Ancient Ruins and Happy Hikes – Verde Valley, AZ

With the Sonoran Desert in our rearview mirror, we settled in for a week in the Verde Valley at Cottonwood, midway between the cold high country and the desert floor of Arizona.  Several small towns (Jerome, Sedona, Clarkdale and Cottonwood, to name a few) in the valley have a quaint character and richness in history.  The valley is named after the Verde River, which winds its way through those communities and provides all sorts of recreational opportunities including fishing, birding, wine tasting, history and outdoor activities.  This was our second visit here, and this time we focused on three historic sites containing ancient ruins.

Like others we’ve visited, these ruins gave us a rare glimpse into the lives of human beings who lived in the valley under far different circumstances than those we enjoy today.

Verde Valley
Verde Valley taken from Highway 17
Verde River
The Verde River winds through several valley communities

Ancient ruins can be found throughout Arizona, but some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings are here in Verde Valley.  These ruins were left by Hohokam and Sinaguan natives, followed by Apaches and Yavapai Tribes, and finally by early European settlers.  It’s believed that they flourished in the valley hundreds of years ago.  Three of these ancient ruins are in close enough proximity to each other that they can be visited in one day.

Tuzigoot National Monument

Just up the road from our campsite in Cottonwood, the town of Clarkdale holds remnants of a Sinaguan pueblo built 800 years ago, known as Tuzigoot (meaning “crooked water” in Apache).  Archaeologists have discovered the probable order in which Tuzigoot’s rooms were built, beginning as a small cluster lived in by some 50 people.  The Sinagua were peaceful village dwellers who arrived in the valley about 900 AD, with an eventual community of over 200 residing there until about 1400.

The village crowns the summit of a long ridge.  The remains were reconstructed in 1933
We noticed that there were no doors and learned that the inhabitants accessed rooms from a roof opening with a ladder to the floor

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Dating back to 1150, the “Castle A” dwellings hug a cliff 100′ above the ground and consist of an imposing five-story apartment-like building with about 45 rooms.  A little bit further along the cliff is another five story 20-room dwelling dating to between 1100 and 1300.  Historians believe Sinaguan farmers chose this spot due to the reliable water supply in nearby Beaver Creek.

A high rise condominium in ancient times
Close up of a remarkable dwelling – can you imagine yourself living here?
A diorama of how people may have lived in the dwellings
Ancient high rise condominium – balcony views for all!

While strolling along the trail we wondered what life may have been like here.  It must have taken enormous effort just to get water from the creek up to the cliff.  Imagine life with no electricity or running water, but what a view!

Whitebark Arizona Sycamores lined the cliff. The roof of the castle is still supported by sycamore beams, 700 years after construction
Early tourists were allowed to climb to the castle by way of ladders

What we were not prepared for was how busy this monument would be, even at opening time on a Tuesday morning!

Montezuma Well

We couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the huge and clear waters at Montezuma Well, and its origins and history fascinated us.  It was only recently in 2011 that its origins were confirmed.  It is a naturally occurring spring in the middle of the desert, a result of the trickling of snowmelt water that came from the Mogollon Rim some 10,000 years ago.  It has percolated slowly down through hundreds of feet of rock, draining drop by drop through the path of least resistance all the way to the well.

Montezuma Well
1.5 million gallons of water emerge each day from an underground spring

When the water reached the valley, it was obstructed by a vertical wall of volcanic basalt that forced it to the surface.  As it was pushed upward it eroded an underground cavern which eventually collapsed and created the limestone sinkhole we saw.

See the cliff dwellings?
More dwellings along the waterline of the well and 1891 Ad for photos!

The water is replenished with 5.7 million liters each day.  The water level remains constant, as cracks on the side of the well allow it to flow through the outer wall.

Montezuma Well
A prehistoric canal is evidence of early farmers channeling water from the well to irrigate acres of produce
Actual prehistoric canal diverts water for agriculture

Throughout the valley, pueblos and villages can be seen on cliffs, in caves and along the river.  The land was farmed until about 1400, when all of the tribes vanished.  There have been various reasons postulated as to the reason for the mass exodus, but no one knows for sure.

Below are links to other ancient cliff dwellings in Arizona we have visited:

Cliff dwellers at Canyon de Chelley

Overhang cliff dwellers at Walnut Canyon

Hitting Trails

Our home base was a return to Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, where convenient access to good trails was one of the reasons we returned.  We tackled two hikes, the 8 mile Lime Kiln/Thumper Loop combination and the 8.4 mile Bones Trail Loop.  Both were good moderate treks with lots of scenic views.

The Red Tailed Hawk campground area – Betsy’s ‘hood for a week
Dead Horse Ranch
The lagoon at Dead Horse Ranch State Park
The town of Jerome can be seen up high on the mountain, with Clarkdale in the foothills
The red rocks of Sedona in the distance

The grasses were almost as tall as me!

