The reluctant history of Homolovi State Park

The San Francisco Peaks west of the state park

Before I get into this article about the ruined houses of native Americans, let me confess, for context, that I have long been bored with the subject. As a native (meaning born in Phoenix – not Native) and thereby a product of Arizona public education through the 1970’s, I joined my classmates as we were herded by busloads through the various ruins scattered around a two hour drive from metro Phoenix.

These are not hard as day trips go, and low-hanging fruit for educators: here are their mud and stone structures or pit houses – and they all used to live here and did things – some of which we know, the rest we guess about – and then they all disappeared – before white man arrived (they always add that) – and now we can look at their old houses from a respectful distance.

Just like the last ones we visited, only they are over here, and look like this. If the nerds in class are bored with this (and I was a poster-quality nerd), all of the kids are bored with this.

Consequently, as an adult, I swore off Native American ruins as a destination.

This lasted until I had kids and started dabbling in travel writing.

Another thing these places have in common is visitor centers with maps and bathrooms.

Bongo at the Homolovi AZ state park visitor center

I arrived at the visitor center at Homolovi State Park at 4pm – an hour before they closed their gates. The ranger their took my $7 entry fee, and said I probably had time to see the main ruins: Homolovi II at the end of a road winding through the dry prairie for about two miles north of the visitor’s center.

Of the five known sites, only two are open to visitors. Homlovi II is the larger of the two. Homolovi I is close to the campground – yes people camp here – all year. It’s $20/night for most spots. The campground has restrooms, and even showers, but, like the rest of this ecozone, zero shade.

I saw RV’s scattered across it in early February. I don’t know why.

The state park is a joint effort with the Hopi Tribe, whose reservation lies about 60 miles north of here, in the middle of the sprawling Navajo reservation. Neither tribe thought this was a good idea, and the Feds didn’t care. Thick books have been written on how this happened and why its stupid. I don’t have time to get into that here – but this guy took the time, if you care.

According to the state park website:

The Hopi people of today still consider Homolovi, as well as other precolumbian sites in the southwest, to be part of their homeland. They continue to make pilgrimages to these sites, renewing the ties of the people with the land. The Hopi tell us that the broken pottery and stones are now part of the land and are the trail the Bahana will follow when he returns. Therefore, these are mute reminders that the Hopi continue to follow the true Hopi way and the instructions of Masau’u.

https://azstateparks.com/homolovi/

The website does not go on to explain who or what the Bahana is, and while we can guess by context, it does not expand on the concept of Masau’u. None of which is surprising.

The Hopi Tribe is notoriously insular. They allow visitors to their reservation, but only in the approved hotel, and you cannot wander around, and not only is photograph prohibited, but note-taking is prohibited.

I think in 7th grade a public school teacher told us that every year evangelical Christians would send Christmas gifts to the Hopi reservation, and every year the Hopis would, “toss them over the cliff”. I don’t know if that still happens, or for a fact if that ever happened, but it sounds plausible that it happened at least once. I’m pretty confident, though, that you can replace the cliff part with a dumpster of some sort.

So those guys – those guys – partnered with white man (then Governor Bruce Babbit in particular) to preserve the dwindling remains of these sites, as pot hunters were starting to come in with construction equipment.

And having driven that road and walked along the couple hundred yards of sidewalk to and around Homolovi II I can report that those ruins are – unimpressive. A couple of small dwellings and one large ceremonial structure have been excavated so you can take pictures (that was part of the deal) and learn that they – favored rectangles.

Rectangles!

Full disclosure: I did not have the time to go through the interpretation displays in the visitor center – which take up slightly more space than the gift shop portion, nor did I download or otherwise listen to the interpretive audio feature.

As much as I claim disinterest, I did do some reading.

Somewhere in the 1200’s flooding along the Little Colorado (which marks, roughly, the western boundary of the park) deposited big piles of driftwood. Ancestral Hopi (I’m using a consensus term that is also easiest to spell) migrated out from the Mesas and used that driftwood for building and burning, establishing several villages along the river. They grew cotton and other crops in the alluvial soil until sustained drought in the 1300’s drove them back to the Mesas.

That same drought did in a lot of cultures around the southwest. I learned that in the 70’s.

Ancestral Hopi took the trouble to destroy their homes, particularly ceremonial sites, as they abandoned them. Vandals and looters also did their share of damage. Unlike the towering ruins at say Wupatki or Walnut Canyon, all the average eye will see is a pile of rubble of what was once a sizeable complex of structures. Except for the small portion the state park excavated so I could pose my plastic gorilla in front of them and take pictures.

