Remote location in Verde River Valley helps protect ancient ruins of Mindeleff Cavate dwellings


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 Mindeleff Cavates – a chain of hand-carved cave dwellings tucked deep in the Verde Valley.

Wide shot of caves dug into the wall of a canyon
There a total of 89 caves with 343 rooms situated along opposing sides of a canyon.
View of entrance to cave dug into canyon wall
This is a zoomed-in shot of the cave just to the right of center in the image above.

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.

View of cave with entrance partially blocked by rubble
Rubble partially blocking the entrance to this cave hints that the ancient dwellers had also built walls with rock and clay.

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:

Subscribe to the AZWonders channel on YouTube for more in-depth video footage of this site and many more amazing natural wonders throughout Arizona.

Lush river valley framed with curved entrance to a cave
Typical view of the Verde Valley from inside many of the dwellings at the Mindeleff Cavates site

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.

Close up view of a cave dwelling.
Close up view of a cave dwelling. It’s unknown whether the stones on the floor were placed ther by hand or may be chunks that fell from the interior celing of the cave.
Small pit dug into stone floor
Small pit dug into the floor near the center of the main room of one of the caves
Three small holes drilled in stone floor
These small holes appear to have been deliberately drilled in close proximity to the small pit shown above. Could this be a spot where sticks were spun to start fire with friction?
Stone floor with sprial design etched into it
Unlike many ruins sites with clearly distinguishable petroglyphs, markings like the ones in the floor of one of the main rooms are few and far between at the Mindeleff Cavates site.

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.

Fireplace carved into corner stone cave
Fireplace carved into corner of one of the larger caves
Pottery shards arrange in a small cluster
Pottery shards like the ones shown here are visible in numerous places throughout the Mindeleff Cavates site.
Interior of cave with unique designs of dark and light shades
No two caves are alike. This one was particularly interesting for the unique coloring and patterns on the walls and ceiling.
View of expansive lush valley with mountains and blue sky
There’s little doubt the people who lived here enjoyed the natural surroundings, with spectacular sunrises and sunsets punctuating each day.

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 park your car and wade across the river:

Cave dwellings in the distance with muddy river and lush trees in the foreground
From Beasley Flat you can see a few of the cave dwellings directly across the valley. From the backside of the dwelling visible in the center of this picture, you can explore dozens more caves that line both walls of a canyon that goes back about 1/4 mile.

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.

Rattlesnake coiled up in a small rock cave.
Be careful where you step and place your hands. We saw this little guy hanging out in one of the caves on the south side of the canyon.
Active honeycomb built by bees
We came across two active honeycombs during our Mindeleff Cavates adventure. The bees were not aggressive and more interested in making honey than concerning themselves with what we were doing.

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.


  1. Great article Paul! I’m checking out your other posts as well. It looks like you’ve already found a ton of other awesome lesser know places in Arizona. I’m excited to check some of them out!

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