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A Grand Tour of Arizona’s Past Cultures and Ancient Ruins

Montezuma Castle - Verde Valley - Arizona

How you arrange this tour depends a lot on where you are coming from. I came from Utah in the North, many others will be coming from Phoenix. Either way, you can draw almost a circle of travel, from just north of Flagstaff down to Sedona, and Phoenix, and then up through Globe and Winslow, and finally to Chinle on the Navajo reservation, and then back to Flagstaff.

Stop #1: Wupatki National Monument (NE of Flagstaff)

Wupatki offers ready access to five major sets of ruins, Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos, Citadel and Nalakihu, Wupatki, and Wukoki. Wupatki, which the park is named after is by far the most extensive, but each has its own appeal. My other favorites besides Wupatki, were the Citadel, and Wukoki. Wukoki is of particular interesting at sunset.

The ruins of Wupatki were inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans more than 900 years ago. It’s hard to imagine, given how arid the area is, that the Indians of these dwellings were able to sustainably farm corn, beans, squash and cotton for any length of the time. But the ruins stand as a testament to their resilience and ingenuity.

Stop #2: Walnut Canyon National Monument

Just south of Flagstaff, is a cliff dwelling once occupied by a group of people called the Sinagua, by the Spanish. Sinagua means “without water”. The Spanish when they visited the area, were surprised that not only had people been able to live in such a harsh place, but that the high San Francisco Mountains didn’t offer the amount of water they were expecting, compared to similar high mountains in arid parts of Spain.

Stop #3: Sedona and the Verde Valley

If there was a heartland of the Sinagua people it would be the Verde Valley and the surrounding canyon regions around Sedona. It’s been estimated that as many as 6,000 people lived in the region at the height of the Sinagua civilization, in dozens of pueblos, many with hundreds of rooms. In one case, a ruin called Chavez Pass, had over 1000 rooms.

Today, much of the recognizable evidence of their existence has been lost, due to erosion, floods, and occupation of the region by others, including white settlers. However there are a number of spectacular ruins that still existing.

Montezuma Castle – This is one of the best preserved cliff dwellings of any Ancestoral Puebloan culture in the southwest. The 20+ room structure owes its resilience, no doubt to the dry climate, its placement high in a cliff acove away from the elements, and  a bit of luck.

Tuzigoot National Monument – When archaelogist found this, the pueblo was largely in ruins and buried under dirt. What visitors see today is a reconstruction of the walls from the material at the site. The pueblo at its tallest stands three stories, and comprises more than 100 rooms that were built in stages from 1125 to 1400 CE.

Palatki and Honanki Heritage Sites – Both of these sites, located near each other, are examples of Sinagua Cliff Dwellings. Likely habitation of the sites occured between 1130 and 1280 CE, but there is evidence from nearby pictographs that people had been visiting the area since at least 2000 BC.

One note. If you plan to visit the Palatki site, access to the ruins is available by guided tours only, and you must have a reservation beforehand.

Montezuma Well – While not as spectacular as the other ruins mentioned in the Verde Valley,  Montezuma Well holds a special significance to the tribes (past and present) that have called the Verde Valley home. Both the Hopi, and Yavapai consider Montezuma Well as the starting point in their origin myths.  And it’s not difficult to see why. Nearly 1.5 million gallons of water flow consistently from this natural spring each day, providing a source of water that has been used for at least 10,000 years.  An irrigation ditch built to reach farm fields below the spring has existed long enough that its original shape has been preserved by the dissolved limestone that has been deposited along its length.

Stop #4: Casa Grande (Coolidge, AZ)

I must admit that my first inclination as a photographer was to give Casa Grande a pass on my trip through Arizona. The large protective cover that stands over this building was a bit of turn off, but I am glad I changed my mind.  It’s hard to understand without looking at it in person just how massive this building, with amazingly thick walls, really is. And it’s all made out of mud.

Casa Grande is a product of the Hohokam Culture, that by some estimates occupied the Phoenix and Tucson Basins as far back as 2000 B.C. Casa Grande is a product of the final stage of the Hohokam Culture, known as Pueblo IV, which lasted until roughly 1450 A.D. It’s estimated that its height, the Hohokam, through their extensive canal system, irrigated as much as 19,000 acres of the land surrounding the nearby Gila River. And in the larger region of Arizona they inhabited, the estimated acreage  goes over 100,000. Their crops included; corn, beans, squash, tobacco, cotton, barley and amaranth.  Even today, as you drive through the area on your way to the site, you will come across fields filled with cotton, a homage of sorts to the past.

There are two Hohokam-related museum sites, located closer to Phoenix that many may find of interest. They include Mesa Grande, and Pueblo Grande, which offers recreations of how Hohokam buildings and villages might have looked. Both reside close to the Salt River, a tributary to the Gila River, and the main river that flows through the Phoenix area.

Stop #5: Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park (Globe, AZ)

Besh-Ba-Gowah is a 200-room, partially reconstructed pueblo of the Salado people of the Tonto basin, who lived in the area between 1150 AD and the 1400’s. The Tonto basin roughly covers the area surrounding what is now the Roosevelt Lake, a reservoir completed in 1911.

Stop #6: Tonto National Monument

Tonto National Monument was created in 1907, it seems as a compromise of sorts, to forever preserve a piece of the history of the Salado people located in two cliff dwellings high above the valley where the majority of Salado had lived, and which the waters of Roosevelt Lake now covers over.

Stop #7:  Agate House – Petrified Forest National Park

Among its many natural treasures, Petrified Forest National Park also contains numerous reminders of its past inhabitants. This includes a group of Ancestral Puebloans that used petrified wood to construct an 8-room Pueblo known as Agate House.  The unique pueblo was reconstructed by archaeologist Cornelius B. Cosgrove.

Stop #8: Canyon De Chelly National Park  (Chinle, AZ)

This part of Arizona has been occupied by many different groups of Indians over time, including the Anasazi, the Hopi, and most recently the Navajo. The Canyon reflects this heritage with archaeological remains from all three cultures. The most prominent however, are the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi. Much of the canyon floor is off limits to visitors without a Navajo guide or park ranger.  The one exception is the famous White House Ruin, which is about a 2 mile round trip hike from the rim of the canyon.  The canyon however contains more than 2500 archaeological sites, and the remains of dozens of Anasazi villages. And artifacts have been found, that date back to at least 1500 B.C.

Stop #9: Navajo National Monument

This park is managed by the Navajo Nation, and contains a couple of famous, well preserved Anasazi Ruins. The first Betatakin, requires a guided 3-5 mile hike (depending on the trail taken). The second ruin, can be founded at the end of 17-mile hike. While a guide is not required, you must obtain a permit to visit the site, and only 20 permits are given out each day during the summer season. Both ruins are closed during the winter (October-April).

Other Possibilities

If you made it as far as the Navajo National Monument, or Canyon De Chelly and have extra time on your hands, I highly recommend extending your journey into the Four Corners region. Possibilities  include Aztec Ruin NM, and Chaco Canyon NP in New Mexico, Mesa Verde, and Canyon of the Ancients in Colorado, and Bears Ears, and Hovenweep National Monuments in Utah. All of these are within a few hours drive of one another, and showcase the fantastic architecture left behind by the Anasazi.