Ancient Ruins and Happy Hikes – Verde Valley, AZ

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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!



Next up:  A Tale of Two Train Tours


Overhang cliff dwellings – Walnut Canyon National Monument, AZ

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Our visit to the ancient cliff dwellings at Canyon de Chelly was my first exposure to the thousands of ancient ruins that abound throughout Arizona.  It’s not fully understood why ancient cultures left behind remnants of their pit houses, cliff dwellings, pueblos and other forms of housing.  The Anasazi’s tucked their homes into high overhangs in the dramatic walls of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, while the Sinagua people left their mark under the limestone overhangs at Walnut Canyon National Monument, our final stop on our road trip from Cottonwood.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Walnut Canyon was formed by Walnut Creek, which is mostly dry now. The canyon was carved to a depth of 600 ft.

Walnut Canyon National Monument’s name came from the Arizona Walnut, a tree once common in the canyon bottom.  Dams constructed upstream over the years have significantly decreased water flow through the canyon.  But more than 800 years before the water was impounded this canyon was home to its only permanent inhabitants, the Sinagua people.  Sinagua is spanish for “without water” – a tribute to their ability to turn a relatively dry place into a homeland.

Sinaguas, Walnut Canyon

A day in a life of a Sinaguan- fetch water from the creek and climb back up into an alcove

From the visitor center’s overview we looked out and at first saw only a beautiful vegetation-covered canyon.  But a closer look revealed many ruins running along horizontal strips in the rock walls, as if someone could walk along a path on the wall to visit many dwellings in a row.  The canyon is sometimes called a “cliff city”, for there are more than 100 dwellings built along both sides.

Walnut Canyon National Momument

Archaelogists dated the cliff dwellings at between 1125 and 1250 AD.  The builders were believed to be the women of the tribe (men were the hunters and farmers), who took advantage of natural recesses in the limestone walls created by water that eroded softer rock layers.  Most dwellings face south and east to take maximum advantage of sunlight.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Zooming in from across the canyon

We were able to walk right up to about 30 dwellings as we followed the Island Trail.  After descending 240 steps from the visitor’s center, it looped around an “island mountain” formed by water that cut all around it.  The trail was a steep 200-foot descent/ascent at an elevation of 7,000 feet.  It lead past some of the best preserved – or, more accurately, least destroyed – ruins.  It also provided views of many other cliff dwellings constructed wherever a natural-occurring alcove could be found.

Island Trail, Walnut Canyon National Monument

There are 240 steps to descend, and coming back out of the canyon was a good workout

Observing the dwellings, we learned that the alcove provided a ready-made rear wall and roof, needing only side and front walls of masonry to form a totally protected structure. Carved by nature long ago, these alcoves offered residents an ideal location for home-building.  The masonry of the structures were strung end-to-end along the canyon walls, situated to take maximum advantage of the natural shelter provided by recesses in the cliffs.


The dwellings have been either stabilized or restored, but original mortar remains in many walls.


Walnut Canyon National Monument

Illustration of room functions within an alcove

Walnut Canyon National Monument

One of the neighborhoods

Like the Ancestral Puebloans in neighboring regions, the Sinagua people left mysteriously around 1250 AD.  The exodus may have been caused by drought or fear of neighboring tribes.  They certainly left us something to think about as we enjoyed this fascinating place!

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Looking across the canyon, more “neighborhoods” can be seen along the wall

Walnut Canyon may not be as spectacular as Canyon de Chelly, but the geology is captivating and unique.  We learned that the area is not volcanic and the rock walls were formed in three distinct layers.  The upper third contains Kaibab Limestone (marked #1 in the photo below), which varies in thickness and hardness.  The cliff dwellings are found within the steep, scrub-covered slopes of the Toroweap Formation, (#2) and the bottom third is the sheer-walled, cross-bedded Coconino Sandstone (#3).

Geologic Layers

Geologic layers of Walnut Canyon

The bottom Coconino Sandstone layer is the oldest, formed 275 millions years ago. Walnut Canyon started as a desert with sand dunes along a coast.  Winds blew from behind the dunes and avalanced down the front.  When the sea moved in, these ancient dunes were cemented together creating patterns of diagonal lines (or cross bedding) in the sandstone.  Many geologists believe the Coconino Sandstone was originally red in color but the iron leached out over time – converting the rock’s color to a creamy tan.

Coconino Sandstone

Coconino Sandstone – the preserved sand layers record changes in wind direction over time


Coconino Sandstone

Zooming into the wind-blown Coconino sandstone shows amazing striation patterns

The alcove dwellers of Walnut Canyon may be lesser known, but their cliff dwellings are a study of their unique lives.  There are many ruins in the southwest that we still want to visit, but we’re glad we stopped to get a close-up view of these.  It was an interesting look into the past and how this particular group of people adapted to the land and their environment to survive and thrive.