Can you imagine living in Arizona 800 years ago? By visiting five National Monuments along Highway 89, you can learn about and experience the living conditions of Native Americans in the early part of the last millennium. How did they obtain food? What sort of dwellings did they build? What arts and crafts were part of their cultures? A two day road trip can answer these questions and more while taking you on several of the most scenic drives in America. Begin the journey in the Sonoran Desert midway between Phoenix and Tucson or on the Colorado Plateau an hour north of Flagstaff and go back in time to experience the dynamic culture of Arizona’s prehistoric inhabitants.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Location: Coolidge, Arizona. From historic US 89, now AZ 79, take AZ 287 west from Florence for nine miles to AZ 87. The park is half a mile south of the intersection.
Period of Occupation: 1100 to 1450 C.E.
Culture: Ancient Sonoran Desert People known as the Hohokam. The Hohokam farmed the surrounding land which was irrigated by an elaborate system of canals bringing water from the Gila River. They grew corn, beans, squash, cotton and tobacco and harvested native plants and hunted desert animals. They crafted jewelry such as bracelets, rings and necklaces from shells often inlaid with turquoise. Pottery from the period has distinctive red on buff designs.
Type of Structures: A three-story building constructed of caliche, a naturally occurring soil consisting of clay, sand and calcium carbonate, is in the center of a large compound. The main building is now protected by a metal-roofed structure built in 1932 to prevent further deterioration.
What to Do: The main attraction is a self-guided tour of the ruins. Ranger-guided tours are available from December to April which is the best season to visit Casa Grande Ruins. There is a museum with a 15-minute introductory video and a bookstore Friendly park rangers are on hand to answer your questions. Ample parking for cars and RVs is provided as well as a picnic area with shaded tables.
Tuzigoot National Monument
Location: Clarkdale, Arizona. The monument is located between Clarkdale and Cottonwood on AZ Route 89A in the Verde Valley.
Period of Occupation: 1100-1400 C.E.
Culture: Tuzigoot is a pueblo built on a hilltop by a culture known as the Sinagua. The hill overlooks the Verde River which supplied water for farming. The Sinagua at Tuzigoot traded with other groups of people over a network that spanned hundreds of miles.
Type of Structures: The pueblo consists of 110 rooms some of which were two and three stories tall. It is constructed of limestone blocks from nearby cliffs. The masonry isn’t as fine as other pueblos to the north due to the soft nature of limestone which was a more difficult material with which to build. Consequently most of the dwellings are reduced to low walls that give us a hint of their former size.
What to Do: Two main trails are found at Tuzigoot. The Ruins Loop is a third of a mile in length and climbs to the highest rooms on the hill. Tavasci Marsh is a wetlands next to the monument and is designated as a Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. A half-mile long trail leads to an overlook of the marsh.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Location: From AZ 89A in Cottonwood, Arizona, take AZ 260 12.5 miles east to I-17. Go north toward Flagstaff 2.5 miles to exit 289 and follow the signs to Montezuma Castle. Another set of ruins is located at Montezuma Well. Continue north on I-17 to exit 293; go east through the towns of McGuireville and Rimrock, following the signs for four miles to the entrance to the Well.
Period of Occupation: 1100-1400 C.E.
Culture: Montezuma Castle is cliff dwelling built next to Beaver Creek on the edge of the Verde Valley. Early settlers mistakenly thought that it was Aztecan in origin. It was actually built by people from the Sinagua culture. The Sinagua were peaceful village dwellers farming the fertile land nearby. They were also fine artisans making stone and bone tools and weaving cotton cloth for garments. They also made ornaments from shells inlaid with turquoise. Their utilitarian pottery was made for cooking and storage. Montezuma Well is a limestone sink fed by continuously flowing springs. The water was used to irrigate crops as indicated by the lime-coated ditches surrounding the well.
Type of Structures: Montezuma Castle is a 20-room, five story structure set into the limestone cliff a hundred feet above the valley. Nearby is the ruin of a six-story structure built against the base of the cliff. At Montezuma Well, dwellings include a 55-room pueblo.
What to Do: The visitor center features exhibits on Sinagua history and culture. There are hard surfaced trails at the Castle and Well that lead to views of the ruins. The trail at Montezuma Castle is wheelchair accessible and there is ample parking for cars and recreational vehicles.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Location: Flagstaff, Arizona. From US 89 on the east side of Flagstaff, take Country Club Drive south to the east-bound entrance to I-40. Go 3 miles to exit 204 and follow the signs 3 miles south to the Monument.
Period of Occupation: 1100-1250 C.E.
