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See the Cliff Dwellings in the Tonto Basin National Forest Ruins

Arizona has its own beauty. With local cacti and a mix of desert, high desert, pine forest and mountains, it's truly splendid.

Boundaries of the Tonto Basin

Boundaries of the Tonto Basin

Tonto Basin, Arizona

Heading southwest on Arizona State Route 87 from Payson, AZ, one comes to a junction with Arizona State Route 188. Taking the SR 188 turnoff and heading south, a tourist would enter what is known as the Tonto Basin. A basin formed from the connection of the Salt River and the Tonto Creek, Tonto Basin is home to beautiful wildlife, small communities, Lake Roosevelt, and ancient ruins. If you are planning a vacation, this is one of the Arizona places you won't want to miss.

Tonto Basin Ahead

Tonto Basin Ahead

A Lush Basin

As you descend from what were mountains of the Mogollon Rim, the Tonto Basin lies ahead with Lake Roosevelt (named after Teddy) taking up much of its bottom. Shaped like a soup tureen, the basin is lush with cholla and saguaro cacti bulging at the sides. The last two years have been good to the cacti and wildlife with plentiful rains. The lake has regained the water it had lost over several years of drought. It is easy to imagine wandering people long before us viewing this area from these heights as a place of promise. Climbing in elevation both east and west are the steep sides of the basin mountains.

The highway runs along the west side of the basin all the way to Globe, Arizona. From the sides of the lake, and on up, are a variety of species of plants and animals. Near the lake is a very fertile land with the southern end of the basin speckled with ranches and some farming. Because the lake is nestled between lower-ranging mountains, the area seems to get a little more rainfall (and for sure, runoff) than the Phoenix valley to the south and west.

Great for Farming and Protection

With this land fertility and moisture, a variety of plants grew, making this place home to prehistoric peoples. These ancients grew corn, beans, pumpkins, cotton, and amaranth, a type of grain. In addition, they augmented their diets with the buds, leaves, and roots of a rich variety of native plants, including prickly pear and saguaro cacti, and mesquite, black walnut, sycamore, and hackberry trees.

In this mix of high desert plants including agave and yucca lived a people called the Salado. Salado in Spanish means salt, and what we refer to as the Salt River was known long before as Rio Salado. Native peoples migrated here from nearby valleys as stressors to their survival dictated they move. Tonto Basin with its native food, good game, and lots of water was a welcome site.

These people farmed along the Salt River which ran through what is now the center of Lake Roosevelt. In 1906-1911, a dam was built resulting in the formation of Lake Roosevelt, and the flooding of ancient land with its system of irrigation canals.

People had lived in this location since 100 AD. With swings in climate change, people came and went. Each group that stayed for a good period of time left unique signs of their presence. Tools fashioned from animal bone indicate that the Salado hunted local deer, rabbits, quail, and other small game for food.

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Archaeologists have found red-on-buff pottery dating to 750 AD in the Tonto Basin area. Red-on-buff pottery is pottery made by layered coils and finished with a paddle and painted with red designs. A later form of pottery the Salado people made called polychrome pottery is when 3 or more mineral colors are used to decorate a handmade ceramic.

As the best river valley land was taken, more and more people migrated to higher elevations along the Tonto Basin. Some of the caves in cliffs at the upper elevations were settled. The most fascinating efforts by these people to maintain community and defense are the cliff dwellings of the Tonto Basin. These cliff dwellings are not as famous as those of Mesa Verde National Park, the site of the Hisatsinom ruins, or Montezuma Castle, but the Tonto Basin Cliff Dwellings in their silent splendor should be a refreshing surprise to tourists.

A Marvel of Ancient Construction

Two very large cliff dwellings built into caves sit as tributes to these resourceful people. These Arizona cliff dwellings with their beautiful multi-room living areas 2 stories tall and made of regional rock cemented together just about take your breath away. The straight tall walls are amazing. What diligence and effort must have gone into creating such lovely structures. Wood beams supported roofs and floors. Because of the dry clean atmosphere in those caves, the headers for doors and windows made of native wood still exist!

As you walk up the 0.46-mile paved path to the lower cliff dwelling, you can see a white chalky substance clinging to layers of rock. It looks to be a calcium compound of some sort deposited as moisture seeped from the top of the mountain. Could this be a part of the mud stucco used to coat the walls? It seems possible, but if you ask one of the park rangers at this site, I am sure she/he can give you an idea. I will let the photos of the structures speak for themselves.

Not long after you pull into the asphalt drive leading to the dwellings there is a picnic area with tables and ramadas. It is a wonderful place to spend a few minutes relaxing amidst the quiet. If you are the kind of person who likes to pack a chest with pop and sandwiches, it's a great place to get refreshed before touring the cliff dwellings. There are plenty of camping areas farther east across the highway at Roosevelt Lake, also. These should provide ample accommodation for Arizona vacations.

If you are a traveler who likes to site hop and head for a restaurant and motel, then Globe, Arizona is the place you will want to travel to. It's a tough old western Arizona mining town with a rich history. My next verbal vacation article will leave Tonto Basin and head the 44 miles southeast to Globe. That rich history I told you about is worth exploring. Adios.

The first thing that strikes you is how well these primitive people built structures. The walls are very straight.

The first thing that strikes you is how well these primitive people built structures. The walls are very straight.

The view of  Roosevelt Lake (named after Teddy) from the cliff dwellings. The dam for this splendid lake was completed in 1915. Some of the finest fishing activity is at this lake.

The view of Roosevelt Lake (named after Teddy) from the cliff dwellings. The dam for this splendid lake was completed in 1915. Some of the finest fishing activity is at this lake.

© 2010 John R Wilsdon

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