It was the end of the day in Arizona and I was alone. I’d passed the day’s last visitors on the way in, watched them pull out of the parking lot, a little dust kicking up behind them as they faded into the desert. Then, it was just me and the ghosts of Wupatki National Monument.
When I visited Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, I spent 15 minutes talking to a volunteer about what it feels like to be there first thing in the morning, to wander through the ruins before the tourists arrive. He talked about the people who used to live there, the ones who built the centuries old site, who used to call the place their home. He told me he knew they were still there, that he felt them in those quiet morning moments.
I explored the ruins hoping to feel what the volunteer felt, but I didn’t and I was sad I wasn’t able to be there when the site was quieter and calmer.
When I found myself alone at a pueblo within Wupatki, more than 200 miles north of the Casa Granda ruins, I understood what he was talking about. I got it. I felt it.
I didn’t feel alone. I knew I was the only person there, knew the last visitors had left, that there weren’t any more cars in the lot and I could see the whole site and know that it was just me there, but I still felt them, still felt like I was a guest, one invited to stay just until the sun started to set. I felt welcome there, but there was a warning, too, that the place wasn’t for me once the sun went down.
Around 800 years ago, Wupatki was one of the largest and maybe most influential pueblos around. Archeological research suggests the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater Volcano pushed people toward Wupatki and aided in the site’s rising influence.
Today, Wupatki National Monument includes the remains of Wupatki Pueblo, the largest pueblo within the monument, as well as Lomaki, Box Canyon, Citadel, Nalakihu and Wukoki Pueblos. I found myself alone at most of these smaller pueblos, and that’s where I felt them, the ghosts.
I visited a total of seven National Park units while I was in Arizona, including the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park, but there was something I felt at Wupatki National Monument that stayed with me. Maybe it was that I had the place to myself or maybe it’s just a really, really special place.
The only way I know how to describe it is that this place continues to haunt me. I felt it when I was there, I felt it on the plane when I was heading home and I feel it still, the gentle pull of curiosity that comes from brushing up against otherness.
A LITTLE LIGHT HISTORY
The ruins within Wupatki National Monument were built by the Ancient Pueblo People.
The Wupatki Pueblo included somewhere around 100 rooms and experienced a population boom after the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano in the late 1100s. It was the largest building in a 50-mile radius and was home to around 100 people.
In addition to the other pueblos, there’s a ball court, a visitors center and a geological blowhole, and, of course, a whole bunch of history.
GOOD TO KNOW
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument are adjacent to one another. There’s a 34-mile scenic route that connects the two sites, leading visitors through ponderosa pine forests and then dipping into a painted desert. It’s beautiful and varied and an excellent primer to exploring the variety of Arizona’s landscapes.
Both Sunset Crater and Wupatki are just a short drive from Flagstaff, Arizona, and I spent about three and a half hours exploring the two sites, but if you’re interested in doing a longer hike or are someone who likes to read everything in the historical exhibits, I’d allow another hour or two.
The trails and pueblos of Wupatki National Monument are open from sunrise to sunset every day, while the visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, except for Christmas.
Admission is $20 and allows entry into both Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument for seven full days from the date of purchase. Admission is free with an America the Beautiful annual pass, which costs $80 and offers entry into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Free America the Beautiful passes are also available for current U.S. military members and their dependents.