Experience the spirit of the Southwest at Tonto National Monument cliff dwellings


I can think of no experience that embodies the spirit of the American Southwest better than walking through cliff dwellings formerly inhabited by native peoples. Although there are dozens of such sites in Arizona, few are as easily accessible or well preserved as the two in the beautiful Tonto National Monument near Roosevelt, AZ.

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Although I had heard about this magnificent national monument many times, I didn’t visit it until March 2018 – roughly six years after moving to Arizona. What I saw was truly remarkable.

Historians refer to the people who built these dwellings as the Salado, after the river that winds its way through the nearby valley. Their ingenuity and craftsmanship is quite impressive. Not only were they extremely talented in identifying great locations to build their homes, but they were also clearly interested in working together for the good of the community. It’s clear by the clues they left behind that everyone played a role in providing for each others needs: protection, food, water and clothing.

Tonto National Monument was designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 to protect and preserve two distinct cliff dwellings from vandals and artifact poachers.  The sites were discovered in the 1870s when ranchers and soldiers made their way into the region now known as the Tonto Basin. Some of the original artifacts found here remain on display in a small museum near the foot of the trails leading up to the monuments.

Lower Cliff Dwelling

Of the two ruins site accessible to the public at Tonto National Monument, Lower Cliff Dwelling is the shortest walk from the parking lot and visitor center. It’s about a mile (1.6 km) round trip and 350 feet of elevation gain on a fairly wide, paved trail. This dwelling is accessible to visitors every day except December 25 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It offers a magnificent look into how ancient people of the area lived their lives.

Distant view of cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument
Lower cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument
Distant view of cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument
Zoomed-in view of lower cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument

Upper Cliff Dwelling

Upper Cliff Dwelling is a little more challenging to reach, but the experience is worth it. It’s only open for viewing Friday to Monday during the months of November through April. And you must have reservations for one of the limited tours, guided by a National Parks Service employee.  The trail gains 600 feet in elevation and has several rocky, uneven steps. Wear good, closed-toed shoes and carry at least a liter of water. Visit the Tonto National Monument website for details on how to reserve a tour of the upper dwelling.

View of upper cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument
View of upper cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument from the trail leading to it
Close up view of the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument
Close up view of the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument
Close up view of the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument
Close up view of the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument

A visit to the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument often results in more questions than answers. Below are some of the more common questions the rangers on duty are often asked.

How old are the cliff dwellings?

It’s estimated that the dwellings were built around 1300 AD.

How many people lived here?

While it’s tough to know exactly how many people lived here for sure, it’s estimated that several hundred people lived in both the upper and lower dwellings at their peak.

What happened to them?

By the late 1300s, resource depletion intensified and populations declined, primarily due to a climatic pattern of alternating floods and droughts. Catastrophic flooding dammed irrigation canals, rendering much of the farmland useless.

By 1450, those struggling to maintain their way of life began to move out of the once fruitful Tonto Basin. Today, oral histories of several of the associated tribes say this migration from the Basin took their ancestors in many directions, guiding each to the place their descendants now call home.

Where did they get water and food?

A small spring-fed creek still runs through the valley below both ruins today was no doubt their source of, most likely carried up to the dwellings in handcrafted pitchers.

Based on studies of plant remains in their dwellings, archaeologists have concluded the Salado diet included cactus fruits, mesquite beans, jojoba nuts, juniper berries, and the flower buds of agave, beargrass, yucca, and sotol. It’s believed that they collected about half of their food from plants growing on the mountain slopes.  They also cultivated corn, beans, squash, and grain amaranth. The people maintained small gardens on the level areas between the mountains and valley floor.

Spring-fed creek at Tonto National Monument
A small spring-fed creek still runs through the valley below both ruins at Tonto National Monument today.

How did they survive the heat?

The location and design of the dwellings were key beating the heat of the high desert sun. For starters, the dwellings were built in recessed alcoves high up on cliff walls. As a result, the earth above hangs out over the dwellings, casting a shadow on the face of the cliff, much like the bill of a baseball cap. Although many of the walls have fallen down over time, they were originally built very high, providing protection from the sun when it was lower in the sky. Interestingly, the combination of the alcove shape and dwelling levels allow cool air to flow from the back of the “cave” toward the front, dropping the temperature in each room as it moved through.

Tips for your visit to Tonto National Monument

  • Tonto National Monument is 110 miles east of Phoenix, AZ along Highway 188. Tap the map below for directions from your location.
  • Admission is $7 per person. Children under 16 are free. All Federal Passes (Annual, Senior, Access, Military, Fourth Grade, Volunteer) are accepted.
  • This is high desert and it gets very hot, so plan accordingly. Visit in the fall or winter months if you can. If you happen to visit, May through September, arrive early in the morning and limit your sun exposure.
  • Ranger guided tours and special events are a nice way to learn intricate details about the Salado people’s way of life and see things you might otherwise overlook
  • Although there is no camping allowed in the park, there is a nice picnic area along the entrance road.
  • Nearby attractions: Apache Trail (Highway 88), Roosevelt Dam, Tonto National Forest Visitor Center, Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park, Bullion Plaza Museum, Rim County Museums and Zane Grey Cabin, and Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

Ready to go there? Tap the map↓

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