Tonto National Monument

We were so excited to see the lower cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument that we checked out of our hotel early and hit the road for the 30-minute drive to the park. While we had high expectations of the park, we didn’t know how scenic the drive would be. As we drove through mountains and saguaro forests, a lake came into view. What a surprise! Tonto National Monument overlooks the stunningly beautiful Roosevelt Lake. We got a double dose of spectacular scenery when we least expected it!

Imagine topping a hill and seeing an unexpected first glimpse of a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains!

Farther down the road a left turn took us to Tonto National Monument, and due to our excitement, we arrived before the visitor center opened. However, that wasn’t a problem because we had lots of fresh air and plenty of breathtaking scenery to enjoy from the parking lot while we waited.

Scenic Roosevelt Lake and snowcapped mountains as seen from the visitor center parking lot. Little did we know that we would be driving through those snowy mountains later that day.

Where is Tonto National Monument?

Tonto National Monument is located in the Tonto Basin area of the Tonto National Forest in the far northeast corner of the Sonoran Desert. The physical address is 26260 N. Arizona Highway 188, Roosevelt, Arizona.

The park features include:

  • Visitor Center and bookstore
  • Museum
  • Park film
  • Self-guided tour of the lower dwelling
  • Guided tours are required for the upper dwelling – check with the park for information.
  • Entry fee

Click here to access the park’s website.

Lower dwelling

Why is Tonto National Monument significant?

Tonto National Monument protects the ruins of two ancient cliff dwellings that were built around 1300 CE. The cliff dwellers who occupied these sites are referred to informally as Salado people, a name which was given by archaeologists simply because they built their homes overlooking the Salt River, now Roosevelt Lake. Salado people were hunters, gatherers, and farmers, so the valley along the Salt River provided an excellent area in which to grow crops.

Archaeologists have found remains of macaws from Mexico or Central America, which indicates that the Salado were traders. Their woven cotton items and beautiful pottery would have made excellent products for trade. The cliff dwellers abandoned the site between 1400 and 1450 CE, but no one knows why they left or where they went.

Depiction of what the lower dwelling might have looked like when it was inhabited.

Interestingly, nobody knows where the name Tonto came from, though popular belief is that it came from the Tonto Apache who lived in the area, but nobody knows why they were called Tonto. President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation to create Tonto National Monument in 1907, five years before Arizona became a state. Then in 1966, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Lower Cliff Dwelling

The walls of the cliff dwellings were built of stone and mud, unlike the structures at nearby Casa Grande Ruins which were made of clay-like caliche. Archaeologists theorize that several families may have occupied the 20 rooms of the lower dwelling. Each of the rooms has a fire pit or hearth which backs up the theory. Smoke residue on the cave’s ceiling can still be seen today.

Many of the walls and even a couple of ceilings remain intact. Below are some additional shots of from inside the dwelling.

Stone and mud wall
Another view of the same wall as above
Remains an upper level of the structure with the cave wall
The pine or juniper beams would have supported a roof or a ceiling.

Originally, the dwelling’s roof beams were covered with saguaro spines then topped with mud, and the cave’s floors were leveled with dirt then covered over and smoothed with clay.

Interesting geology. Not only pretty, but practical.

The caves at Tonto National Monument lie in a geologic layer called Dripping Springs Quartzite. While the caves made ideal places to build their dwellings, the rock, primarily quartz and feldspar, was utilized by the Salado to make implements and weapons.

Detail of the rock layers at Tonto National Monument.

The Museum

Tonto National Monument’s Museum should be a priority for anyone visiting the park. We learned a lot while browsing the exhibits, however, it was the pottery we were most interested in. It’s incredible that these delicate ollas, pots, and bowls survived unprotected for hundreds of years!

With such brilliant colors occurring in their natural surroundings, it’s no wonder that the Salado and other Ancient Sonoran Desert People used them in their pottery. For an interesting article about the region’s pottery, click here.

Visiting Tonto National Monument

We recommend starting out with the museum and park film for an overview of what lies high up in the caves and the people who lived in them. Ideally, the second order of business would be to hike to the lower dwelling. The paved trail is .7 miles out and back and has a 362-foot elevation gain. Hiking websites claim it is a moderately challenging trail, however, we did it with just a couple of stops and some heavy breathing. That said, if we can do it, most everyone else can do it. There are even some benches along the way for those who want to sit and catch their breath. By the time we cooled down while browsing the museum, our visit to the park had lasted about three hours.

Lower dwelling as seen from the trail.
View of the trail looking back toward the visitor center parking lot.
And the views from the top are worth all the panting to get there!

Upper Cliff Dwelling

Those who want to visit the upper dwelling can do so on a reserved guided tour. Therefore, we recommend calling the park or visiting the website for reservation information before planning a trip to Tonto National Monument. Reservations usually open on October 1 and fill up quickly. Considered moderately challenging, the unpaved trail to the upper dwelling is 2.4 miles out and back with a 646-foot elevation gain. Allow three to four hours for this hike.

The upper cliff dwelling at Tonto National Monument
National Park Service photo of the Upper Dwelling.

Our closing photo is another view of scenic Roosevelt Lake. Thank you for letting us share Tonto National Monument with you! We are truly honored to have you join us on our road trips. If you’re looking for more road trip inspiration, check these out:

Happy, safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our opinions are our own.