Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail

The half-mile trail to the Lower Cliff Dwelling climbs 350 vertical feet through the Sonoran Desert. Brutal heat in summer, hard frosts in winter, strong shriveling winds in spring, and always erratic rainfall combine to make the desert a sometimes harsh environment. As you “tour” the trail and dwelling, imagine breathing the fragrant dry air of the desert and listening to the silence. Think about the lives of the people who lived here so many years ago.


Stop #1 – Who Were the Salado?

Nearly 850 years ago, a group of Pueblo Indians adapted their lives to this desert. Though we do not know what they called themselves, modern archeologists have named them Salado, in reference to the Rio Salado, Salt River, which flowed through the valley of their homeland. They lived in cool, thick-walled, apartment-like villages; grew irrigated crops of corn, squash, beans and amaranth; made handsome pottery and wove elaborate textiles. Though primarily farmers, the Salado were also hunters and gatherers, familiar with many practical uses for the desert’s wild resources. The Salado, some of the birds, and perhaps other wild creatures of the desert used many of the desert plants along this trail.


Stop #2 – Foothill Palo Verde (Cercidium microphyllum)

The name palo verde, meaning “green stick,” refers to the green color of the tree’s bark. This plant effectively conserves water. Its tiny leaflets, a luxury, are dropped during times of extreme drought. During dry periods the chlorophyll in the bark carries on most of the food production. In the spring each tree becomes a mass of yellow blossoms, which attract hordes of bees seeking the nectar. The seeds were used by the Salado and are still used by wildlife as an important food source.


Stop #3 – Tomatillo (Lycium fremontii)

Tomatillo, or wolfberry, belongs to the same family as our garden variety of tomato. In the spring it is covered with numerous small red berries. Although sometimes bitter, these berries are edible. Native people ate the fruits as they came off the bush, sometimes mixing them with clay to prevent the stomach pains which resulted from eating too many. The berries may be cooked into syrup, put into stews and soups, or dried and ground into meal.


Stop #4 – Soil Makers

The green and orange blotches resembling paint on many rocks are lichens. They consist of algae and fungi living together in a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship. As the lichens grow, their secretions dissolve solid rock into fragments, the first step in the long natural process of soil formation. In the desert, it can take 1,000 years to develop one inch of topsoil.


Stop #5 – Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

The ocotillo is one of the oddest and most distinctive plants of the southwestern deserts. Despite its heavily thorned stems, this plant is not a cactus, but a member of the candlewood family. Leaves appear in the spring after the winter rainy season and are dropped to conserve moisture when the soil dries out. When heavy summer rains break this semi-dormant period, the ocotillos come into full leaf again within a few days. This cycle may reoccur several times during a single growing season.


Stop #6 – Flat Top Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)

This large genus of approximately 150 species is well represented in Arizona. This particular species favors dry, rocky slopes and ridges and is very common throughout the monument. It blooms after sufficient rainfall with clusters of pink, fragrant flowers. Bees produce an excellent honey from the nectar. The Salado and other people found many medicinal uses for decoctions or concentrated liquids made by boiling the leaves and stems.


Stop #7 – The Ancient Scene

Salado farmers tilled their irrigated crops in the Salt River Valley below the dwelling. Irrigation canals were still visible near the river until Roosevelt Lake flooded the area in 1911. The cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument were not the only dwellings in the Tonto Basin during the 14th century. Archeologists have identified thousands of surface sites in this valley, including large town sites spaced every three to four miles along the river and a ten to fifteen room site on the saddle across Cave and Cholla Canyons from the dwellings.

It is unlikely that the people who inhabited the cliff dwellings played a major role in crop cultivation in the valley. Archeologists have located 26 small field houses on the monument, which suggest limited cultivation of small agricultural sites in these upland areas using mountain runoff. Perhaps the products acquired by hunting or gathering of native vegetation were traded in the valley, thus supplying other villages with resources not locally available.


Stop #8 – Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

Brittlebush, with its striking green-gray leaves and bright yellow flower heads, is one of the most conspicuous shrubs of the southwestern deserts. In early spring, brilliant displays often carpet the desert mountains and hills. The brittle wood extrudes a clear resin which was used as a glue or smeared warm over the body to relieve pain. In periods of severe drought, almost all the leaves are dropped, leaving the brownish-gray stems to store water until the rains return.


Stop #9 – Grasses, Grazing and Erosion

Early settlers reported grasses, such as fescue, covering these valleys and desert foothills. Bunchgrasses have extensive spreading root systems, which anchor the soil and prevent erosion. Natural cycles of drought and erosion, coupled with heavy cattle grazing since the 1870s, destroyed much of the grassland. Springs dried up. Vegetated canyon floors eroded to boulder-strewn and barren channels. In the last century, man has triggered drastic changes in the desert, the consequences of which we can only begin to perceive.


Stop #10 – Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis)

Jojoba is dioecious, meaning the male and female flowers are found on separate plants. The acorn-like nuts, which appear on the female plants in late summer, sometimes served as food. More importantly, a thick rich wax was pressed from the nuts and applied to burns, wounds and sores as a medicinal salve, much like Vaseline.


