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Lower Cliff Dwelling historic photo.

Walking Through History at Tonto National Monument

By Christa Sadler: Tonto National Monument
Imagine a place where history from every era surrounds you. At the Salado Cliff Dwellings at Tonto National Monument, stories and relics from thousands of years of Sonoran Desert life are to be found right at your feet, wherever you tread. Since the construction of these iconic cliff dwellings approximately 700 years ago, they have served as a home, a community of growing and evolving culture, and eventually an alluring spectacle for tourists exploring the “Wild West.”

During the early 20th century, as more and more pioneers began moving westward across the United States, places like the cliff dwellings began to receive more attention. Unfortunately, along with this attention came vandalism. President Theodore Roosevelt saw the need to protect and preserve the cliff dwellings, and so he designated them as a national monument in December of 1907.

After the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, America’s public lands became a distinguishable element of our nation’s landscape. Year after year, more visitors from all over the nation and the world traveled to these significant American sites. With ever-increasing numbers of visitors, the National Park Service faced the question, how could they accommodate this rise in visitation and provide a better experience for sightseers?

Conrad Wirth, then director of the National Park Service, envisioned a multiyear plan to revitalize the experience of both visitors and employees in the national parks. Beginning in 1952, Wirth made proposals to construct new facilities: visitor centers, housing for park staff, and other structures to improve park operations. President Dwight Eisenhower approved these plans in 1956, ushering in a new era for the national parks. The plans also set in motion an architectural movement across the United States that would become known as Mission 66, featuring a streamlined, modern style of design called Park Modern.
Plans for a new visitor center at Tonto National Monument soon followed, reflecting the new Park Modern designs that were being built in other major parks around the country. The structure would include a lobby with an information desk, along with exhibits and displays about the wonders of the cliff dwellings and the prehistoric people who once occupied them.

Major construction took place between 1961 and 1965, and the visitor center made its grand debut on February 21, 1965. This structure went on to serve as a catalyst for road improvements, new trails to the cliff dwellings, and a high standard for visitor experience. With the new visitor center and other facilities at the Monument, visitors now had richer opportunities to connect to the story of the Salado culture and immerse themselves in a world of the past.

The visitor center today. Courtesy Photo

After 50 years of providing information and awe, Tonto National Monument unveiled a newly remodeled museum in 2015. Inside a replica room—modeled after the cliff dwellings’ only remaining room with an intact roof—visitors to the Monument can now experience what it would have been like to live here. Artifacts found in the cliff dwellings, including pottery, textiles, and lithics, are on display, and an 18-minute film shown on the shaded deck of this historic building explains the cultural and natural history of the region. The observation deck offers breathtaking views of the Lower Cliff Dwelling and the Sonoran Desert landscape.

When you visit Tonto National Monument, you are not only walking into a building, you are walking through history: the stories of an ancient people who thrived over 700 years ago. The Tonto visitor center itself is a historic Mission 66 structure that helped write the story of our national parks and will preserve the history of the Salado for future generations.

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