The sidewalk to peace and quiet

I do not have Hopi ancestors to commune with. In fact, I have very little spiritual awareness – I don’t feel Vortexes around Sedona or any of that. I believe the spirit world is like the New Jersey mob: not a player, not a target. This buddhist has enough complications in his life.

I did feel the abiding peace that comes with those barren, rust-colored hilltops – near silent save for the wind. That may be typical of the whole region, but I paid my $7 – so I could feel this without trespassing.

Micah Loma’ovaya, an archeology student working on the site wrote this in Southwest Archeology in the Fall 2000 issue:

“Going home on the weekends allowed me to recount for my grandparents and other relatives our weekly discoveries. Many parallels between Homol’ovi and Hopi were found, and my learning expanded, not only in archaeology, but in my own culture as well. It seems that as Hopi have progressed along our cultural continuum, we have tended to lose focus of the true meanings behind our behavior. […]

“In Hopi culture, we understand that ancestral places were marked with footprints (ruins, artifacts, and burials), monuments to our prehistoric occupation, that would be attributed to us one day. Now we must participate in retracing those steps leading to Hopi society and be willing to acknowledge the fact that we have a history to share.”

Micah Loma’ovaya
Archeology Southwest, Fall 2000 pg 10.

I’ll leave on that, before the ranger closes the gate.

[Micah Loma’ovaya has gone on to become an archeologist and apparently a realtor. His Linked-in bio.]

Homolovi State Park is located just north of I-40 and Winslow on AZ 87.

Google map:

https://g.page/homolovi-state-park?share

The park is open year-round.

Day Use/Visitor Center/Exhibits/Park Store

8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily
Thanksgiving: 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Christmas Eve: 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Christmas Day: CLOSED

Park Entrance Fees

Per vehicle (1-4 adults): $7.00
Individual/bicycle: $3.00

Camping in Sycamore Rim Country

The end of the road…

My go-to spot for undesignated camping in the high country (in AZ that means higher than 5000’) is the north rim of Sycamore Canyon. The Sycamore rim marks the southern boundary of the Williams district of the Kaibab National Forest. It lies essentially 30-50 miles south by southeast of Williams AZ, which is about 30 miles due east of Flagstaff along I-40. 

The rim itself does not offer spectacular scenery. It offers a consistent expanse of rock-studded plateau topped with pine and oak stands separated by occasional prairies. It is plenty pretty to be sure. The  tall green grasses and flowers, towering fragrant pinon and ponderosa pines and gnarled oaks offer habitat for everything from turkey to elk. But this is what most of the Coconino plateau looks like when it hasn’t been paved over or grazed down to high desert. 

The only noteworthy vistas are views into and across Sycamore Canyon itself. 

This is a ten year old photo doctored with ten year old free-ware. Don't judge.
One of many vistas of Sycamore Canyon

Sycamore Canyon proper is a wilderness area (mostly within the Coconino NF) where Sycamore Creek and its immediate tributaries have cut steep slots into the plateau. The canyon often rivals Oak creek Canyon (to the southeast) for scenery, but is not nearly as accessible. Getting into the canyon is best approached as  a backpacking expedition, and well beyond the scope of this article. 

Ruby and company

(Although I wrote about those trails, and others I will reference shortly in 5 Star Trails: Flagstaff and Sedona, which I plug here to avoid a lot of repetition.)

What I like about it is the relative privacy. You will consistently pass the tribal compound of RV boondockers on the main roads just south of Williams. But go further south, on the thinner forest roads, and you can spend days at a time on your own part of the prairie, seeing no other people until you have to go back into town for more ice. I have accomplished this feat more than once. 

And when it’s just me…

To get real privacy, I had to bounce down some roads with long number designations until I was out of sight of the road that is actually on the map. This is undesignated camping, meaning you make your own campsite and provide your own services. If you need a toilet and a trashcan, you are better going to Whitehorse Lake Campground, which we will also get to. 

I have camped on the northwest rim (off of FR 110) on the north center rim (off of FR56) and the northeast rim in the Coconino NF somewhere off of FR 231. The experience was all the same. Though, in full disclosure, I haven’t been on the northeast portion since I wrote the hiking guide. 

All were about 6500’, hard-dirt prairie where I only had to wear pants if I wanted to. And bees – I had plenty of bees at all three sites. 

Whitehorse Lake Campground

Credit – Kaibab NF

White Horse Lake campground is the big campground on the actual rim. It features a mix of tent and RV sites (94 total) about half of which are reservable. Most are at least within sight of the 35 acre lake. You can’t swim in the lake, but you can putter about in non-motorized boats (some rentable on site – in non Covid years) and do a bit of fishing. The lake is also popular with frogs. 