Stop #11 – Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata)

A champion of utility, the yucca provided the Salado with both food and fiber. Buds, flowers, and fruits are all edible. Native people preserved the large, banana-like fruits by roasting them and pressing the pulp into cakes, which were dried in the desert sun. Its sharp-tipped leaves made excellent awls, and stringy leaf fibers were made into skirts, sandals, baskets, string, rope, nets and snares. Even the roots were useful, providing an excellent soap and shampoo.


Stop #12 – Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii)

Imagine the misery this cactus caused the scantily clad Salado people as they roamed the hillsides gathering wild food and hunting deer and other creatures. After blooming, the developing fruit does not contain viable seeds. This cholla relies on another method to grow new plants. The joints break off very easily and root nearby or are carried by animals to other places to root and grow. For poor hikers, the teddy bear’s joints stick to the skin at the slightest contact, even seeming to jump at a victim, hence its other name, “jumping cactus.” Cholla spines penetrate deeply and are very painful to remove. Cactus wrens find protected nesting sites among the teddy bear branches, and woodrats use the cholla joints to barricade their burrows.


Stop #13 – The Southwest’s Natural Cement

This boulder consists of rock fragments cemented together by white caliche, a common binding agent in rocks and soils of the arid southwest. The rock fragments that make up the boulder fell from the cliffs above, forming a rock pile called talus. Then mineral-laden water seeped through the talus pile and evaporated in the hot, dry climate, leaving behind a thick crust of caliche. This is similar to the crust that forms inside a teakettle when the water boils out. The result is the Gila Conglomerate that you see here.


Stop #14 – The Past Belongs to the Future, But Only the Present Can Preserve It

Although Tonto National Monument was established in 1907, it received little protection until 1933. Considerable vandalism and thoughtless destruction of much of the prehistoric material took place in the 1920s. In recent years some prehistoric dwellings have had to be closed to visitors to preserve these fragile structures. People are still able to walk through many of the rooms within the Lower Cliff Dwelling. In order to keep this dwelling open, we ask that people not touch, lean or sit on the walls of the dwelling.


Stop #15 – Formation of the Cave

This cave is located in a massive cliff of sedimentary rock, called Dripping Springs Quartzite. Seeping groundwater dissolves the cementing materials between the grains of sand and silt, causing undermining of the cliff above. Freezing and continued weathering causes spalling – the breaking off of thin fragments. Eventually, pieces of rock tumble to the cave floor or slide down the talus slope below. When the Salado came seeking a protected place to live, they found a natural cave some 50 feet deep, 40 feet high, and 85 feet long, littered with all the building stone they needed.


Stop #16 – Salado Architecture

Salado masonry was crude by 14th century pueblo standards. Walls were built of unshaped quartzite stones held in place by a mortar of clay and caliche soil. Unlike the finely crafted masonry of the Anasazi to the north, the Salado showed no special attempt at fine rockwork, instead plastering the walls with a thick layer of mud.

Once the walls reached a height of six feet, a large main roof beam was placed across the long axis of the room, with smaller cross-beams of pinyon pine or juniper placed on top. Saguaro ribs, river reeds or grasses formed the next layer. A layer of mud, deep enough to allow a shallow firepit in the upstairs floor, capped the roof. Arizona’s dry climate and the protection afforded the cave have preserved some sections of these roofs for almost 700 years.

A one-foot to three-foot high parapet usually enclosed the roof, providing a safe place in the open air for work or play. The residents spent most of their time on the roofs and outdoors. Houses served mainly for sleeping, storage, cooking, and winter shelter.


Stop #17 – Pieces of the Past

Although the Salado abandoned this pueblo nearly 600 years ago, many signs of their daily lives can still be seen. Smoke from fires blackened the walls. Hundreds of finger marks are visible in the clay that was used to plaster the walls. Women gathering to grind corn and other native foods created deep mortar holes in the ledge at the back of the community workroom. Children once scrambled up a ladder that rose through a hatchway in the corner of one room. Imagine how dark and stuffy these poorly ventilated rooms would have been. What other things do you imagine or feel as you “tour” the homes of these ancient people?


Stop #18 – The Original Entry

Within this cave, the Salado built a structure of about 20 rooms, now called the Lower Cliff Dwelling. Sixteen ground-floor rooms can still be traced; several of these had second stories. An annex with three additional rooms was built outside and below the main cave. Accurate population estimates are difficult to make. Though all of the rooms may not have been occupied at the same time, the structure probably housed between 60 and 70 people.

A V-shaped notch was probably the only original entrance to the structure. A ladder from the roof of the lower rooms led to this passage, where projecting rocks are polished from long use as handholds and footrests. When the inhabitants wanted to deny access, they simply pulled up the ladder.


Stop #19 – Why Did They Leave?

