Home » Attractions » Tonto National Monument is an archaeology treasure located in Tonto Basin

Tonto National Monument is an archaeology treasure located in Tonto Basin

By: Jean Sullivan

Tucked away in canyons high above Roosevelt Lake stand two 700 –year-old cliff dwellings inhabited by a multi-ethnic group that archaeologists have named the “Salado”.  Salado dwellings were located along the Salt River, Tonto Basin and in Globe (Besh Ba Gowah and Gila Pueblo). Archaeologists believe these people were a blend of Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as the Anasazi) from the North, the Mogollon from the East, and the Hohokam already established in the area. What distinguished this new culture from other cultures in the Southwest at that time were their beautiful polychrome pottery and the intricate weavings. The Salado farmed crops of cotton, corn, squash and beans along the Salt River and its tributaries. They were also hunters and gatherers. Mesquite beans, agave, and cactus fruits along with small game rounded out their diets.

Around the year 1300 AD, one group left the river to build their homes in the cliffs which nature had carved for them in the Dripping Springs quartzite layer. It is not clear why they chose this rugged but defendable location since there was little evidence of warfare. The Salado left all locations around 1450 AD for reasons unknown, which represents one of the biggest mysteries of the Southwest. Today several local Native American groups claim affiliation to the Salado, and some occasionally visit the Park.

Many visitors ask why these people chose to live in a cliff dwelling and how far did they have to go for water. The water was actually discovered in the canyon just below the dwellings which still  boasts a perennial spring providing drinking water for the Park today. This spring also attracts abundant wildlife. A recent study found that 30% of all Arizona birds and mammals can be found in Tonto National Monument’s tiny 1,120 acres! Visitors traverse this riparian area in order to get to the Upper Cliff Dwelling. It is often hard to believe when walking through this spring fed paradise that you are still in the Sonoran Desert!

Roger Dorr, Chief of Cultural Resources at Tonto demonstrating Salado pottery making using ancient materials and techniques. Student Conservation Association (SCA) worker, Ryan Porter in the background. Photo by: Jean Sullivan
Roger Dorr, Chief of Cultural Resources at Tonto demonstrating Salado pottery making using ancient materials and techniques. Student Conservation Association (SCA) worker, Ryan Porter in the background. Photo by: Jean Sullivan

Tonto National Monument was one of the first national monuments established (1907) by President Theodore Roosevelt after the Antiquities Act was passed by Congress in 1906.  When the spur line connecting Globe to the main Southern Pacific line was developed, a tourist excursion to the Apache Trail became a popular option. Visitors were met by long cars and driven to the newly developed Roosevelt Dam with a side trip to the cliff dwellings. At that time, it seemed perfectly acceptable to take pieces of the dwelling as souvenirs and to carve initials in the ancient beams. It became evident that these ancient structures needed immediate protection, which led to the National Monument status.

Today, Tonto National Monument boasts a newly renovated museum featuring a replica of one room in the Lower Cliff Dwelling as well as many interesting artifacts on display. The trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling is open from 8am to 4pm daily with the exception of Christmas Day. Although the half-mile trail is steep, it is paved. The Upper Cliff Dwelling is available by Ranger-led hikes from November through April on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The trail to the upper dwellings is not paved, far more rugged and is a mile and a half one way. These guided tours usually last 3 ½ hours. Those interested may call the Park number (928-467-2241) to make reservations.

We urge all to visit the monument. Come see our new museum, hike the trail, and do your Christmas shopping at our wonderful gift shop! Plan to make this a regular stop on your way to Roosevelt Lake or the Apache Trail.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.