National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

Tonto National Monument lies in the eastern Superstition Mountains of Arizona, east of Phoenix. It’s home to two cliff dwellings. Earlier in the year I visited (2019), both had been threatened and wrapped for protection from the Woodbury Fire, an anthropogenic fire that began at the Woodbury Trailhead in the Superstitions. The Woodbury Fire burned 123,875 acres in the mountains, including 88% of Tonto National Monument, the largest percentage in recorded history. Extreme winter moisture, extreme temperatures, and a delayed summer monsoon contributed to the fire, which burned from roughly June 8th-23rd.

Occupied by a community of the Salado culture (the prehistoric cultural group that lived in Tonto Basin) from the 13th-15th centuries, the cliff dwellings at Tonto were located in a position that offered protection from the elements as well as a rare annual water source in the Salt River. Salado culture was much like America today in that it was a cultural melting pot, the result of Ancestral Puebloan, Ancient Sonoran Desert People, and Mogollon cultures all moving into and intermingling in Tonto Basin. Ancestral Sonoran Desert People were native to areas south of the Basin, while the other two were located in the more mountainous areas to the north. Plants were farmed using water from an ancient spring still running today, and in the Salt River Valley. Salado culture spread throughout the Southwest, and the dwellings seen today are representative of a vast network that mingled various cultures together and ultimately reached from Four Corners to northern Mexico. While the reason for movement into the caves is unknown, both dwellings are built into natural caves. Some construction materials would have been found nearby – rock, sand, saguaro ribs, water, etc; others were brought from the surrounding area, such as juniper and pine wood for beams, both of which could be found in the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains. Stone and adobe form the walls; wood provides support for the roofs and doors. The smaller Lower Cliff Dwelling is about 20 rooms large. 40-60 people would have lived there at its peak. The larger Upper Cliff Dwelling – accessible only by guided tours that were not being offered when I visited – contained approximately 40 rooms, 32 at ground level and 8-10 second story.

IF YOU GO to Tonto National Monument:

  • Hours of Operation
    • 8-5 daily except Christmas Day (museum and visitor center)
    • Entrance to trail to Lower cliff dwelling: 8-4 daily except Christmas Day
    • Currently, only the viewing area is open due to COVID; the visitor center and trails to the cliff dwellings remain closed (the trail to the Upper dwelling is also closed for waterline replacement regardless)
  • Access
    • Lower Cliff Dwelling accessible by self guided tour
    • Upper Cliff Dwelling accessible only by guided tour, offered December-April
  • Trails
    • Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail, 0.5 mi, 350 ft elevation change, approx 1 hr round trip
    • Upper Cliff Dwelling Trail (ranger guided tours only beyond first 0.1 mi or so), 1.5 mi, 600 ft elevation change
  • Things to remember
    • Located at the northern extent of the Sonoran Desert, the heat here from May-September is no joke. If you visit during this period, try and come early (8-10). Take a bottle of water and a hat to provide you with some shade on the ascent to the cliff dwelling. This is particularly true from June-August, when high temperatures routinely top 100 degrees in the desert.
    • Entrance to the trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling closes at 4 PM, though you may remain on the trail until 5.
  • Other Points of Interest in area
    • Arizona Trail, Passage 20 (Four Peaks)
    • Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
    • Superstition Wilderness (Tonto National Forest)
    • Tonto National Forest
    • Four Peaks Wilderness (Tonto National Forest)
    • Scenic Drive: Apache Trail
    • Lost Dutchman State Park
    • Theodore Roosevelt Lake
    • Scenic Drive: Globe to Show Low
Lower Cliff Dwelling from the visitor center
Tonto National Monument

View out of Cholla Canyon toward Roosevelt Lake, with saguaros lining the canyon wall
Tonto National Monument
Room detail, Lower Cliff Dwelling
Tonto National Monument
Interior detail, Lower Cliff Dwelling
Tonto National Monument
Interior detail, Lower Cliff Dwelling
Tonto National Monument

Smoke-stained walls of the lower cliff dwelling
Tonto National Monument
Lower Cliff Dwelling from trail
Tonto National Monument

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National Park Quest: Tonto National Monument

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Inspiration Point to Roosevelt Cemetery (Passages 20 & 19, Four Peaks to Superstition Mountains)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Arizona Trail Backpacking Logistics – AZT Gateway Communities: Tonto Basin

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks South (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Saddle Mountain Passage from near Saddle Mountain to Sycamore Creek at the start of the Pine Mountain passage. More magnificent Arizona mountain views of the central Mazatzal peaks and ridgelines, and a gorgeous Arizona sunset.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Four Peaks North (Passage 20)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail’s Four Peaks Passage to just south of Pigeon Spring. The terrain is incredibly precipitous – in places the trail seems to occupy the only level ground around. Fire impacts are present throughout as well, a legacy of the 1996 Lone Fire. Magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake, the southern Mazatzal foothills, and the Sierra Ancha across Tonto Basin.

