Remember that, except for the Navajo Nation, Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time and stays on Mountain Standard Time year-round. There are no campgrounds in either monument, but the Bonito National Forest Service Campground is located near the Sunset Crater Visitors Center and is open from May through mid-October. Further information about the monuments can be found on the internet, or you can call the Sunset Crater Visitors center at 928-526-0502, or the Wupatki Visitors Center at 928-679-2365. For further information about camping contact the Coconino National Forest office at 928-526-0866.
For a truly unique and fascinating experience, visit nearby Zuni Pueblo, which is one of the most culturally intact pueblos in the Southwest. Their culture and ceremonial cycle includes Kachinas, as does the Hopi culture. One of the most famous of the Kachina ceremonies, Shalako, is usually held the first weekend of December. Contact the Zuni Pueblo Dept. of Tourism at 505-782-7238, or visit their website at www.zunitourism.com for information.