Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos

San Francisco Peaks rise behind the Box Canyon Pueblo
0.5 miles round trip, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Wupatki National Monument Entrance Fee required

This very short and very easy stroll visits three picturesque pueblos in Arizona's Wupatki National Monument. It's a good way to see structures built by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the area and has only a fraction of the visitors of the larger Wupatki Pueblo in the same national monument. Lomaki Pueblo offers a chance to wander through a pueblo, including a rare opportunity to pass through two T-shaped doors. Views of the nearby San Francisco Peaks make this an overall enjoyable way to spend a half hour or so. The park's proximity to US 89 and the Grand Canyon makes this a good stop on the way to more famous sights on the Colorado Plateau.

I visited Wupatki National Monument after a trip to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Whether coming from Flagstaff or the Grand Canyon, one approaches Wupatki on Highway 89 either heading north or south, respectively. About 25 miles north of Flagstaff or 12 miles south of Gray Mountain, there is a turnoff to the east for Arizona Highway 395 heading towards Wupatki; I took this turnoff and followed it east for four miles into Wupatki National Monument. I took the turnoff to the left (north) for Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos, which quickly came to a parking lot for this hike.

The trail is extremely straightforward: the mostly flat path winds for a quarter mile through the desert out to Lomaki Pueblo, passing two structures on either side of a small box canyon along the way. Side trails lead up to both of the small pueblos next to the canyon. All three pueblos are clearly within sight of each other. Lomaki Pueblo is the largest of the three structures, although it too is a small pueblo of just a handful of rooms. Impressively, all three of these structures have not been reconstructed; they have only been stabilized to prevent further deterioration. This means that the beautiful masonry of all three pueblos is original.

Box Canyon and Lomaki Pueblos
These pueblos lie on the southwest edge of the area inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloan culture; indeed, the societies that inhabited these structures show influences of both the Ancestral Puebloans to the north and the Sinagua to the south. Although these structures are clearly similar to and influence by the Pueblo architecture at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, there are notable differences: pueblos in Wupatki do not have kivas, circular ceremonial rooms that are a distinguishing cultural characteristic of the Ancestral Puebloans. Instead, Wupatki Pueblo, which lies some distance east of Lomaki Pueblo, has a ballcourt, which ties it by cultural influence to the Sinagua and the civilizations of Mesoamerica. However, the structures at Wupatki retain many characteristics of Ancestral Puebloan architecture: notably, Lomaki Pueblo has two T-shaped doors. As the pueblos here can be explored, Lomaki offers a rare experience to walk through the T-shaped doors and explore inner rooms of a pueblo.

Lomaki Pueblo
Like the Box Canyon Pueblo, Lomaki sits at the edge of a small box canyon. It's likely that the inhabitants of these pueblos built check dams in the canyon to store water; the wash might have been used for agriculture as well, to plant the corn, beans, and squash central to diets of pre-contact Americans.

T-shaped door in Lomaki Pueblo
The southwest horizon from Lomaki Pueblo featured the snowy summits of the San Francisco Peaks and other volcanoes of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. The San Francisco Peaks, capped by Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona, were the most dominant peaks in the scene; these mountains are actually the remnants of an ancient stratovolcano, which has since collapsed. O'Leary Peak was a separate high peak to the east of the San Francisco Peaks and Sunset Crater, a cinder cone, stood east (to the left) of O'Leary Peak. The Citadel Pueblo was visible below the silhouette of O'Leary Peak.

Sunset Crater, O'Leary Peak, and the San Francisco Peaks
In fact, a number of pueblos were visible atop nearby mesas as I surveyed the landscape. The most notable of these was undoubtedly the Citadel, a closely pueblo right off the main road in Wupatki that I visited after leaving Lomaki Pueblo. The density of pueblos in this area is remarkable, a reminder that the landscape of the Colorado Plateau was not so much a wilderness as much as it was an inhabited, human landscape during the heyday of Ancestral Puebloan civilization.

The Citadel
The Wupatki area was populated in the eleventh century; competing explanations for why people chose to settle in such a desolate location both involve nearby Sunset Crater, which erupted around that time. It is possible that the Wupatki area was settled by people escaping lands to the south that were devestated by the eruption; or it's possible that the eruption actually attracted immigrants from elsewhere, as cinders and ash from the Sunset Crater eruption improved water retention in nearby soils, improving agriculture.

The question of why the Ancestral Puebloans left their houses is asked everywhere pueblos are abandoned in the Southwest. As with the other pueblos at Chaco and Mesa Verde, it's not clear here; a changing climate or the arrival of nomadic tribes might have had an effect. While it's not clear why they left, it appears that today's Hopi are among the descendants of those who used to live in this landscape: Hopi histories hold that their ancestors migrated to their current home in the mesas of the Painted Desert from Wupatki, the Verde Valley, and other areas of abandoned pueblos.

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