The campground is a hosted fee area. (Fees vary – check the website). I visited the place on a Wednesday in August of 2020, and it was about ⅓ occupied. You would still want a reservation or an early arrival for a weekend spot. 

Also nearby, of course, are the Sycamore Rim and Overland Trail hikes (also in my book). I had assumed I blogged about these on the old site, but it seems I did not. So that comes next time. 

Next time…

Camping over Kingman: Hualapai Mountain Campgrounds

Like Kingman only completely different.

For most people, Kingman, Arizona is not somewhere you go so much as a place you end up – or more likely just pass through as fast as possible. Parked in the northeast corner of the state at 3000’ elevation, Kingman is known mostly as a Route 66 stop, and the last reliable source of gas before the Nevada line on the way to Las Vegas.

(I know for a fact that I can fill my tank in Kingman, go to and drive around in Vegas for a few days, and make in back to Kingman on that same tank, thus avoiding the much higher prices in Nevada.)

As it happens, it has been a destination for me from time to time. There are a few wineries and a fine distillery, for one thing. I have also been involved in the various incarnations of the local book fair in one way or another for several years.

When in Kingman, in good weather, I prefer camping. Of course, Route 66 through Kingman is lined with a variety of mostly reasonable motels, but in the spring or fall, I’d just as soon sleep outdoors. The place to do that is 14 miles southeast and 3000 feet up from downtown Kingman.

This means that temperatures can be as much as 20 degrees cooler than Kingman or other points below.

Hualapai Mountain, with settled areas between 6000-6500’ elevation towers over the high desert that surrounds it. Most of its multiple peaks are within the Mojave County Park of the same name. Surrounding this are the cabin community of Pine Lake, and a scattering of BLM land. Both the county park ands the BLM portions host campgrounds.

Hualapai Mountain Park Campground

The county park campground winds across several ridges and valleys inside the park. The main campground is a maze of narrow but paved roads winding past tent sites, cabins, and even a small RV lot.  The top end of the maze is a trail-head for the extensive trail system that meanders up and around the peaks. We’ve written about those trails elsewhere.

If you make the sharp left turn at the ranger station, past auxiliary parking and the lower group site, you reach Pine Basin, whose unpaved and marginally graded maze of dirt roads reach some primitive tent sites. A few are flat, gravel pads on top of the ridge, but most sites are tucked inside the jumble of granite boulders that fill the basin beyond.

Pine Basin is where I am most likely to hang my hammock.

Seriously, I hang my hammock.

Most campsites have a stone table, a fire pit of some sort, and are within sight of a plastic outhouse. Not all of the stone tables are in good repair. Not all the fire pits are official.  There is no water and trash service is limited to containers near the entrance.   You can reserve cabins and even RV pads, but all tent sites are first come first serve. You pay your $20/night (cash!) and take your chances. Even so, they are not likely to fill up.

Typical site in the Pine Basin.

I chose this campground first because 1) I did not know about the BLM campground at first but 2) I had business in Kingman and the BLM campground adds 15-20 minutes to the trip – one way. But if I didn’t need to be in Kingman in the morning, I’d just as soon keep driving.

Wild Cow Springs Campground

Patience and nerve…

Let’s dispense with a myth: you can totally get to Wild Cow Springs Campground with any high clearance vehicle, in good weather. The road beyond Pine Lake is signed “Chains and 4WD only” but that is for snow-time. In the summer, the road is thin, and occasionally bumpy, but is mostly well-graded dirt. Higher clearance is helpful, but mostly you just need patience and nerve.

The road beyond Pine Lake is sharp and steep and it will take you the better part of 15 minutes to cover the four miles of up and down and around until you reach Wild Cow Springs. The road is well signed, however, so there is not much fear of getting lost. The sharp altitude difference guarantees some wide views of the desert below.

(The road continues well beyond, becoming a tangle of backroads, and you are on your own with that.)

I have seen people get small trailers into Wild Cow Springs, but it is mostly tent sites. There is a string of sites, in fact, that are a good walk from the road, following a stone-lined hiking trail across the little ravine there.

All the sites have wood and metal benches and metal fire-rings with grills. The front of the site features vault toilets. The site has some trash service, but no water supply. The fee though is $8/night.

There are, in addition, a larger RV park, and a resort (with a restaurant and a store) close to or within Pine Lake, but those are a little too civilized for this blog.