Arizona is reportedly home to more ancient dwellings and ruins sites than any other state in the U.S. Thankfully many of them are contained on land managed and preserved under protection of the National Parks Service. Others are protected in large part by their remote location. Such is the case with the Mindelff Cavates – a chain of hand-carved cave dwellings tucked deep in the Verde Valley.
A cavate (pronounced cave-ate) is a cave dug by human hands rather than forces of nature. The ancient dwellers of this site must have been pretty good at it, because they carved out nearly 90 of them. Most openings serve as a sort of main room with tunnels leading to secondary rooms.
A cavate (pronounced cave-ate) is a cave dug by human hands, rather than forces of nature.
Back in 1896, 16 years before Arizona became a state, the husband and wife archaeology team of Cosmos and Marion Mindeleff published a report detailing the most thorough survey of the ruins to date. They documented 89 cave dwellings made up of 343 rooms in the cliffside colony. Because the Mindeleff’s are the first known historians to claim discovery of the caves, the dwellings have since been referred to as the Mindeleff Cavates.
Mindeleff Cavates ruins quick facts:
- Located roughly 10 miles southeast of Camp Verde, AZ
- Named after Cosmos and Marion Mindeleff who documented the site extensively in the 1890s
- Consists of 89 caves with a total of 343 rooms
- Around 250 people are believed to have lived in the dwellings at peak
- Evidence suggests ancestral people left the site about 700 years ago
- Scattered pottery shards are the only visible artifacts that remain
Get a quick look at the Mindeleff Cavate ruins site in this short video:
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As I explored the ruins with a friend, I imagined a once-vibrant community made up of just a few families that grew over time. I like to think each new cave was dug to accomodate population growth. It seems their excavation skills improved over time. The cavates on the south side of the canyon appear to be the result of more experienced workmanship, with smoother walls and more symetrical passageways, than those to the north.
A closer look at Mindeleff Cavates dwellings in Arizona’s Verde Valley
Although no artifacts remain at the site that share any insights into way of life here, it’s not difficult to visualize their lifestyle based on what was left behind. I imagine each person had a role to play. Reflecting on insights from a World Civilization class I took in college, my hunch is the stronger adolescent men did most of the cave excavation, while others hunted, fished and gathered food. It’s probable the women and girls were involved in preparing meals, crafting textiles and the like.
What happened to all of the artifacts of Mindeleff Cavates?
It’s widely known that early explorers looted and damaged many ruins sites in search of pottery, artwork and tools left behind by previous inhabitants. According to the website of the Verde Valley Archaeology Center and Museum, the expedition of Cosmos Mindeleff saw to it that artifacts from this site were sent to the Field Museum in Chicago, the Smithsonian and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
How to explore the Mindeleff Cavates ruins
To reach the site, it’s a precise hairpin turn off of Hwy 260 south of the town of Camp Verde on to Salt Mine Road. Next, you travel roughly eight miles down a rough, winding minimum maintenance road. Then, it’s another couple miles on rugged dirt and crushed rock road down to the Beasley Flat River Access Point.
This map will get you to the place where you can leave your car:
Many more ruins line the walls of a canyon that is hard to see from the Beasley Flat vantage point (above). There’s a river to cross but no bridge, so from here you either wade across or ferry over on a kayak.
Don’t count on a park ranger greeting you as you make your way up the opposing river bank. The landing on the other side of the river is overgrown and unwelcoming, yet a few clearings in the vegetation make it possible to find your way to a rocky valley floor that once served as river bottom.
To begin your self-guided tour, look for a crude gateway cut through the barbed wire fence at the base of the cliff. It’s located roughly half way between two cavates on opposing walls of the canyon. Here you’ll also find a couple of signs bearing some rules and warnings. Please obey them.
It’s always important to practice Leave No Trace ethics, but especially in irreplaceable sites like this.
You can head up the canyon walls either to your left or right. The traverse up the right side is a little easier to navigate. Regardless of which way you go, you’ll want sturdy shoes that provide good traction. Since very few people visit the ruins, some critters have made their homes there. The presence of pungent bat guano in several of the caves made it clear that the small flying mammals frequent them often. We saw no bats on our visit, but came across a rattlesnake coiled up out in a cool, shady alcove. Two honeycombs were buzzing with bees high overhead.
Compared to many National Parks that feature smooth asphalt roads with large parking lots and visitor centers, the Mindeleff Cavates are relatively inaccessible. That may be a good thing because the ancient dwelling site is fairly well preserved. It takes a little work and planning to get to them but worth the effort for an unforgettable experience.