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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To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

When many individuals are first looking at getting into thruhiking, they face one crucial decision after trail selection – to section hike, or thruhike. Each has different advantages and challenges, and may be better suited for one trail than another. Today, we’re going to discuss these. First, we need to define each. For our purposes, … Continue reading To Thruhike or Section Hike, That is the Question

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.

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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.

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.

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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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