We were very happy that we crossed paths with Hans and Lisa during our stay, and they invited us on a hike in Sedona. They know a thing or two about scenic hikes in Sedona, and we enjoyed our last hike with them here a couple of years ago.  Also along on this hike was their friend Linda from Portland, OR.  Off we went on an 8.5 mile loop around Cathedral Rock for a fun, scenic and enjoyable hike!

Hipline Trail
Lisa, Hans, Linda and Steve
Hike leaders, Hans and Steve
Short people need a push now and then!

Our lunch perch with a view
We had views of Cathedral Rock from every direction
Lots of company on this trail, and Linda enjoyed taking action shots
Bloggers and photographers – Here’s my pic of Linda taking a pic of Lisa taking a pic of our hike leaders!  The guys just shook their heads…
Thank you Linda for this snap, It was great meeting you!
Looking back down at the trail still warm from our passing
Happy photographer, Linda’s first time in Sedona
Spot the tour helicopter – they were frequent flyers

Arizona Sycamore forest
Just a slice of the red rock county of Sedona
Our thanks to Linda for this capture!




  1. We’re moving to Colorado in a few months so I’m already beginning a travel list for this area… now adding all of these parks and monuments to it. Thanks for the information and suggestions!

  2. Wow! These photos are just gorgeous! We expect to be exploring this area next spring and I am so looking forward to it. I love your photo of a photographer taking a photo….ahhh the life of a travel blogger!! Everything must be documented at all times!! Anyway, thanks for the inspiration to get back to my travel planning research for this area. Dead Horse State Park was on my radar, but I hadn’t heard of these other spots.

  3. Wish we could have made it to Dead Horse Ranch SP again but it’s on the radar for next time. Looks like some great hikes, more to add to the ever growing list. See you tomorrow.

  4. Those two hikes look wonderful, with such gorgeous scenery. Even better when you have good friends to hike with — that makes the miles fly by. 🙂 Great photo of you and Steve enjoying this beautiful life!

  5. Thanks for taking us back to some spots we haven’t seen since the 70″s! Great that you got together with Hans and Lisa in that beautiful red rock country. I love the arizona sycamores!

  6. It is always fascinating to visit ancient ruins and wonder how they were built, what life was like back then and where the people disappeared to.

  7. This is such a great area. I am glad we made our initial visit before the hoards of people found it as well. The whole ruins area of so interesting. I believe we have the exact same photos as you! It was really neat hiking along the canal. Such clever people! Love Dead Horse SP!! We like that we can hike to Old Cottonwood from the park. Sweet that you got to enjoy Sedona with Hans and Lisa!! Love the final photo of you two:)

    • It has not stopped us from getting amazed at those smart petite people. They may have the house with a view but boy, what a great workout just to get up to their homes.

  8. So funny to see what in the east would be known as a stream called the Verde River. Nice picture of it with the shadows on the mountains behind and the clouds. Amazing that you can visit all 3 ruins in one day. Really beautiful pictures of the ruins. Love the placement and angle at Tuzigoot. Five story buildings on top of a cliff built almost 900 years ago just boggles the mind. Love the picture of the ladders the tourists used to climb. Sure wish I’d been there then, able to walk in the same spots as the builders. Sorry to hear it was so busy early during the week and in March. Perhaps the only time that’s not true is in the heat of the summer. The story of Montezuma Well is amazing. It’s a wonder it doesn’t evaporate more water than it can replace in the hot desert sun. Really incredible pictures from the state park Mona Liza. Love Lucy’s hood and Steve overlooking such a view. You are wearing the perfect color in that fantastic picture of you in the grasses. Super finale hike and closing picture. Love those red rocks.

    • I know, looking at the ancient high rise condo made us gasps, and thought those people are amazing! They know how to protect themselves and build a house with a view.

  9. As I said to Lisa when I read her blog post, you guys are making me homesick. After we moved from Sedona, we always stayed at Dead Horse Ranch SP whenever we visited the area. Loved seeing the lights of Jerome come on at dusk. Great photos MonaLiza.

  10. Beautiful photos! Verde Valley is a favorite stop for us. We were just talking today how we might plan a visit there next spring. Somehow, it’s always easy for me to soak in all the beauty there and ignore the crowds…

  11. Hi you two,
    Love your posts, looks like you have been very busy and getting lots of excercide on those long hikes. We have really enjoyed New Mexico and Colorado. Have you checked out Grand Junction Colorado as a possible place to finally settle?? It seems like such a nice place right in a valley with mountains all around. I met a lady at the dog park that told me she and her husband were building a house and shop on an acreage there. He was a helicopter pilot. Reminded me of you guys. They wintered in Mesa. She said Grand Junction does’nt get as much snow as other areas. We decided to take hey 70 across to Utah instead of going up through Wyoming as the weather was warmer down here. We are in Price Utah today, probably drive to Ogden today and be home maybe Tuesday. Weather at home has not been great but it is time we get home.
    Happy Easter!!
    Gloria & Matt

    • Thanks Gloria, We will be in Grand Junction in August to check out the city. Glad that you did a different route going home this time to see beautiful scenery. Hope your windows gets fixed as soon as you get home. Safe travels and pet Romeo for me 🙂

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