Visiting Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano – Flagstaff, AZ

Continuing the drive north, Betsy climbed to Flagstaff to our next campground along highway 89.  We had  breezed through Flagstaff several times in the past; on our way to Page to the north, Williams to the west, the Meteor Crater to the east and to the red rocks of Sedona to the south.  Now it was time to hang out for a few days.

Not far from Flagstaff and within easy driving distance of each other are three National Monuments of great historical significance:  Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater National Monument and Walnut Canyon National Monument.  We had previously visited the cliff dwellings constructed by the Sinagua from about 1100 to 1250 CE at Walnut Canyon N.M., so we’d seen that one and my post is here.

Now it was time to visit the other two!

The snow-capped San Francisco Peaks greeted us at Flagstaff

We’d initially reserved four days at J&H RV Park, but shortened it to two because we wanted to squeeze in a visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon near Jacob Lake, our new next stop.  But that’s a story for an upcoming post 🙂

Fortunately the two monuments we planned to visit can be driven in a loop along National Forest 545 loop road.  We started at the furthest one away, Wupatki National Monument.

The greeter at the pueblo – a Collared Lizard – seemed happy to see us!

There are six remains of masonry pueblos within this monument, and we stopped at two of them that dot the landscape – Wupatki Pueblo and Wukoki.  They preserve the most obvious evidence of human life in what is a beautiful volcanic landscape, telling of the 1100’s when pueblo peoples came together to build a large farming community.

Located just behind the Visitor Center, Wupatki Pueblo was thought to have been the heart of a thriving community and landmark, gathering place and ceremonial center.

Wupatki Pueblo rises four stories above the landscape and consisted of over 100 rooms
Depiction of a gathering for a harvest celebration, based on historical accounts and archeological evidence

With a self-guided pamphlet in hand we toured the pueblo, stopping at each numbered spot to learn about the daily life of the people that lived here.  We saw the amazing architectural design that incorporated the shape of natural rock outcrops.  The handcrafted slabs of sandstone stacked with adobe mortar was masonry par excellence.  The skills of the builders certainly have been proven through the test of time, as the structure has lasted about 900 years.

Masonry melded into existing rocks

It was remarkable to learn that this land, so dry and hot, had supported a large farming community.  It’s believed that the eruption at nearby Sunset Crater improved the agricultural potential here, as the moisture-conserving cinders helped prevent rapid evaporation.

The pinkish color on the volcanic hillside are clusters of feathery-tailed Apache Plume fruit

We continued our drive a few miles from Wupatki Pueblo to Wukoki Ruins, which in the distance resembled a castle looming in the middle of nowhere:

Back view of Wukoki standing tall in a vast landscape

Wukoki, the modern Hopi word for “Big House”, was said to once be home to two or three prehistoric Indian families.  Judging from the types of artifacts found during excavation, the inhabitants were believed to have been of the Kayenta Anasazi culture.

The structure is three stories high and positioned atop a Moenkopi sandstone outcrop, which afforded the occupants a commanding view of the surrounding terrain:

For 900 years, the Wukoki tower withstood wind, rain, and blistering sun
View from a small window
These doorways were obviously meant for short people!

Over the years, the ruins within Wutpaki National Monument have been reinforced to stabilize certain areas, ensuring the safety of us curious modern visitors.  Each time we visit a pueblo or ancient ruins, we think about how simple and yet how complex those people were.  Living successfully in a region of such scarce resources and climate extremes is something we can’t fathom.


Continuing the loop road between Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, we noticed a definite change in environment from desert to mountain:

Loop road with Painted Desert on the horizon

Sunset Crater is a 1000′ high cinder cone that was created where open parks and forest had been previously.  It was formed by a volcanic eruption less than 1,000 years ago, when the colorful glow from the oxidized cinders that fell onto the rim reminded people of a sunset – leading to the volcano’s name.

Sunset Crater today with its bright-rimmed cone

We followed a trail that looped across the base of Sunset Crater Volcano.  It gave a good account of the unique environment created by a volcano, and was like walking along a sculptured garden of extraordinary shapes and forms.  We saw the remains of several twisted Ponderosa Pines:

Cinder dunes were created during the eruption
What does this dead tree remind you of?
Solidified lava grooved from scraping against harder rock as it exited the volcano

The eruption of Sunset Crater was so powerful that it created more than 600 hills and mountains in what is now known as the San Francisco volcanic field.

Snow-capped San Francisco covered in clouds

We enjoyed our short visit and history lessons here, and recommend it to anyone passing through the area.

Another lovely couple was on hand to bid us goodbye!




  1. We’ll be staying at the FS campground at Sunset Crater in September. Can’t wait to see it all!

  2. It’s amazing to me that we missed awesome sights & hikes in our own backyard….never went here despite living in Arizona for 20 years! Can’t wait to get back th the Southwest! Great pics

  3. Hope you have time to stop in Olympia, see our state capital, and visit with us. We can offer you a spot with water, 50 amp electric, and a place to dump.

  4. You sure made friends with lots of colorful lizards! Aren’t they the most cooperative photo subjects?

    The dead tree looks like someone flipping a double-bird🤭

    I guess Steve won’t be moving into a Pueblo anytime soon — getting in and out looks very inconvenient. ML, you got the best moves on the trail, almost like dancing. Maybe you really were dancing? That makes for happy trails!

    • I know, these lizards are plentiful here in the desert and they are not skittish like the birds 🙂 Ha ha ha, I actually thought it was an eagle 😦 or a bird with an outreach hand begging for seeds!

  5. We really enjoyed Wupatki. Some very interesting ruins there. We didn’t do any hiking at Sunset Crater but did drive through. What luck to find three collard lizards! They are so pretty.

  6. You saw three collared lizards! I never noticed that they have golden feet until I looked closely at your photo. 🙂
    The photo of you hiking at Sunset Crater is so cute (of course!). We really enjoyed hiking there a few years ago. I remember staying in a beautiful forest service campground walking distance to the crater. As you said, I’ve often thought about how remarkable it is that people were able to carve out a rich life in a desolate environment like Wupatki.

  7. I love a place that combines both natural wonders and cultural/historic sites. Add in some natural beauty and fantastic hiking and you’ve got yourself a prime travel location! We, too, have only driven through that area, but will most definitely return to properly explore. Looks like a great spot!

  8. Awesome shots of the ancient dwellings. I always love your pictures Mona Liza.

  9. I’m so happy to have stumbled on your beautiful blog. I cannot wait to read more, and be inspired to add some new spots to my travel wish-list!

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