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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Backpacking the Amazing Arizona Trail – Cottonwood Creek (Passage 19, Superstition Wilderness)

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

Woke up to a wet sleeping bag again this morning. Going to have to get scientific about sorting out the exact differential between temperature and dew point for such condensation to occur (at least in a desert climate). After drying stuff out, I begin the ascent into the Superstition Mountains, at first on Forest Service roads then along Cortonwood Creek. I quickly feel vindicated in my decision not to chance this section in the rain – on some stretches, there is a 2-3 ft gap between the trail and the creek bed below, evidence of significant recent flash flooding, probably related to the Woodbury Fire that occurred in the watershed this summer. Magnificent views of saguaros are also present, though, as the trail climbs through the creek side vegetation to a wide basin that obviously suffered in the fire, where there’s enough space to make camp for the night before proceeding to the wilderness boundary and beyond tomorrow.

The Superstition Mountains are volcanic in origin. The current mountains are the eroded remnants of the resurgent lava dome of a supervolcano similar to Yellowstone but on a smaller scale – comparable to Yellowstone’s “little brother,” in a sense. The caldera boundary can still be seen within the mountains today. The name comes from the various superstitions that surround them – legends such as that of the Lost Dutchman mine, and a belief among some Apaches that the road to the lower world is located there. More to come on these mountains as we enter them shortly.

Looking back toward Roosevelt Lake as the AZT climbs into the Superstition Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaro cacti dot the foothills of the Superstition Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaro cacti on the SuperstitionMpuntain foothills above Cottonwood Creek, climbing into the Superstition Mountains
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Saguaros and rocky walls rise above the bed of Cottonwood Creek in the Superstition Mountain foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Flash flood impacts are evident in the bed of Cottonwood Creek in the Superstition Mountain foothills
Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest
Evening in the Superstition Mountain foothills Arizona Trail, Passage 19 (Superstition Wilderness)
Superstition Wilderness
Tonto National Forest

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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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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 UplandInterior Chaparral Great Basin Conifer WoodlandRocky Mountain Montane Conifer Woodland
Common Trees/Shrubs* * Birchleaf Mahogany
* Ceanothus
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Manzanita
* Shrub live oak
* Silktassels
* Stansbury cliffrose
* Arizona alder
* Holly-leaf buckthorn
* Junipers
* Oaks, including Arizona oak, canyon live oak, Emory oak, Gambel oak, scrub-live oak
* Piñon pine
* Red barberry
* Serviceberry
* Silktassels
* Skunkbush
* sugar sumac
* 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* Buckwheats
* Globemallows
* Lupines
* Penstemons
* Sego-lily
* Wormwood
* 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
Common succulents* Agaves – golden flowered, Parry’s, Toumey’s
* Banana & soap tree yucca
* Barrel cactus
* beargrass
* beehive cactus
* buckhorn cholla
* Cane Cholla
* hedgehog cacti
* prickly pear cacti
* Rock echeveria
* Sotol
* Whipple’s cholla
* beehive cactus
* Claret cup hedgehog cacti
* Golden-flowered agave
* Parry’s agave
* Prickly pear cacti
* Whipple cholla
* Tonto Basin agave
Passage 23 & 22 Ecology (source: Arizona Trail Association AZT Guide & NatureServe). Only California and Texas are more diverse ecologically than Arizona.
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Prologue: The Arizona Trail

I finally bit the bullet on a thruhike. Since I arrived at Grand Canyon National Park in March, I have been considering thruhiking the Arizona Trail across the state.

For those who don’t know, the Arizona Trail is an 800 mile long hiking trail across Arizona. It starts at the Utah state line, skirts Buckskin Mountain, climbs onto and crosses the Kaibab Plateau, crosses the Grand Canyon and Coconino Plateau. It skirts the mighty San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff and the town itself, and then runs to the southeast past Mormon Lake to the Mogollon Rim, the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Dropping off and running beside the rim to the town of Pine, it passes within miles of the Fossil Creek Wilderness area before crossing several mesas and the East Verde River. It climbs into the rugged Mazatzal Mountains and traverses them to Roosevelt, then crosses the Superstitions and desert canyons to eventually reach the Sky Islands near Tucson. Climbing across Mount Lemmon and Santa Catalinas, it drops to Redington Pass before rising again through the Rincon Mountains in Saguaro National Park. It again enters desert but soon climbs again into the Santa Rita Mountains, passing directly below 9400 ft Mt Wrightson. Crossing the Canelo Hills, it makes a final climb into the Huachuca Mountains and ultimately drops to its southern terminus at the US/Mexico border at Coronado National Memorial.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_0579-1.jpg
“The Arizona Trail”
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The hallmark of the Arizona Trail is diversity. Many long distance trails simply follow mountain ranges and focus on views. The AZT, by contrast, focuses on crossing each of the state’s ecosystems, from deserts to ponderosa forests, Sky Islands to riparian areas.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is a57cfd0e-1a74-45dd-9dc3-d563f4e5a03e.jpg



Of course, this means that the challenges vary greatly along the trail; depending on the area and recent conditions, terrain, elevation, water availability and access to resupplies may all be challenges.

Aspens along the Arizona Trail, Kaibab National Forest



On September 21st, I set off to conquer this trail, adding 45 miles at the start through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument to access the northern trailhead.

I have chosen it for three reasons: I wanted one that was unique, that relatively few people successfully achieve. The diversity appealed to me, as it is a novel approach to a trail. And I wanted one that would give me the confidence that no matter what I follow it with, I could do it. And, I’m already in Arizona after wrapping up my season at Grand Canyon. I also hope to raise funds for the Arizona Trail Association and National Park Foundation.

So, I’m coming for you, Arizona. Let’s see just what we are both truly made of.

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Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

It’s here. The Mazatzal Divide represents the heart of the longest stretch of the Arizona Trail within a designated wilderness area. To that end, a reminder on the meaning of wilderness. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is “an area where man is but a visitor and does not remain.” Consequently, motorized access as … Continue reading Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 50, Part II: Mazatzal Divide (Passage 23)

Backpacking the Arizona Trail, Day 47: Red Hills, Part II/II

Second day hiking through the Red Hills toward the Mazatzal Mountains. Earning their name through the red rock colors, the Hills also provide hikers with wildflowers and diverse vegetation, in addition to showing the scars of recent wildfires and spectacular views of the range north toward the Mogollon Rim.

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