Park Ranger Eddie Colyott makes no bones about the ancient people who lived in the Tonto Basin.
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"It was a small empire," he says, matter-of-factly, as we poke along the switchback trail toward the upper cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument. Tonto has two cliff dwellings. The smaller, lower one is easily accessible year-round. The upper dwelling, an hour's hike, only opens for guided tours between November and April. Rangers work hard to minimize the impact on the 40-room, multistory site built by the Salado people in the lee of a cliff more than 700 years ago.
"It was amazing, what happened here," Colyott says, as we pause on the well-kept trail to gaze back upon the heavily-saguaroed mountains and the stunning blue ribbon of Roosevelt Lake beyond. "People think, 'Oh, little tribes of farming Indians,' " Colyott explains. "But if you put this (area) down in the middle of Egypt, they'd be calling it a 'lost civilization.' " Nine huge villages dotted the fertile banks of the upper Rio Salado between 1200 A.D. and 1300 A.D., their people trading beans, corn and cotton with the hunting villages in the mountains. "It was high-tech, productive agriculture. They dug canals, 12 feet high and 12 feet across. At their peak, they were producing tons and tons of corn."
Getting to the upper dwelling is at least half the fun. The trail begins in the dappled light of Cave Canyon Springs before rising into sunlight as it zigzags up the mountain. Along the way, rangers like Colyott, passionate and rightly proud of this area, paint a fuller picture of the native people who thrived here: the prey they hunted, the plants they used for tea and medicines, the ways they used the land for direction and defense. "The landscape will talk to you if you know how to read it, and they did," he says.
Tended by silence and a few soaring ravens, the upper dwellings are a compelling piece of engineering. Seven centuries after they were abandoned to the elements, 40 identifiable rooms remain. Visitors can walk the carved pathways, peer through doorways at family fire pits and the carbon deposits still visible on the roofs above. Tiny corncobs dot the floor, as if eaten and discarded only weeks ago. But time, and visitors, have taken their toll, since the site was rediscovered in 1880. So the National Park Service treads carefully. "Between 1880 and 1933 more damage was done to this site than in the previous 600 years," Colyott says. "But it's protected now. When you bring people up and you see it in their faces. They recognize the need to preserve this."
Tonto National Monument is about 90 minutes east of Apache Junction, off state Route 188 near Roosevelt. It's open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas Day. The upper cliff dwelling opens for tours Nov. 8 and continues through April. The tours are free with a $3 park admission, advance reservations are required. So call first, bring water, a hat and sunscreen and prepare for a moderately vigorous hike. It may sound like a lot of trouble. But, once you find yourself perched on the cliff top, contemplating the tiny rooms and majestic views of the ancients, you'll know it was worth every step. For further information, and reservations, call (928) 467-2241.