Exploring Cliff Dwellings at the Tonto National Monument, Arizona

One of the lesser known national monuments, Tonto National Monument is the only National Park Service site that is dedicated to telling the story of the Salado people. The museum preserves important artifacts from the pre-Hispanic American Southwest, and the ruins give visitors a wonderful opportunity to see what life would have been like living up high in the hillside caves.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com
{Photo by L}

Archaeologists aren’t certain why people began living up in the caves – perhaps it was for protection from the weather and other people; or maybe just to get away from the crowded and busy life on the basin floor. What archaeologists do know is that the Salado people built these cliff dwellings way back in 1150-1450 AD, long before Europeans had settled the New World so are much older than many things we think of in the United States as being “old”. They also know that, like other ancient peoples in the Southwest, the Salado appear to have abandoned their villages quite suddenly but for reasons again that they can only speculate at- perhaps disease, drought, or warfare.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com
{Photo by L}

Tonto National Monument overlooks the Tonto Basin which, although now flooded to form the Theodore Roosevelt Lake, was originally the basin through which the Salt River flowed making it well irrigated and fertile land. It was established as a National Monument in 1907 by President Roosevelt and thankfully so as it is a wonderful piece of American history…and we almost missed it! Thankfully a long-time reader recommended it to us when she heard we were planning a trip to Arizona. It hadn’t turned up in all our pre-trip research so a big thank you goes out to Meredith (check our her blog with more Arizona ideas) for pointing us in this direction. What a shame it would have been if we had missed it because, although not a very commonly visited site, it is very interesting, unique, well organized and presented.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com

Lower Ruins Trail

The Lower Ruins Trail is a paved 1/2 mile self-guided trail from the visitor center/museum up to the Lower Ruins. While paved it is quite steep, but there are several benches and stopping points along the way to take a little rest and take in the views of the Tonto Basin and Theodore Roosevelt Lake.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com
{Photo by L}

Also along the way are informational signs about the native plants and animals you can encounter on your climb- especially all the varieties of cacti. Common types include the saguaro, teddy bear cholla, prickly pear, and barrel cactus. In addition to the informational signs, the plants are labeled (well not every single specimen of course) so you know exactly what each species looks like. Who knew there were so many types of cacti and they could be so beautiful? I bet this hillside is spectacular when they are in bloom in the spring.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com

On the way back down there is fork in the path which gives you the option to go back to the visitor center along the path you walked up or take an alternate route (about 1/4 mile) to the parking lot and again there are tons of plants to check out along the way. This is the route we opted for as we headed back to the car.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com

Lower Ruins

The Lower Ruins are a two-storey structure that originally had 19 rooms accessible only by a ladder to help make it easier to defend. Most of the area is quite well preserved although some surfaces have been worn smooth from walking over or touching them. Many of the rooms are open so you can walk around them go get a real feel for the area in which the Salado people lived.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com

The walls are thick, and very sturdy (especially to have lasted this long) and the rocks, although mostly greyish, can be quite colourful in places and would have come from the immediate vicinity. The roof beams however, being made from pine and juniper, had to be brought it from surrounding mountains. I can’t imagine getting those great logs up the side of the hill. There certainly wasn’t a smooth paved path then!

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com

Upper Ruins

We didn’t visit the Upper Ruins when we stopped but they are much larger (with about 40 rooms) than the Lower Ruins, and they are also further up the hill. They require an advance booking and you must be accompanied by a ranger to visit them so do plan this in advance if you’d like to see them. From the website it sounds like it could be quite a strenuous hike as it’s recommended for people who hike regularly, takes about 3-4 hours, and is only offered in the cooler months of November through April.

Exploring the Tonto National Monument, Arizona || www.onetripatatime.com
{Photo by L}

Tips for Enjoying Your Visit:

  • Go during the cooler months of the year as there isn’t any shade on the trail which could make it quite difficult walking up the steep hill in the heat.
  • Bring water any time you visit. You’ll need it.
  • There is a ranger in the Lower Ruins (or will accompany you if you choose to visit the Upper Ruins) and they are knowledgeable and friendly so feel free to ask them questions. They are more than happy to explain anything you aren’t sure about.
  • Bring your camera to get photos of the breathtaking scenery and views.

For complete information to plan your visit to the Tonto National Monument, please visit their website.

Have you ever visited this National Monument? Did you enjoy it?

What are some of your favourite National Monuments around the whole country?

We are always pinning things to our USA map for future trips and would love to hear about them!

To follow along on our adventures on our Phoenix, AZ Getaway, please feel free to check out these posts:

Phoenix Getaway Trip Summary

Previous Post: Driving the Scenic Apache Trail, Arizona

Next Post: A Serene Stroll Through the Desert Botanical Gardens


  • So glad you guys were able to fit this into the trip! It’s one of the best places because it does tend to be quieter and the actual ruins are somewhat more accessible. And those views… always worth the climb! :)

    • We are very glad you told us about it as I really think we would have missed it.

      Yes they were worth the climb, and it is a bit of a workout for sure. Well at least it was for me. :-) We’re going to visit some more cliff dwellings after Christmas when we are back in Arizona. Be interesting to see the differences.

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