For over 100 years, these ancient structures have been called the Tonto Cliff Dwellings. We don't know who named them, and there is no way of knowing when they were first seen by Europeans. Cowboys, settlers, and the calvary were aware of the cliff dwellings by the 1870's, and army personnel made note of them during this period.

The diary of Angeline Mitchell provides an early description of the dwellings. Angeline came by wagon trail to Arizona in 1875. In 1880, she agreed to teach school in the remote and often hostile Tonto Basin. In her diary, she described her experiences with cattle stampedes, Apaches, and a trip to the cliff dwellings.

In May of 1883, Adolph Bandelier made his way to the cliff dwellings. His sketches of floor plans and documentation of the physical appearances of the cliff dwellings in his journal represents the condition assessment of the structures at that time. Published in 1892, Bandelier's Final Report of Investigations still serves as a historical reference for archeological sites around the American Southwest.

Black and white image of Roosevelt Dam in 1909. Image taken from down steam looking up with salt river canyon on both sides.
Building Roosevelt Dam, Circa 1909

NPS Photo

Population Growth in the Southwest

Four years after Bandelier's visit, population in the Arizona Territory began to increase rapidly. People were brought west first by wagon trains and trail rides then by the Southern Pacific Railroad which came to Phoenix in 1887. Business and industry followed. By 1900, Phoenix's population was 5,554.

With a growing population, farming, water, and flood control in the Southwest became an issue, thus setting in motion a series of events that would have dramatic effects on the cliff dwellings and their future.

Water and the Roosevelt Dam

Phoenix suffered through numerous catastrophic floods as the Salt River ripped and tore through ineffective earthen dams. Water storage, availability, and control had reached their limits. The Salt River Water Users was formed and, with other states and territorial delegations, lobbied Congress for action. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the National Reclamation Act authorizing damming of western rivers; the Bureau of Reclamation was created and the Arizona Territory was selected for the first dam. By 1903, plans were in place to build Theodore Roosevelt Dam at the confluence of Tonto Creek and the Salt River.

Located just four miles from the construction site, the cliff dwellings felt the impact. Workers, their families, and sightseers began exploring the cliff dwellings. Rare photos of this period show change in the dwelling's conditions through the early 20th century.

Tonto National Monument

What was happening to the cliff dwellings was occurring across the American Southwest. Due to a growing concern over the destruction and looting of archeological sites, the American Antiquities Act was passed in 1906. This act authorized the president to establish monuments for places of natural and cultural significance. Areas such as Devil's Tower, Montezuma's Castle, Gila Cliff Dwellings, Chaco Canyon and many more were given protection under the Antiquities Act.

The Roosevelt Dam project and associated completion of the Apache Trail made the Tonto cliff dwellings a popular attraction. As their popularity grew, sentiment and concern for their future had grown as well. On December 19, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt signed Proclamation 787, creating Tonto National Monument. Four hundred and eighty acres surrounding the Lower and Upper Cliff Dwellings were set aside and placed under the authority of the U.S. Forest Service.

Black and white image of road leading in to Tonto National Monument with stone caretaker's house in distance.
Stone Caretaker's House, Circa 1929

NPS Photo

Southern Pacific Railroad

Roosevelt Dam was completed in 1911; Arizona became a state in 1912. By then, the Southern Pacific Railroad had constructed a hotel near the dam and was offering tours. Tonto National Monument was one of the highlights on their Apache Trail Tour.

In 1929, in cooperation with the US Forest Service, the Southern Pacific made a road to a large parking area at the mouth of Cholla Canyon, where the current picnic area is located. A pit toilet was dug, and a 1-mile trail was cut to the Lower Cliff Dwelling. Ray Stevens was hired as caretaker and was paid $30 a month to serve as the first maintenance person and tour guide.

By 1932, Tonto National Monument had become a popular tourist destination. The Southern Pacific extended the dirt road to where the current parking lot is and built a stone caretaker's house.

For the next three decades, this structure served as the Monument's Headquarters, Visitor Center, and Museum. Chain link fences were erected and locked at night to control access at the dwellings. Fences helped, but unknown numbers of people entering these unstable areas damaged the cliff dwellings. The Tonto Cliff Dwellings suffered more damage and loss in the 1920's and early 1930's than during the previous 600 years.

By 1932, Phoenix's population had grown to 48,000. A growing road system allowed exploration of central Arizona by automobile and an estimated 100 people a month were climbing through the cliff dwellings.


National Park Service Early History

The official history of Tonto National Monument dates from 1907, but the period of protection and preservation began in July 1933. On that date, Tonto National Monument was transferred from the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, to the Department of Interior, National Park Service.

Charlie Steen was the first National Park Ranger assigned to Tonto. During 1934, Steen was assigned to spend time at many newly established monuments.

Rangers in this remote area lived in tent houses and drew water from the local spring. Flooding, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and hard work were part of the daily routine. As primitive as the conditions were, Steen and the rangers that followed persevered. The road was improved and a trail was cut from the parking lot to the cliff dwellings. Archeological and biological studies were initiated to better understand the cliff dwellings and the surrounding environment. A park ranger could now be present at the cliff dwellings to inform visitors of the Monument's archeological value and protect what remained of the fragile structures.

