Tonto National Monument: Archeology and spring wildflower trail

Apache Lake at Sunset, Arizona


Anyone in Arizona, who has not been there, will enjoy a day trip drive into the rugged terrain of the northeastern part of the Sonoran Desert to discover the ancient cliff dwellings known as the Tonto National Monument. Occupied during the 13th, 14th, and early 15th centuries, these ruins have been called the Tonto Cliff Dwellings for over 100 years. It is a splendid place to explore, hike and celebrate Arizona’s Archaeology and Heritage Awareness Month in March.

The Native American people who lived there farmed their crops in the Salt River Valley below, supplementing their diet by hunting and gathering native wildlife and plants. They were skilled craftsmen, producing some of the most decorative polychrome pottery and intricately woven textiles to be found in the Southwest. Many of these found objects are on display in the Visitor Center museum.

Roosevelt Lake and Salt River Valley from the Tonto Cliff Dwellings


Located in the Upper Sonoran ecosystem, primarily known for its tall saguaro cactus the monument displays other fascinating desert plants like cholla, prickly pear, yucca, agave, ocotillo, and an amazing variety of colorful wildflowers overlooking Roosevelt Lake. The river basin in the valley below is located between the desert-dwelling Hohokam to the south and ancestral Puebloan groups of the mountain areas to the north and east, suggesting the intermixing of these two cultural groups in the cliffs.

Bridge by Roosevelt Dam

The Roosevelt Dam project–built to provide consistent water to Phoenix–and the completion of the Apache Trail made the Tonto Cliff Dwellings a popular attraction in the 1900’s. As their popularity grew, so did the concern for their future survival. And on December 19, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt signed Proclamation 787, creating Tonto National Monument. You’ll find excellent new roads either from the Beeline Highway or from Globe to make your trek into picturesque scenery.

If you go into the Arizona desert always take water, wear your walking shoes, and don’t forget your camera. Driving time from Phoenix or Scottsdale: 2 hours; from Tucson: 3 hours; from Flagstaff: 3 to 3 ½ hours. You will drive past Canyon Lake and Tortilla Flat if you come from the Beeline Hwy or Hwy 88 from Apache Junction.

If only visiting for 60-minutes:  Watch the video, visit the museum, and hike the 1/2-mile Lower Cliff Dwelling trail.

If you have more time — plan ahead:  See the Upper Cliff Dwelling trail too, open from November – April, and make a reservation for the 3-mile round trip hike.

From Phoenix, take State Highway 60 (Superstition Freeway) east to Globe/Miami (75 miles); turn left (northwest) on State Highway 188 and drive 25 miles to Tonto National Monument. In Globe you might stop to visit another archeological sight called Besh-Ba-Gowa; Salado Ruins in a Botanical garden, an Ethno-botanical garden, and what is said to be the largest collection of Salado pottery artifacts in the world.

An alternate, shorter route from Phoenix is State Highway 88, also known as the Apache Trail. The trail is 47 miles long, 22 of which is a gravel road. Allow at least 2 ½ hours to complete the drive. It is not recommended to take the Apache Trail if you are coming for the Upper Cliff Dwelling tour. But during the season you will have time to stop in Tortilla Flat, an entertaining waterhole near Canyon Lake, with live music from noon-4 daily and mouth-watering charcoal broiled burgers.

Many people make a loop drive from Phoenix to Tonto Basin via the Apache Trail and returning to the Valley via either US 60 or US 87 and make a complete day of it. That is how I found myself at the National Monument. What started as a photograph fieldtrip through golden California poppies near Globe—then onward to the Tonto National Monument, past the reservoir Lakes—Roosevelt, Apache, and Canyon Lake. Arriving back near the Superstition Mountains just in time for diner at the to Mining Camp Restaurant, nestled in the foothills—just 4 miles north of Apache Junction on Historic Apache Trail.

Article and photography copyright 2012 — Photos can be purchased at


About Lindsay Godfree

I was born and raised in Colorado Springs but have also lived in Utah and Arizona. I am m inspired everyday by six beautiful daughters. Currently traveling the highways and byways. Writing as the National/International Cross Country Travel Writer for and other freelance articles. Currently working on my new web-site blog and hope to see you there!