Tonto National Monument, in the Superstition Mountains of central Arizona, protects a series of ancient ruins of cliff-dwelling natives known as the Salado culture. Set in the northeast corner of the Sonoran desert, the monument is not only home to well-preserved ruins, but beautiful red cliffs and Saguaro cactus as well.
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Our Weather Clear skies and mid 70s.
Our Visit I visited Tonto National Monument in October as part of a trip to Tucson, Arizona
Overall Impression Tonto is one of my favorite National Monuments I’ve visited. While its scope is small, it’s set in a stunningly beautiful area of red rocks and desert greenery, and the ruins themselves are some of the most accessible and best preserved around, rivaling Mesa Verde National Park though on a smaller scale. While I’ve been to Arizona many times, I had never visited Tonto because it was so remote–what a mistake! Tonto is a great day trip for anyone staying in the Phoenix or Tucson area and worth the drive.
Visiting The main areas of Tonto, including the visitor center and the Lower Ruins, can be visited in about 90 minutes, though plan for 2 hours or longer if you’re not much of a hiker. While the visitor center is easily accessible, the ruins can only be reached via a steep 1/2 mile hike. Before you hike, take a few minutes to talk to the volunteers or rangers in the visitor center and look around the small but well appointed museum which includes several examples of Salado polychrome pottery made by the ancient natives. Before you leave for the hike, be sure to pick up the booklet that explains the ruins and how each of the rooms was used.
While the hike to the Lower Ruins is strenuous (about 300 feet elevation gain), the ruins and the vista at the top of the trail are well worth it. The trail actually starts in the visitor center at the top of the stairs. I missed these stairs on the way up, but there is a second trail from the parking area that meets up with the main trail. While walking up, you’ll see the ruins on the hill, but don’t forget to look back and enjoy the view back toward Lake Roosevelt–it gets better the further up you go. Once you reach the Lower Ruins, a ranger is there to point out some of the features of the ruins that illustrate the way of life of the people who lived there 700 years ago. Areas of the ruins are roped off, but there are still many vantage points to see just about every corner of them.
If you love to hike and can spend a full day at the park, consider calling ahead to hike to the Upper Ruins. These can only be accessed when accompanied by a ranger, but there is a minimum group size for tours.
Suggestions The ruins face east, so they are well lit in the morning. I found this to be helpful for viewing and photography, but on a hotter day, it might be desirable to visit the ruins in the afternoon when they are in shade. Even though the hike is only 1 mile round-trip, the elevation gain means it’s strenuous, so bring water with you! The trail is paved the entire way with only a handful of stairs at the end, so while I wouldn’t recommend it, it might be possible to take a stroller if you’re in good shape and careful.
Nearby Towns Roosevelt, Globe, Phoenix (AZ)
Other Nearby Attractions Lake Roosevelt NRA
Official NPS Website Tonto National Monument
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