Logistics, trail journal, and magnificent mountain scenery.

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Passage 21 (Four Peaks)
Trail SurfaceDirt singletrack
Length (Mi)19
SeasonMarch-May, September-November
Potential Water SourcesPigeon Spring (Mi 421.6 NB, 421.6 SB)
Bear Spring (mi 400.6 NB, 422.5 SB)
Shake Spring (mi 392.5 NB, 423.4 SB)
Granite Spring (mi 391.5 NB, 431.3 SB)
Buckhorn Creek (mi 390.5 NB, 432.9 SB)
TrailheadsNorth: Lone Pine Saddle
South: Theodore Roosevelt Lake
Trailhead AccessNorth: Vehicular access; via graded dirt road
South: Vehicular access (parking at Roosevelt Lake Marina)
WildernessYes
Possible resupply pointsPhoenix (north end)
Roosevelt Lake Marina (south end)
Farther, Globe and Tonto Basin
ATA-Rated DifficultyStrenuous
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Precipitous terrain limits options, but there are some spots around Mills Ridge Trailhead & the Chillicut Trail junction
Ecosystems TraversedArizona Upland
Interior Chaparral
Great Basin Conifer Woodland
Relict Conifer Woodland
Highlights Four Peaks
Views of Tonto Basin & Roosevelt Lake
SOBO, first saguaro appearance on trail
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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part 4

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

Welcome back to Aspens Tracks, thruhiking the Arizona Trail from Utah to Mexico. Hopefully this wilderness account is helping you get through your coronavirus-related distancing and isolation, and giving you hope for what adventures may yet come in the post-COVID-19 future for you.

Wrapping up at Walnut Canyon National Monument. After finishing up the fantastic Island Trail, the Rim Trail yields some great sites as well, including an unexcavated site and several pueblos. The views of the canyon itself are pretty amazing too. Some kind visitors in the parking lot also give me some snacks when they hear about my attempt to hike across Arizona. One can always trust fellow parkies to help out! All in all, well worth the side trip here. I underestimated this stop and I am now running a little behind schedule, so it is time to head back and pick up the trail toward Flagstaff again.

Archeological site on the rim of Walnut Canyon
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Archeological pueblo on the rim of Walnut Canyon
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
An unexcavated archeological site on the rim of Walnut Canyon. Leaving such sites in place helps preserve the artifacts in as close to natural condition as possible. Walnut Canyon National Monument, one of 22 national parks in Arizona.
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Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail
Walnut Canyon National Monument (one of 22 national parks in Arizona)

About the area: Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

Today, Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island. Each room, built under limestone ledges, might have housed a family. The ledges afforded protection from the elements – they kept the dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were also easier to defend against invasion. Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. The National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea. Views from the canyon rim include the volcanic peaks around Flagstaff, including Elden Mountain and the San Francisco Peaks, as well as landmarks such as Mormon Mountain to the south, all rising out of the extensive ponderosa forest covering the Mogollon Plateau.

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Rim TrailIsland Trail
Type of hikeOut & backLoop
Trail SurfacePaved trailPaved Trail
Length (Mi)0.71
SeasonAll yearAll year. Stairs may get icy in winter. Snowy & icy conditions can lead to closure of the trail.
Major attributesGood view of variety of cliff dwelling structure remains throughout the central portion of Walnut Canyon. Rim-top pueblo.Loop trail providing close-up view of cliff dwellings in inner canyon
Potential Water SourcesWalnut Canyon Visitor CenterWalnut Canyon Visitor Center
TrailheadsVisitor CenterVisitor Center
Trailhead AccessVehicular (paved road)Vehicular (paved road)
WildernessNoNo
DifficultyEasyStrenuous. 185 feet descent into canyon at 7000’ elevation.
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Hiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of parkHiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of park
Ecosystems TraversedRocky Mountain Montane Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Accessible?YesNo
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Rocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* Ponderosa Pine
* Southwestern white pine
* Subalpine fir
* White fir
* Rocky Mountain maple
* Bigtooth maple
* Grey alder
* Red birch
* Red osier dogwood
* Cliffbush
* Mallow ninebark
* New Mexican locust
* huckleberry
* bilberries



Common herbaceous plants* fringed brome
* Geyer’s sedge/elk sedge
* Ross’ sedge
* Bronze sedge/dry land sedge/hillside sedge/hay sedge/Fernald’s hay sedge
* screwleaf muhly
* bluebunch wheatgrass
* Spruce-fir fleabane
* wild strawberry/Virginia strawberry
* Small-flowered woodrush
* mountain sweet Cicely
* bittercress ragwort
* western meadow-rue
* Fendler’s meadow-rue
Passage 31 & 33 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part II

In the land of Arizona
Through desert heat or snow
Winds a trail for folks to follow
From Utah to Old Mexico

