December 2015 – One of the treasures in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona is the exquisite sunrises and sunsets that light up the sky in vivid shades of pink and orange.
Another treasure that lies inside the Tonto National Forest near Roosevelt Lake high up on the mountain sides is the Tonto National Monument ancient Indian cliff dwelling ruins.
These ruins, built by the Salado people around 1300 A.D., are surrounded by saguaro cactus that stand so thickly on the hillside that, from a distance, they seem to transform the landscape into a pincushion! Up close, however, they are very tall.
One of the best things about visiting the Tonto National Monument cliff dwellings is the half mile uphill hike to get to them. A narrow paved path takes numerous switchbacks up the hill, passing by dozens of beautiful saguaro cactus on the way to the ruins.
As the path climbs ever higher, the view of Roosevelt Lake down in the valley grows ever wider.
Then the ancient ruins appear, built into a huge cave in a sheer rock wall cliff face.
It is startling, after climbing up through all the natural vegetation of the Sonoran Desert, to come face to face with the remnants of a distant culture’s masonry creations. The current theory is that the 20,000 or so Anasazi people who had built and lived in the immense Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado had left there for some reason and moved south, a few of them making their way through northeastern Arizona to the Tonto Basin to live here.
As a point of reference, in this same time period over in Europe, Florence had become the heart of commercial and cultural activity, and the Renaissance (the rebirth of interest in classical literature, art and music) was in its earliest stages.
At Tonto National Monument, the 700 year old walls are still standing, although they have broken down over time. With a little imagination, we could visualize the structure as it once stood as we moved from room to room.
There were quite a few rooms, most of them quite small, just 8′ square or so. The rooms near the front of the cave have a view across the valley to the lake.
Little openings led from one room to another, and the rooms stretched to the back of the cave.
Tonto National Monument has two sets of cliff dwellings that are open to the public, the Lower Cliff Dwellings and the Upper Cliff Dwellings.
Even though the Lower Cliff Dwellings are slightly smaller, the fun thing about them is that you are free to explore them at your own pace and they lie just 1/2 mile from the visitors center.
It’s a fairly steep hike to reach these ruins, but it is short, and the views along the entire trail are just wonderful.
The hike to the Upper Cliff Dwellings is about 3 miles long, and those ruins are open to the public only on guided tours on the weekends. We took that hike too and will share photos in an upcoming post.
Tonto National Monument makes a terrific daytrip from the Mesa and eastern Phoenix area, and it is an absolute “must see” if you are camping at one of the campgrounds at Roosevelt Lake.
A word of caution to travelers taking a big RV to this area: The once stunningly scenic drive along US-60 from Superior to Globe is now a chaotic nightmare of construction (probably in preparation for the world’s largest copper mine that will be built between the two towns). Even though the distance is 10 miles longer, it is a much less stressful (and also very scenic) rout to take SR-87 (the “Beeline Highway”) from Fountain Hills north to Punkin Center and then go south on SR-88 to Tonto National Monument.
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A little more about Tonto National Monument
- Tonto National Monument – Official Website
- Where is Tonto National Monument? – Google Maps
Other fun excursions for RV travelers headed to Central Arizona plus some Indian Mystery:
- Burrowing Owls in Gilbert, Arizona – Cute owls that are fun to watch and easy to see up close
- RaVe’s Cafe in Mesa, Arizona – A restaurant dedicated to RVs and RVers
- Mysteries of the Navajo Nation in Arizona – Exotic red rock monuments and rainbow colored canyons in the Navajo Nation
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Beautiful ruins and views! We’ve found that we really enjoy National Monuments — they’re much less visited than the National Parks, and lead us to interesting places we otherwise might miss. Thanks so much for the tip about the alternate travel route.
It’s a wonderful place well worthy of a stop!