Come Along on an Upper Cliff Dwelling Hike

January 23, 2017 Posted by: Betty Thornton, Spring 2017 Volunteer
Today, the sun is shining, and the Jaunary morning weather is still cool. It's 10:00 a.m. and you're ready to join a ranger here at Tonto National Monument on a 3- 4 hours uphill hike. Put on your hiking boots and lets meet Ranger Eric for a little chat before we start out.

Eric explains the hike up is 1.5 miles and will take about 1.5 hours. Listen as he tells you the history of the prehistoric people who lived here. 

Between 2,500 and 10,000 years ago people were hunters/ gathers. These people did not need permanent homes because they migrated to follow their food. Then about 2,500 years ago, agriculture changed their way of life. No longer did they need to migrate; they now knew how to grow crops. Corn, beans, and squash- called the 3 Sisters- were the cliff dweller's main diet. The corn acts as a bean pole, the beans release nitrogen into the soil, and the the squash leaves act as a shade to control moisture loss. When eaten together, they are a complete protein. 

The agricultural life is easier than migrating so large settlements begin to form and some of the people become specialists. Some may be the pueblo builders, others may dig canals, while others may tend to the plants. 

Around 1200 A.D. into the settlement come new residents. Rather than live down by the Salt River, however, these people choose to make their homes in caves, high up on the cliffs. This period of time is called the Salado Phenomenon. The Salado people are a cross between Hohokam and Ancestral Pueblo people. They bring with them traditions of other cultures and  form their own identity. 

These cliff dwellers make what we call Polychrome Pottery. It is used to trace the culture of these people. This pottery was traded in a widespread area. It was used for special occasions and ceremonies. 

With this information, Eric begins the hike. Don't worry about getting to the top of this trail, we'll stop a few times.So get your hiking sticks ready if you brought them and let's head up the trail! 

Stone steps make part of the trail easier.

Our first stop is the ancient spring. Here we can catch our breath and listen to Eric tell its story. For thousands of years, native people used this spring to sustain life. This springs runs 365 days a year. The water comes from rainwater which seeps deep into the mountain over hundreds of years. Imagine rain falling here 700 years ago. Perhaps some of the water we just crossed was rainwater that fell during the time the Salado people lived in these cliffs. Look around this area and notice the trees that grow here.

There are Arizona sycamore and walnut trees. These trees were supplies for the cliff dwellers. The sycamores supplied wood used for the beams of the roof in the cliff dwellings. The walnuts supply food in the form of nuts, although there is not much meat in this type of walnut.

These trees only grow where there is a good supply of fresh water, so imagine you lived thousands of years ago. You would need to know where you could go to get all of the necessary water. On your migrations, you would look for trees such as these. In present day terms, these trees (as well as other surround plants) are your grocery store sign. 

Today we're in for a wildlife treat. Up along the cliffs we see movement. It's a small family of javelina (hav-ah-LEE-nah) scurrying up the terrain. These animals may look like a member of the pig family, but they are actually not.

We continue up the trail and Eric explains some of the uses of the desert plants for us. For instance, these saguaros (suh-WAH-yows) have a couple of uses. In later spring a flower blooms on the top of the cactus which them turns into a beautiful red fruit. These fruits are edible. Birds such as the Gila Woodpecker create holes in the saguaro. The saguaro reacts by forming a type of hard skin, called a boot, around the hole. Their life span is about 250 years and when they die the green dries up leaving just the skeleton of the cactus. These ribs make great roof supports of the cliff dwellings we'll see up top. 

As we continue the hike, look from side to side so you can see some of the many cacti and plants which grow along the hillside, such as the jojoba (ho-HO-bah) plant. Native people used the nuts on this plant as a food source and pressed them to extract the thick oil. This oil was the consistency of Vaseline and they used it as a pain rub. 

If you need to catch your breath, there is a bench halfway up the trail you can use. At the bench, you will see the sotol (SO-tall). Up close, you can see the little thorns on the edges of the leaves. Native people would strip the thorns from the leaves and weave them into baskets and mats. When the stalk growing from the center is young, they would cook and eat it. 

You've learned a lot about the different desert plants so far but there is more to learn; as you continue the hike take a look around and notice all the groceries now avaliable to you. 

Take the agave for example. You can pulverize the leaves to create a fiber. A tasty way to prepare this plant is to cut the heart and bake it. Flatten the finished product into cakes and store them away, for a couple years if necessary. When you need a little sugar fix (and who wouldn't on a hike like this) break a piece off and chew on it. The dead agave on the trail ended its life nobly. A stalk sprouted from the center of the plant and grew an amazing 2.5 inches a day; it may have reached 15 feet high. This growth takes an amazing amount of energy from the plant; it has no choice but to die. Fortunately this stalk provided up to 65,000 new seeds into the desert. 