It’s the Arizona Trail
A pathway through the great Southwest
A diverse track through wood and stone
Your spirit it will test

Oh, sure you’ll sweat and blister
You’ll feel the miles every day
You’ll shiver at the loneliness
Your feet and seat will pay

But you’ll see moonlight on the borderlands
You’ll see stars on the Mogollon
You’ll feel the warmth of winter sun
And be thrilled straight through to bone

The aches and pains will fade away
You’ll feel renewed and whole
You’ll never be the same again
With Arizona in your soul

Along the Arizona Trail
A reverence and peace you’ll know
Through deserts, canyons, and mountains
From Utah to Old Mexico

“The Arizona Trail,” Dale R Shewalter

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument, one of 420 national parks in the National Park System, protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people.

Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Limestone texture on the walls of Walnut Canyon; Walnut Canyon National Monument ((a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)

Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island.

Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)

Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea.

Cliff dwellings seen hiking along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)

Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

Panoramic view of Walnut Canyon from Island Trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument ((a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Unaccessible cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon viewed from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Unaccessible cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon viewed from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Upcanyon view of Walnut Canyon from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
Unaccessible cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon viewed from Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument (a national park, managed by the National Park Service, Arizona)
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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 51: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23), Part II

Disruptive event today, an F-16 that flew over while I was packing. It flew extremely low and around a mountain – possibly North Peak – and made me think very seriously about why that would be allowed over a designated wilderness area. Still, I manage to knock out a few miles to Chilson Spring before dark, with spectacular views of Deadman’s Canyon, the Verde Valley, and the western Mazatzal foothills along the way. The mountains are jagged and rugged and the trail traces steep slopes nearly the whole way across precipitous terrain.

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Rim TrailIsland Trail
Trail SurfacePaved trailPaved Trail
Length (Mi)0.751
SeasonAll yearAll year. Stairs may get icy in winter. Snowy & icy conditions can lead to closure of the trail.
Major attributesGood view of variety of cliff dwelling structure remains throughout the central portion of Walnut CanyonLoop trail providing close-up view of cliff dwellings in inner canyon
Potential Water SourcesWalnut Canyon Visitor CenterWalnut Canyon Visitor Center
TrailheadsVisitor CenterVisitor Center
Trailhead AccessVehicular (paved road)Vehicular (paved road)
WildernessNoNo
DifficultyEasyStrenuous. 185 feet descent into canyon at 7000’.
Potential campsites (mileages S to N)Hiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of parkHiking/Backpacking campsites available along Arizona Trail on borders of park
Ecosystems TraversedRocky Mountain Montane Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Accessible?YesNo
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Arizona Trail, Day 26: Walnut Canyon National Monument, Part I

This morning starts with a stop at my last national park in northern Arizona, Walnut Canyon National Monument. Walnut Canyon National Monument protects over 80 cliff dwellings of the Northern Sinagua people. Named for the historic Spanish name for the general region, Sierra de Sin Agua, or “mountains without water,” the Sinagua people built the dwellings between 1125 and 1250 CE. The dwellings are, as the name suggests, located in Walnut Canyon, a 20 mile long, 400 ft deep and quarter mile wide canyon carved by Walnut Creek in the Mogollon Plateau southeast of Flagstaff. Most are near the Island Trail that rings a peninsula of rock that Walnut Creek bends around, connected to the north rim of a canyon by a narrow ridge of rock, giving the peninsula the appearance of an island. Each room, built under limestone ledges, might have housed a family. The ledges afforded protection from the elements – they kept the dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They were also easier to defend against invasion. Prior to building the cliff dwellings, the Sinagua lived and cultivated areas on the rim of the canyon. In a dry, semi-arid landscape – though not as harsh as some found further south – the communities relied on the intermittent flow of water in Walnut Creek for sustenance. It is not clear why the dwellings were abandoned around 1250, but suspected reasons include drought and relations with neighboring tribes. National Monument also protects natural resources, including 387 species of plants as well as marine fossils remaining from when the area was located under a sea.

Starting in the 1880s, theft and looting became an issue at Walnut Canyon as construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought more people to the region. By 1915, alarm among local citizens led President Wilson to establish Walnut Canyon National Monument, first under the US Forest Service as part of Coconino National Forest, then the National Park Service starting in 1934. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails and buildings, stabilized the walls of various cliff dwellings, and led guided tours. Further expansions of the site in 1938 by President Roosevelt and 1994 by President Clinton added additional stretches of the canyon into the monument, bringing it to its current 3600 acres of protected resources.

View into Walnut Canyon within Walnut Canyon National Monument
View along Walnut Canyon, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings in Walnut Canyon, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Panorama of upper Walnut Canyon from the upper Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings along the Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument
Cliff dwellings visible from the Island Trail in Walnut Canyon National Monument