Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Tonto National Monument

Or, how my kid tried to kill me by dragging up a hill to look at a cliff dwelling.

Okay, so maybe she didn't actually try to kill me. Going to Tonto National Monument was my idea, not hers. It was March, it was Spring in Arizona, flowers were blooming, the sun was shining, and we were going to be hitting the road to Colorado soon. So spending one last Saturday collecting NPS Passport stamps seemed like a good idea.

Tonto National Monument is near Lake Roosevelt more or less north of Globe. It's about a two hour drive from Safford. The S.O. decided to pass on accompanying us on this particular expedition. He had hit the point where one crumbling pueblo or cliff dwelling looked pretty much like every other crumbling ruin we'd seen.
I, on the other hand, had spotted a flyer at the Canyon de Chelly (another NPS site I'll do a post on one of these days) the previous month noting that among the many events happening in Arizona in honor of March being Archeology Month was an Open House (translation: no admission fee) day at Tonto National Monument. I do not object to paying admission fees, in fact I will sometimes pay them even though the S.O. has a geezer pass because I believe in supporting the National Park system, but I am also half Finn -- and every so often the incredibly cheap frugal Finnish side emerges. So the kid and I decided we'd do Tonto on the free day.
At this point I thought we were getting close. I was wrong.
Tonto is an interesting little park. It has two noteworthy cliff dwellings, one fairly close to the Visitor Center and one that's a little farther away (approximately one mile). The latter site is usually accessible only as part of a ranger-guided hike that you have to make an appointment for. For the open house, however, the trail was going to be open all day. You did not have to go as part of a group at any specific time. Sounded good to me.
Teddy bear cholla
So the kid and I filled our water bottles -- I actually used my CamelBak pack, having gotten a new water bladder for it at REI a few weeks earlier -- and headed for Tonto. It was a gorgeous day, the park had attracted enough visitors that cars actually had to park along the roadside on the way in. We got lucky, though, by arriving late enough that earlier visitors were already exiting the main parking lot. We were directed to a space close to the Visitor Center. We checked that out first so we'd have some idea what we were about to do and then looked at a few outdoor displays before heading up the trail. When we got to the park, a group of Apache kids were just finishing up dancing so we didn't see much of that, but the various displays and demonstrations were interesting. The Tonto National Forest (which surrounds Tonto National Monument) had an archeologist there who does experimental archeology of some sort (and I'm now blanking on exactly what it was so it couldn't have been too exciting) and some local hiking club or birdwatching group had a booth pushing other parks and trails in the area.
And then we headed up the trail. The ranger at the trailhead checked to make sure we had water and decided we were good -- they were handing out bottles of water to anyone who didn't have water already. First part of the trail wasn't bad. It followed a little creek that runs though the bottom of the canyon so there were a couple minor water crossings. We'd been warned to watch for bees, and indeed there were a few places where lots and lots of honey bees were taking advantage of the stream. We ignored them; they ignored us.
Then the trail started to climb. We emerged from the shade along the creek, looked up the hill, and there in the distance, looking like it was a long, long way from us, were the ruins. That's the photo at the top of this post. And then the switchbacking began. We'd walk a couple hundred feet on a gradual climb up in one direction, then there'd be a tight switchback, and we'd do another couple hundred feet in the other direction. . . and so on. . . and on. . . and on. At about the midway point there was a bench occupied by a park ranger and a large water cooler, one of those 5-gallon ones. I did not envy the park employee who got to tote that sucker up the trail to that point. (Nor, when we finally reached the ruins, did I envy the rangers who carried up the cases of bottled water.) I think my kid (aka The Amazon) could have jogged up that trail with no problems, but I found it a tad more tiring than anticipated. I don't do well on hills.
Lake Roosevelt as seen from the ruins
In any case, what would have been maybe a 20-minute walk on level ground turned into about an hour creeping up hill. We paused a lot as I resorted to ploys like "I want to get a picture of this teddy bear cholla" (so cuddly looking and so vicious if you're unlucky enough to come within 3 feet of one; cholla are known as jumping cactus for a reason) or "Wow, what a great view from here!" Not to mention, of course, the classic "Wait a second. I need to get a sip of water." Which I actually did need to do, a lot. It was a gorgeous day that must have hit 90 by mid-afternoon. Heat was a real issue, so was dehydration, which was why the Park Service was pushing water at people like crazy.
Looking at the trail before starting back down.
Eventually, of course, we did get to the ruins. It was worth the climb. Being able to see them up close definitely beats having to view ruins from behind a fence (e.g., the White House at Canyon de Chelly) or from across a canyon (Mesa Verde). A VIP and a ranger were at the ruins to answer questions and to pour water on or into people who needed it. And the view of the lake from the ruins was amazing. I'd do it again despite managing to come dangerously close to actual heat exhaustion. I did stay hydrated but was still feeling borderline nauseous and having chills by the time we got back to the Visitor Center. I am definitely not a warm weather person.

On the other hand, at least I was smart enough to know it. There were a few people who arrived at the ruins while we were there who really should not have attempted the hike at all. No water worth mentioning and wearing footwear more suited for strolling around a shopping mall or a beach than for going up a moderately rough trail in rattlesnake country. We didn't see any snakes, but there were signs up warning people to be careful. (In the 5+ months we were in Arizona we never saw a snake; the one and only rattlesnake I saw in the wild was in Colorado at Hohvenweep National Monument)(and, yes, eventually How I Spent My Winter Vacation will get there, too).

As for how the Ancient Pueblo People (or whatever the preferred term for the long dead indigenous inhabitants happens to be at the moment) coped with living a long way up from where the water is, there is a walled, cistern-like area inside the ruin where it's possible water running off naturally from the top of the cliff was collected. A minor change in weather patterns that caused that water source to dry up could be the reason the cliff dwelling was eventually abandoned.

In addition to the ruins, Tonto has a nifty little Visitor Center. The exhibits are fascinating. They have actual textiles! Pieces of woven cotton material that are about 1,000 years old. Dry climate, sheltered location, and even fabric survives. Apparently quite a few artifacts were looted found back in the late 19th century. At one point the area along the Salt River had been heavily settled, lots of farming activity, so there was a rich archeological record when researchers like Adolph Bandelier* became interested in the area. It's hard to picture that area as agricultural now, especially when most of what was right next to the river is now under Lake Roosevelt, but if the inhabitants were weaving with cotton and grinding corn for flour, they were obviously growing crops somewhere.

Tonto's a little out of the way and it's not real big so visitation there is probably lower than at some of the more iconic parks. It's worth going looking for, though, if a person has a chance to.

*Yes, that Bandelier, the dude Bandelier National Monument is named after. He's better known for exploration and research in New Mexico, but he got around.


  1. So many interesting places in Arizona.

  2. Arizona has some fantastic sites..so does New Mexico

  3. I heard temps reached 120 in parts of Arizona this week: couldn't have anything to do with climate change.
    the Ol'Buzzard


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