Arizona: Tonto National Monument

The Upper and Lower Cliff Dwellings at  Tonto National Monument.
The Upper and Lower Cliff Dwellings at Tonto National Monument.

Courtesy of National Park Service/ Rex Lavoie

Tonto National Monument preserves two of what were once many pueblos in Arizona’s Tonto Basin. In this basin, many cultures mixed, coming because of their attraction to the wide variety of wildlife and plants found there. Beginning about 100AD and continuing for roughly 500 more years, hunter-gatherer communities in the Tonto Basin gradually transitioned to more settled groups that actively cultivated crops using water from the Salt River and Tonto Creek. Around 600 AD, humans may have left the Tonto Basin not to return to live there again until 750. In the 1100s, Hohokam groups from the west came and joined others already settled on the valley floor. They successfully hunted and farmed, just as previous communities had, and established trade networks that stretched from what is today Colorado to the Sea of Cortez, far to the southwest. The cultures in the Tonto Basin mixed to form the Salado culture, one that combined elements of previous groups and developed distinct traditions.

The Salado occupation of the basin floor and later the upper caves lasted from roughly 1100 to 1450. The dwellings at Tonto National Monument represent the end of the Salado presence in the Tonto Basin. While conditions in the basin before 1300 favored the sedentary agriculture practiced by the Salado and others, a change in the climate around 1330 caused the area to become drier. The drought destroyed the irrigation canals the Salado had long used to help water their crops. The community was unable to support itself because the drought depleted the resources in the basin faster than it was possible to replace them. Some chose to stay on the basin floor, while others moved up out of the valley floor and built the cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument. The cliffs would only shelter the Salado for roughly 100 years. They abandoned the area around 1450.

Today, Tonto National Monument preserves two main ruins in the park: an upper ruin and a lower ruin, both constructed around 1300. Salado pueblos generally are divided into living spaces, storage spaces, and space for grinding corn. In most cases, the doorways leading between these spaces are t-shaped. This is a feature common in the Southwest that may have helped keep the temperature in rooms constant by minimizing heat loss, although the shape may have had other purposes.

The lower ruin is a pueblo that had 20 rooms, some of which were two stories tall. The pueblo was built of rocks taken from hills in the area, along with saguaro cactus ribs and other materials that were used as beams to support the roof. Similar to other pueblos in the Southwest, the roofs of many rooms were used in the preparation of food and as spaces for recreation. A parapet running around the edge of the roof may have helped contain rooftop activity or served as a spot from which to defend the pueblo if attacked. Settled into a v-shaped notch in the rock, a ladder leading up to a ledge was the only means of access to the pueblo. Inhabitants could easily pull up this ladder to help prevent attackers from getting too close. Unlike others in the region, the Salado people seem to have mostly used inside fire pits dug out of the floor. Smoke stains from fires of the 1300s are still visible on the walls of the lower ruin. In addition to sleeping and storage spaces, the pueblo had communal spaces. A large open room is suspected to have served as a meeting spot for those in the community, as well as for trade, preparing harvested food, and religious ceremonies.

The larger cave in which the upper cliff dwelling was built allowed for a pueblo with twice as many rooms as the lower one. The larger upper pueblo had features not found in the lower one, including a cistern in one of the bigger shared rooms. This cistern collected rainwater seeping into the cave or may have been filled by hand during the dry years. The upper pueblo also contains the same types of rooms for living and storage as the lower dwelling. In the ceiling of one of the newer rooms in the upper cliff dwelling, reeds are used in place of the saguaro ribs and other materials commonly found in older parts of the same pueblo. Perhaps this is a clue that the Salado community had depleted the surrounding area of saguaro cactus and, like others before them, the community was also growing too large for the basin’s resources to support it. While the upper and lower pueblos are the most prominent Salado dwellings at Tonto, the Salado also built other structures there, including smaller, one-room shelters detached from the larger pueblos that may have served as temporary residences. The Salado also built field houses to store tools associated with irrigating and tending crops.

Although much about the Salado is still a mystery, they left many artifacts that help answer some questions. Visitors to Tonto National Monument can see pottery, cotton textiles, woven yucca items, bows, and arrows the Salado produced. Adolph Bandelier’s 1883 archeological survey in the Tonto Basin recorded both the upper and lower pueblo ruins. His scientific study and recording of these and other sites helped bring attention to the country’s archeological treasures but also piqued the interest of relic hunters who looted some of the sites. Some of the rooms in both of the pueblos at Tonto National Monument suffered damage by these early and later treasure hunters. 

Tonto National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located 110 miles east of Phoenix, AZ off either Arizona Route 188 or Arizona Route 88. Route 88 (the Apache Trail) has unpaved portions and includes some rough terrain. There is a fee to visit the park, which is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm, except for Christmas Day. Ranger-led tours of the upper ruin are offered seasonally. This tour is not recommended for inexperienced hikers. Reservations are required and may be made by calling 928-467-2241. The lower ruin is easier to navigate and can be visited without a guide. A third trail, the Cactus Patch Trail, teaches about desert landscape. For more information, visit the National Park Service Tonto National Monument website or call the number above.