Lower Cliff Dwelling

Morning at the Lower Cliff Dwelling
Lower Cliff Dwelling

NPS Photo/ J. Smith

Tonto Basin has been occupied for thousands of years. Europeans, Apaches, and prehistoric peoples have all called it home. One of these groups, known by archeologists as the Salado, built the cliff dwellings you see today. A construction sequence [pdf] of the Lower Cliff Dwelling gives details about how and in what order the rooms were built.

When you visit the Lower Cliff Dwelling, notice the partially intact roofs in some rooms. These are the original roofs. A roofed breezeway divides the dwelling in half, perhapes serving as a divider for two different family groups.

Most of the rooms contained heaths, which suggests that a single family would have lived in each room. You can still see soot from their fires blackening the alcove above the dwelling.

Archeologists have had to make a few modifications to the dwelling in order to facilitate visitation. A stone bench was installed against the boulder at the front of the cave, the floor was graded with sand to protect the prehistoric plaster floor, and a modern retaining wall was built at the front of the alcove. Even with these changes, the dwelling serves as a remarkable testament to unique Salado architecture.
Archeologists are not sure why the Salado made their homes in caves. Perhaps people were protecting thmeselves from their neighbors, or were glad to get away from crowded conditions on the valley floor. Whatever the reason, construction on the 20-room Lower and 40-room Upper Cliff Dwelling began about 1300 CE. Some materials were easily gathered, with the cave floor and surrounding hill sides providing plenty of good building rocks. Other materials, such as pine and juniper roof beams, had to be carried down from the surrounding mountains.

The size of the Lower Cliff Dwelling was limited by the shape of the cave in which it was located, which is 40 feet high, 85 feet long, and 48 feet deep. Each family occupied one room, with a fire pit in the floor and a hatchway to access the second story and roof. Ceilings and walls still bear smoke stains made by cooking fires.

Two rooms that have been gated off contain original architecture.
Hatchway in Room 14 of Lower Cliff Dwelling

NPS Photo/ J Smith

Room 14 is the only completely intact room in Tonto National Monument. The walls were built of stone and mud with a central upright post supporting a main roof beam. Smaller roof poles were laid across the main beam, connecting it to the walls. A layer of saugaro ribs and a few inches of clay mortar completed the roof. The hatchway used to reach the roof above is also visible.
Original Fire Pit
Fire pit in Room 15 of Lower Cliff Dwelling

NPS Photo/ J. Smith

Inside room 15 are parts of the original clay floor and a fire pit. The people living here cleared the room of cave debris, leveled the floor with dirt, and covered it with clay. When dry, this floor provided a smooth, flat surface for sleeping, food preparation, and storage of household items. Similar floors were used throughout the cliff dwelling but have worn away or been destroyed.

The reasons why the Salado left Tonto Basin may never be known. Drought, disease, and warfare may have led to their departure in the early to mid- 1400s. Long before Europeans arrived in the New World, the cliff dwellings were left to the wind and sun.

By the early 1900's, the Basin was already a tourist destination for people traveling on the Southern Pacific Railroad. As the number of visitors increased, so did presssure on the dwellings. It was concern over this damage that led to the creation of Tonto National Monument in 1907.

Last updated: August 31, 2019

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