Protected by saguaros lined up like the Royal Guard, the primary draws of Tonto National Monument are the well-preserved cliff dwellings. Protected by sandstone overhangs, the two sites are pushing 700 years old.
Located above the Salt River, in the Superstition Mountains of southeastern Arizona, the site is weather-protected from the searing heat and infrequent rains of the Sonoran Desert. An ancient spring still runs nearby today.
The dwellings were built by the Salado people, who are renowned for their colorful pottery and elaborate tapestries. Their ancestors, the Mogollon, had cultivated the surrounding Tonto Basin for hundreds of years.
After presumed climate changed forced the Salado to abandon the area in the 1400s, relatively little is recorded of the human history of the next 400 years. The Tonto Basin was inhabited by the Yavapai and the Tonto Apache, two distinctly different tribes whose stories were combined when Mexican and American settlement interests escalated in the 1800s.
The next hundred years saw a brutal and unjust story of massacres, land grabs, and forced relocations of the native people. The history is ripe with culture clashes, deception, and bigoted, fear-based policies. It is tragic, yes, but worth knowing out of respect for those who suffered and in recognition that our landscapes can shape our story as much as personalities.
Tonto National Monument was established December 19, 1907.
Photo by Bernard Gagnon