Some time between AD1400 and 1450, the Salado may have abandoned the Tonto Basin. What actually happened has been a subject of debate for decades. Their disappearance seems to have been part of the general abandonment of parts of the Southwest during this time. Early researchers suggested that Apache raider invaded the basin, but recent findings have led archeologists to conclude that the Apaches were probably not in the area before AD 1500. Other causes such as internal strife, farmland salinization, and other negative environmental changes have been suggested. For now, the riddle of the Salado remains one of the fascinating mysteries of the prehistoric Southwest.


Stop #20 – Lower Cliff Dwelling Floor Plan

A thousand years ago, the American Southwest was an immense cultural melting pot. The Tonto Basin was occupied by an agricultural group we now call “Salado.” Around AD 1300, some of these people began building apartment-style dwellings in the caves. Imagine the Lower Cliff Dwelling of seven hundred years ago. Not merely stones, sticks, and mortar, it was once filled with people, going about their lives.


A wall was thought to have spanned from cave wall to cave wall protecting the dwelling within. Part of the wall which connected to front wall still remains in this area. Looking at the old photo, did this small area provide a hallway access to the rooms in front? Or, did it provide an area from which to patrol and defend the dwelling? For what other purpose might it have been used?


In the second-floor wall of these rooms is a small hole that could be used to watch the original ladder entry into the village. The series of holes indicate the presence of a second-story roof and parapet.


This wide-open space was once the site of many two-story structures. These single-room homes were less protected and have eroded away. The flat roofs may have been a place where the old ones of the village, crippled by injury or arthritis, warmed themselves on sunny days. Other people worked on the roof as well, making tools, grinding corn, or weaving. Children were protected from falling by the parapet, a low wall built around the roof’s perimeter.


This wide-open space was once the site of many two-story structures. These single-room homes were less protected and have eroded away. The flat roofs may have been a place where the old ones of the village, crippled by injury or arthritis, warmed themselves on sunny days. Other people worked on the roof as well, making tools, grinding corn, or weaving. Children were protected from falling by the parapet, a low wall built around the roof’s perimeter.


The floor plan shows the smallness of this room. It's difficult to imagine a family using this space for both storage and sleeping. Did it only have a single occupant living in it? Or, was it instead used as common storage for the dwelling? An alcove within the cave wall and blocked off by stone and mortar walls, could it have been cold storage?


This room was part of the second phase of building. Rooms connecting with rooms, it's difficult to imagine how little privacy they might have. This room connected to room 16 which is thought to have been a community room for the dwelling. It is questionable whether there were any other entrances to the community room, other than the doorway between it and this room.


The mano and metate (grinding stone and basin) were tools used to grind corn and other seeds. Grit from the stones wore down their teeth, resulting in painful, abscessed gums. Evidence indicates that most Salado did not live much past their forties.


Rather than move the big stone in this room, the residents simply incorporated it into the architecture. At some point, the doorway at the back of the room was blocked. Since this room is newer than the one behind, the doorway was probably filled in for privacy. Perhaps you have noticed the blackened walls and ceilings. These rooms were often smoke-filled. We can see where areas were re-plastered, possibly to brighten the dark spaces. Did adults or children make the fingerprints we see?


This hallway shows how the village grew. The newer parts of town were toward the front and the oldest in the back of the cave.


Walls were built of stone and mud. The central upright post supported the main roof beam. Smaller poles were laid across the beam. A layer of saguaro ribs and clay completed the roof. This also formed the floor above, where other people lived. Clay-lined fire-pits were usually located a couple of feet inside the doorways. The Salado tended their fires carefully to avoid setting roofs on fire.


This open area beneath the entryway was roofed. This provides access to other rooms. Was this a passageway for the village? Or, was it a family's dwelling and the inhabitants dealt with constant traffic through their room?


Entrance to the village was through this area. Did people climb ladders while balancing heavy loads, or did they lift them with nets and ropes?


The original builders used a small recess to create a room that needed no roof. The oddly shaped doorway is called a half-T. It may have helped a person more easily enter the room. Was this small room used for living or for storage?


Imagine living in this small, dark space. Residents slept and stored some goods here, but spent more time out of doors, in community work areas, or on the rooftops. The hatchway in the roof was used to reach the second story.

Salado adults were about 5' to 5'6" (1.5 to 1.6 m) tall. They also stooped to go through the doorways, which were made small to reduce heat loss.


Evidence indicates that the Salado slept on mats. Floors were leveled with dirt and covered with clay. When dry, that made a hard, smooth surface. The remnants of an original clay floor and fire pit remain in this room.


This room probably functioned as community space. Women could socialize while grinding seeds and preparing meals. Villagers may have assembled here to discuss civic matters, and take part in group activities. Like Pueblo people of today, the Salado may have had a deeply rooted religion, woven through all phases of daily life. If they did, this room might also have been used for religious functions. People lived and prospered in this cliff village for over 100 years. Long before Columbus came to America, certainly by 1450, the Salado had dispersed, leaving behind their homes in this mountain basin.



Cactus Patch Trail (current location)

Upper Cliff Dwelling

Lower Cliff Dwelling


The Salado (Tonto Web Site)

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