Lower Cliff Dwelling

Morning view of the Lower Cliff Dwelling.
Lower Cliff Dwelling

NPS Photo/ J. Smith

 

People have lived in Tonto Basin for thousands of years. Prehistoric peoples, Apaches, and European settlers 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 834 KB) of the Lower Cliff Dwelling gives details about how the rooms were built.

The Lower Cliff Dwelling contains a few partially intact roofs. These are the original roofs. A roofed breezeway divides the dwelling in half, perhaps serving as a divider for two different family groups.

Most of the rooms contained hearths, 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 made 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 covered 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 the unique Salado architecture.

 

There are many reasons these people may have choosen to build their homes in caves.Perhaps they were protecting themselves from neighbors or were trying to get away from crowded conditions on the valley floor.

Whatever the reason, construction on the 20-room Lower Cliff Dwelling and 40-room Upper Cliff Dwelling began about 1300 CE. To build the dwellings, rocks were easily gathered from the cave floor and surrounding hillsides to for the walls. 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 contain original architecture have been gated off.

 
Wooden ceiling of a room in the Lower Cliff Dwelling with opening to next floor.
Opening in celling of room 14 in Lower Cliff Dwelling.

NPS Photo/ J Smith

Room 14 is the only complete room in Tonto National Monument. The walls were built of stone and mud. There is a central vertical post supporting a main horizontal roof beam. Smaller roof poles were laid across the main beam connected to the wall. A layer of saguaro ribs and a few inches of clay mortar on top completed the roof. An opening used to reach the roof above is also visible.

 
Original fire pit surrounded by dirt floor.
Fire pit in Room 15 of Lower Cliff Dwelling

NPS Photo/ J. Smith

Room 15 contains 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 damage to the dwellings. Concern for this led to the creation of Tonto National Monument in 1907.

Last updated: October 20, 2020

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