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.
WHAT A DESIGNATION MEANS
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.