The group of hikers started in the shadow of Citadel Pueblo, a towering ruin just steps from the road that winds through Wupatki National Monument. But it wasn’t long before they had left the pavement behind and were making their way up a gentle, crunching over dried grasses and stooping to admire pieces of black and white pottery scattered across the dark cinder soils.
The meandering route wasn’t bound by a trail. Instead, the group was on one of several guided Discovery Hikes that the monument puts on each winter. The free afternoon excursions provide a rare opportunity to explore the thousands of archaeological sites that lie beyond the three and a half miles of developed trails in Wupatki.
With a ranger pointing out a general route, hikers last Saturday got to wander across rolling mesas, walk beside the remains of ancient puebloan structures and scramble over rough basalt boulders decorated with petroglyphs dating back 900 years.
“It’s a place where your curiosity really comes alive if you let it,” said Robert Wallace, the ranger who led the hike.
In the years to come, opportunities to explore beyond Wupatki’s few roads and trails may become more common thanks to a new planning process the monument began last year. The result could be a reversal or modification of the monument’s two-decade-old closure to unguided hiking into the backcountry, said Kayci Cook Collins, superintendent for the Flagstaff Area National Monuments, which include Wupatki.
Those changes would come out of a planning process connected to a formal wilderness study at Wupatki that began last year, Collins said. It’s based on a 2012 finding that 96.5 percent of the monument, or about 34,000 acres, are eligible for a wilderness designation. Now, five years later, the Park Service is developing proposed wilderness boundaries that would need to get approval by the Department of the Interior, the president and then Congress to become official, Collins said.
Monument managers decided to piggyback on the wilderness study to develop a separate plan that will address backcountry access and the preservation of Wupatki’s resources and wilderness quality, Collins said.
She cited the Wilderness Act, which defines wilderness in part as a place that has “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
“You look out across Wupatki and see that opportunity, but we haven't realized it,” Collins said. “What we have to do is figure out how we can best set that up so people can have those experiences.”
In addition to completely unguided backcountry access, other options include building more trails in Wupatki or establishing routes based on GPS coordinates, she said.
But with unguided, unsupervised backcountry access comes a concern for the more than 2,500 archaeological sites at Wupatki. Between 1988 and 1996, there was some unguided backcountry access allowed in the monument but looting and other “detrimental situations” occurred that led to the closure that still exists today, Collins said.
During the upcoming planning process, she said staff will “look at what we could do differently” in relation to the closure.
“There are so many areas of Wupatki and opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation...so how can we do that at Wupatki without compromising or putting in danger the resources that are the reason Wupatki was established?” she said.
The Park Service wants more Americans to be able to experience places like Wupatki so they become allies in preserving such sites into the future, Collins said.
“We worry about not having enough opportunities for people to go there and make their own connections,” she said.
The once-a-weekend Discovery Hikes in the winter and a few overnight hikes during April and October are currently the only opportunities for people to get into Wupatki beyond trails. Collins also recognized that it’s not really “unconfined” recreation if someone is following behind a ranger, nor is there the optimal sense of solitude.
Other National Park Service sites with rich archaeological resources, like Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, require either guides or have tightly controlled permit systems, Collins said.
As for a possible wilderness designation, it may not mean many major changes to current operations, Collins said. That’s because most of Wupatki has been managed as wilderness since the 2012 eligibility finding. When doing preservation work, for example, employees don’t use mechanized equipment and use minimal tools, Collins said. But because superintendents have quite a bit of discretion in how to manage the monument, an official wilderness designation would reduce a future superintendent's ability to potentially degrade the area’s wilderness character, she said. It would also make any future development, like exhibits or viewing platforms, that doesn’t align with the undeveloped quality of wilderness far less likely, Collins said.
The Discovery Hikes, which Collins said are very popular, would more than likely continue under both study and planning efforts because they haven’t been found to have any negative impacts on the monument’s resources and they also provide an opportunity for park rangers to monitor the areas while leading hikes.
Collins said the Park Service expects to reach out to the public this spring or summer to get feedback on crafting a wilderness designation proposal for Wupatki. The whole process will take several years, she said.
Arizona officials on Friday guaranteed that Grand Canyon National Park will remain in full operation if Congress fails to pass a budget and a government shutdown ensues.
Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said the state's top tourist attraction "will not close on our watch, period."
Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak says the state's parks and tourism agencies plan to provide up to $100,000 to ensure lodging, campgrounds and restaurants remain open, and more funding if needed.
The state agencies have been working with the National Park Service to plan for a possible shutdown as early as Saturday if Congress fails to pass a government funding bill. The House passed a temporary government funding bill Thursday night, but the Senate was deadlocked.
President Donald Trump and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer met Friday afternoon in an eleventh-hour effort to avert a shutdown. The impasse is over federal spending and legislation to protect some 700,000 younger immigrants from deportation.
"If Washington, D.C. won't function, Arizona will," Ducey said in a statement. "Don't change your travel plans, because Arizona is open for business — regardless of what happens back in Congress."
The U.S. Interior Department said national parks and other public lands will remain as accessible as possible if a shutdown happens. That's a change from previous shutdowns, when most parks were closed and became high-profile symbols of dysfunction.
But spokeswoman Heather Swift said services that require staffing and maintenance such as campgrounds, full-service restrooms and concessions won't be operating in most locations.
Xanterra Parks & Resorts has released a statement saying its doors will be open for business at Grand Canyon National Park even if there is a federal shutdown. This includes the Grand Canyon Railway that operates from Williams to the South Rim of the Canyon.
"Xanterra Parks & Resorts has received word from the U.S. National Park Service that the gates and roads into the national parks operated by Xanterra will remain open if there is a government shutdown. This means that Xanterra’s lodges, restaurants, retail, concessions and services will be open for business as usual," a Xanterra spokesperson wrote in press release.
Arizona State parks and trails will not close during the federal shutdown.
Arizona's decision to guarantee funding to cover the cost of those services means they should operate at the Grand Canyon as normal if a shutdown occurs.
Arizona paid about $100,000 a day to cover the full cost of keeping the Grand Canyon open during the last shutdown in 2013 but was eventually reimbursed by the federal government. Former Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, worked to pay the National Park Service $651,000 to keep the popular tourist destination open for a week. That came after a shutdown that lasted more than a week.
Federal lawmakers reached an agreement on the budget before those seven days were up.
During a 1995 shutdown, Arizona's governor famously led a convoy of unarmed troops to the park's gate to demand it be opened.
They were met there by the park superintendent, who negotiated with then-Gov. Fife Symington, a Republican, for a partial reopening if the budget impasse continued.
The shutdown was briefly solved, but when the parks were again closed a month later, the state paid more than $17,000 a day to keep the road to the Grand Canyon Village and the Mather Point scenic viewpoint on the canyon's South Rim open.