Culture: Walnut Canyon National Monument provides another example of the diverse ways in which the Sinaguan culture survived in the valleys and canyons of the Southwest. The canyon is twenty miles long, four hundred feet deep and a quarter mile wide. After living on the rim of the canyon for hundreds of years, the people moved down into the canyon, building dwellings in the many recesses in the sandstone cliffs. They found water in the bottom of the canyon from rain in the summer and snow in the winter. They continued to plant crops on the rim and harvest the abundant plant and animal life throughout the canyon.
Type of Structures: Multi-room structures built into low-ceilinged alcoves in the sandstone walls of the canyon.
What to Do: The visitor center has exhibits on Sinagua history and culture. There are two trails to explore. The Rim Trail (.7 mile) is an easy hike with views into the canyon. The Island Trail descends 185 feet into the canyon providing access to 25 cliff dwelling rooms. While it is a strenuous .9 mile round-trip hike, it is the best way to experience the park. However, the 240 steps that lead down to the trail can be daunting on the way back up, especially at an elevation of 6600 feet. Wear sturdy shoes and take plenty of water.
Wupatki National Monument
Location: Between Flagstaff and Page, Arizona. There are two ways to drive to Wupatki. The first and most scenic is to take US Route 89 north for 12 miles to the Loop Road that goes through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Follow the road as it winds past Sunset Crater and over lava flows for 21 miles to the visitor center. The alternative is to take 89 north 26 miles to the Loop Road and then east 14 miles to Wupatki.
Period of Occupation: 1100-1250 C.E.
Culture: Wupatki is the largest Sinagua pueblo on the Colorado Plateau. It is situated just north of Sunset Crater Volcano and was established shortly after it erupted in 1066 C.E. The layer of ash formed by the volcano created fertile farming conditions as it trapped and held moisture. Wupatki was the center of a population that numbered in the thousands within a day’s walk. Artifacts found in the ruins indicate that the people traded for jewelry, pottery and other goods over a wide area of the Southwest. The ceremonial and recreational facilities at Wupatki suggest a place of great importance and activity.
Type of Structures: Wupatki Pueblo stood three stories high in places. Sandstone slabs, limestone blocks and chunks of basalt are set with clay mortar forming finely crafted sturdy walls. Near the main pueblo is a ball court and and a large round room which may have been used for religious ceremonies.
What to Do: From the visitor center, a half-mile self guided tour allows visitors to explore Wupatki Pueblo and the other nearby structures. Two additional trails lead to five ruins near the north entrance to the monument. A picnic area is located on the Loop Road between Sunset Crater and Wupatki. From there a half-mile trail leads to the top of a cider cone with spectacular views of the San Francisco Volcano Field. Nearby camping is at Bonita campground in Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.
Bonus Side Trip: Navajo National Monument
Location: Navajo, Arizona. From the intersection of US 89 and US 160, drive east 63 miles to AZ 564. Go north for 9 miles to the visitor center.
Period of Occupation: 1150-1400 C.E.
Culture: Two cliff dwellings within Navajo National Monument were build by Ancestral Puebloan people, sometimes referred to as the Anasazi. They farmed the fertile canyon bottoms below their dwellings. They are known for beautifully decorated black on white pottery and petroglyphs etched into the sandstone walls of the canyon. Modern day pueblo tribes such as the nearby Hopi and the Zuni of New Mexico are their descendants and continue their religious practices.
Type of Structures: Betatakin is a 200 room dwelling built into a large recess in the canyon wall near the visitor center. Keet Seel has 350 rooms and is the largest cliff dwelling in Arizona. Keet Seel is also one of the most intact ruins because of its location in a remote canyon, an eight mile hike from the visitor center.
What to Do: Exhibits in the visitor center relate the history and culture of the Ancestral Puebloans who built the nearby dwellings. Three mesa top trails guide visitors to views of the canyon and Betatakin. The most popular is the Sandal Trail, an easy paved trail with a cross-canyon view of Betatakin. The Aspen Trail branches off the Sandal Trail and descends 300 feet to a relic aspen forest. Two guided tours of Betatakin are conducted daily during the summer. These are strenuous hikes descending 700 feet into the canyon and take 3 to 5 hours. Hiking to Keet Seel is by permit only. There are two campgrounds with 48 sites. Sunset View Campground is open year-round and Canyon View Campground is open in the summer only.
A Note on Climate, Weather and Driving Conditions: This journey will take you from an elevation of 1000 feet in the desert to over 7000 feet on the Colorado Plateau. The ideal time for this road trip is in the spring and fall when weather conditions are favorable in both the north and south. It is always a good idea to check the individual monument’s website to get current weather conditions no matter what time of year you plan to visit.