Also in 1934, the Gila Pueblo Archeological Center took samples from the timbers in the dwellings for dating purposes. Dendrochronology, or tree ring dating, is a method of using growth rings on trees as a calendar in order to date archeological sites.

The first indication of how many people were visiting came in September 1935 when Steen reported 305 people for the month. Read Steen's Monthly Reports.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt added 480 acres to the Monument. Eventually, nearly 70 archeological sites were discovered on the now 1120 acre preserve.

Black and white image of park ranger and visitors standing in front of the Lower Cliff Dwelling.
Visitors and Park Ranger at Lower Cliff Dwelling, Circa 1941

NPS Photo

Preservation and Visitor Services

Establishing facilities, preparing trails, and stabilizing the cliff dwellings were routine activities conducted by rangers. In 1937, the Lower Cliff Dwelling was excavated and stabilized for the first time by William Duffen, a graduate student from the University of Arizona.

In 1938, more than 5,000 visitors came to Tonto National Monument. Infrastructure was basic at the time and rangers made do with what they had or what they could borrow. By today's standards, ranger housing was little more than camping out.

Charlie Steen returned in 1940 to stabilize the Upper Cliff Dwelling. Published in 1960, his "Excavations at the Tonto Cliff Dwellings" is the earliest detailed report of architecture and artifact observations at the cliff dwellings.

After World War II, national and international visitation to national parks and monuments grew. Facilities were needed, and the first park ranger house was constructed in 1950.

Visitation that year reached 17,700 and the need for modern facilities increased.

The old parking lot, which accommodated 6 to 8 cars, was expanded in 1950 to help with growing traffic. Funds for excavating and stabilizing the Lower Cliff Dwelling were received and archeologist Lloyd Pierson undertook this work; evidence of this historic stabilization project is still visible today.

Interpretive signs were installed along the Lower Cliff Dwelling and Cactus Patch trail. Thousands of visitors came to see the dwellings.

In 1951, a concrete water tank was built in Cave Canyon to store water from the nearby spring. Water lines were laid to the visitor use area and down the canyon where ranger housing would soon be built. The days of rangers sleeping in tents and visitors using outhouses were over.

By 1960, Phoenix's population was 438,000. Major highway projects in Arizona had opened up the country, with Route 66 bringing people west by the millions. Visitation at the cliff dwellings for 1960 was documented at 46,000.

Black and white image of visitors sitting outside of the Visitor Center during its Dedication Ceremony.
Visitor Center Dedication Ceremony, Circa 1965

NPS Photo

Mission 66- National Park Service 50th Anniversary

Barely keeping pace with growing visitation, In 1956 the National Park Service devised a 10-year plan to upgrade facilities in numerous Park Service sites. In 1964, as part of Mission 66, a building which housed the Visitor Center, Museum, and administrative functions was constructed. The construction of the Visitor Center was completed in 1965.

Mission 66 would transform Tonto National Monument into a 20th century preservation and educational facility. Construction of the new Visitor Center was a declaration that the cliff dwellings were now stable and could be enjoyed by all.

National Historic Preservation Act

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) into law and formally recognized historic preservation as an important policy of the United States. As a result, Tonto National Monument was automatically placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This register identifies and documents significant historical and cultural sites to facilitate their preservation.

Black and white image of road leading in to Tonto National Monument from above.
Aerial View of Tonto National Monument, Circa 1964

NPS Photo

Visitor Services and Resource Management

In 1970, visitation at the park exceeded 53,000 people. Now, modern facilities awaited visitors which included displays on the archeological findings at Tonto National Monument. In 1974, the entrance road and Lower Cliff Dwelling trail were paved.

In 1985, archeologist Martyn Tagg completed the first systematic archeological survey of the entire monument. The object was to locate, record, and evaluate all archeological significant remains within the Monument boundaries and provide a full picture of its archeological resources for the first time.

In 1998, the National Park Service's Vanishing Treasures program was established. The Vanishing Treasures program supports the preservation of traditionally-built architecture in the Western United States, facilitates the perpetuation of traditional skills, and promotes connections between culturally associated communities and their places of heritage. Tonto National Monument was among the first to secure Vanishing Treasures funds for personnel and projects.

Tonto Centennial Logo. Drawing of cliff dwelling surrounded by the words "Tonto National Monument 1907-2007".

Tonto National Monument Centennial

On December 19, 2007, Tonto National Monument celebrated its 100th Anniversary. Throughout its history, Tonto has been profoundly affected by the national movements in reclamation, conservation, and preservation.To commemorate this history, the book At the Confluence of Change: A History of Tonto National Monument was written. Visitation in 2007 was documented at 56,174.

National Park Service Centennial

On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th Anniversary. Now begins a second century of stewardship of the nation's growing number of national parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, military parks, seashores, and more. Learn more about the Centennial.

Thanks to the foresight of President Theodore Roosevelt and many others, these ancient reminders of the past are safe for many generations to come.

Last updated: October 20, 2020

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

26260 N AZ Hwy 188 Lot 2
Roosevelt , AZ 85545


928 467-2241

Contact Us

Stay Connected