Food and Water

flowing water in Cave Canyon
flowing water in Cave Canyon

NPS photo

Probably the most commonly asked questions are, “What did these people eat?” and “Did they have to walk all the way to the lake to get water?”

First of all, there was no lake when the cliff dwellings were occupied, but there was a river – the Salt River. Many people lived along the valley floor, so that was probably where they got their water. The people who lived in the Upper and Lower cliff dwellings had a much closer water source – a small spring in a nearby canyon, but even so they would have had to walk about ½ mile to reach it. This was probably the women’s job, but it may have been a nice break from grinding corn to feed the family!

There is no water storage area in the Lower Cliff Dwelling, but there is a cistern in the Upper Cliff Dwelling, which could have held about 100 gallons of water. For more information about the cliff dwellings and water, click on the links.
mesquite beans and other food sources
mesquite beans and other food sources

NPS photo

The people who lived in the cliff dwellings could not go to the neighborhood store when they needed food or medicine. They had to get everything they needed from the plants and animals around them, or trade with neighboring tribes.

There are several hundred wild plants that people could have gathered for food, medicine, or building materials. Here are just a few of them:

Agave: every bit of the plant can be used for something. The roots can be used to make soap; the leaves provide fiber for making string, sandals, and clothing. The heart of the plant can be roasted and eaten or stored for later use, and the stalk can be used as a walking stick or roofing material. Sometimes the seeds were ground into flour.

The agave was used to treat stomach problems and arthritis.

Mesquite: the beans can be eaten green or after they have dried and turned brown. The wood can be used for fuel, fence posts, charcoal, and tool handles. The bark can be pounded into fiber, and makes a very strong rope. The sap can be used as glue to waterproof baskets.

Mesquite can be used as a disinfectant, and to treat diarrhea, a sore throat, irritated eyes, and many other diseases.

Saguaro: the fruit can be eaten fresh, made into syrup or wine, or dried for later use. The interior of the plant can be used for building material, walking sticks, or to splint broken bones.

Prickly pear: the young pads can be eaten raw or cooked. The fruit and flowers are also edible. The plant can be used to treat diabetes, arthritis, cuts and bruises, infections, etc.

Creosote bush: the wood can be used to cook certain foods. The buds can be eaten, and the gum can be used to mend broken pottery, waterproof baskets, or attach arrowheads to the shaft.

Creosote can be used to treat brittle hair, cracked feet, and everything in between!

Ocotillo: the flowers can be used to make tea; the seeds can be ground into flour. The wood can be used as a torch, and for fencing or roofing materials.

The plant can be used to treat coughing, for fatigue, and other ailments.

Yucca: there are 9 species of yucca; one of the most common is the banana yucca. The uses were very similar to the agave.

Medically, the plant can be used to reduce fever, relieve pain, and treat dandruff and other scalp problems.

Cholla: there are many species of cholla; one of the most common is the buckhorn cholla. The buds, fruit, and sections are edible. The spines are very difficult to remove.

The buds can be used to cure certain stomach problems; the roots can be used for curing diarrhea.

Jojoba: the nuts are edible, but are about ½ wax, so they are not very nutritious.

They can be ground up and used to treat sore throats, sore eyes, sore throats, and as an aid in childbirth.

Please remember it is against the law to collect plants in a National Park Service area. It is also not a good idea to wander through the desert eating everything in sight. There are many excellent books about which plants to use and how to prepare them.

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

26260 N AZ Hwy 188 Lot 2
Roosevelt, AZ 85545


(928) 467-2241
Please call if you have any question on Tonto National Monument or the cliff dwellings. Call to check availability and book a guided tour for the Upper Cliff Dwelling (November through April).

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