Let's take another break with Ranger Eric and you can catch your first glimpse of the Upper Cliff Dwelling. Now you're probably more excited but don't let that distract you from some of the sights you'll still see along the way. Colorful rocks sit along the path. You may notice that many of the colors in them are similar to the colors in the cliff. 

We pass by teddy bear chollas; don't let the name fool you however. Their spines are barbed and will stick to anything is can. It's often called a "jumping" cholla because of the way it will onto anything it can't stick to. Aren't you glad you wore hiking boots to protect your feet?

A barrel cactus is around the next switchback. This cactus is often called the compass of the desert because of its growth, it leans toward the south. Now that you know this, you can take a look around the desolate, hilly landscape. Aren't you glad you know which way is south? 

We'll take another brief break- you will notice a fence on the left. You learn from Eric that this fence defines the boundary between Tonto National Monument and Tonto National Forest. The forest service permits grazing on their land, the park service does not. 

From here, take a look down the trail. You can see Roosevelt Lake far below. Picture life 700 years ago. This land would have looked much the same then as now. The big difference is the lake; Roosevelt Lake is man-made. There is a dam on the Salt River. So 700 years ago, you would see only the Salt River running through here. All through this basin would have been adobe structures in which people lived and worked. The people living here are an agricultural society so picture cotton growing close to the river. Beans, corn, and squash complete their dietary needs. These farms are all being irrigated by canals the native people dug along the Salt River. 

The switchbacks are numerous along the end of the trail. Take a look up and you'll see Eric leading the way.

In just a few minutes, we find a spot to rest, grab a bit to eat and drink. While we're finishing our snack, listen as Eric explains a little more about these cliff dwellers. You remember he said that the people living in the basin grew cotton. Well the people in the cliffs used that cotton to weave garments. These were not simple garments, rather they had very technical patterns and dyes incorporated into them. We don't really know how or if the cliff dwellers were related to the dwellers in the basin, but we're guessing the cliff dwellings migrated from the north brining their culture with them eventually blending the two cultures. 

Okay snack time is over; pack up your beverages and snacks and lets head to the dwelling. This is the largest cliff dwelling of its time. About 100 people lived here in this 40 room complex. Why, you may ask, did these people choose to live on the cliff rather than in the open basin with the others? Well, perhaps they wanted to be more sheltered or maybe they chose the high up spot for defese. We do know they did some dry land farming along the hillside. They did not irrigate these crops as the people in the basin did with canals, rather they allowed nature to take its course with natural moisture. Along with what they farmed there were plently of wild resources as we learned about on our hike today. 

Let's follow Eric into the first room.

You will notice that Eric's head is near the top of the ceiling. He tells you that there is 2 feet of fill on the floors from the rest of the roof collapsing and that ceilings were normally about 6 feet high. The Salado people were between 5' and 5'6". Rooms like these were built with a large cross beams of sycamore, walnut, or juniper upon which were laid saguaro ribs running the opposite way. The adobe was then placed atop these structures. The first floor roof then also became the second floor's roof.

As we go room to room, you'll have to crouch to enter and exit some doorways. 

There are a few theories on the size. Some believe it is just because that is how they were taught to build doorways; others say it may hold in heat in the winter and yet keep heat out in the summer or perhaps it was for defense purposes.

We will now enter a fairly intact room. Eric sits on the floor and explains how this is one of the last rooms to be built. Ths roof in this room is built with reeds rather than saguaro. Perhaps they ran out of saguaro ribs by this time. 

Watch your step coming out of that room and let's head over to the over side of the dwelling. As we come up some steps, we are able to examine some original artifacts found on site. You can see a squash stem and a small corn cob- the corn they grew is much smaller than we have today. You can also see a quid- do you remember learning about earting baked agave hearts? This is what was left! It is the fiber from the heart of the agave. As they chewed the agave, the sweet part is digested but the fiber is left behind in your mouth. They would wad it up and spit it out in a ball shape. Lastly, you get to examine up close, a piece of pottery.

Having had this personal contact with these ancient people we can now see their large meeting room in the back of the dwelling. We look down upon it now since the roof is gone. The community of cliff dwellers would gather here and possibly discuss harvesting needs or perhaps there might be a marriage here. 

In the very back of the cave we find an open area. Look towards the rear wall and you'll see a cistern. You can tell by the smooth rocks that water once ran here; this cistern would capture any seepage that would run down the wall. What an energy saver that would be, not having to haul water up 600 feet!  

Hopefully you've enjoyed your time connecting with the Salado people. You've been able to walk where they walked, touch some of the things they touched, and see what they saw. Take one last look at the view and you begin your trek back down.

As you and your group head down, don't forget to look around and imagine yourself living here 700 years ago. What would you do during the day? Will you forage for food for the commuity? Maybe you are the potter. As you cross the spring, imaging filling a clay pot and walking back up to the dwelling. Whatever you are thinking and feeling, we thank you for joing us on the Upper Cliff Dwelling hike. 

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Last updated: June 23, 2018

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