Ancient Indian Trails of the Sedona/Flagstaff Area

Ancient ruins large and small

Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde may be better known Indian ruins, but the Grand Canyon state has plenty of old pueblo sites of its own. If you have a fascination with old ruins and ancient cultures, there is no better place in the state to base yourself than in the Sedona/Flagstaff area.

In the vicinity of these two towns are four national monuments that preserve old Sinagua Indian ruins, and if you poke around on the back roads of the region, you'll find many more archaeological sites. The name Sinagua is Spanish for "without water," a reference to the general aspect of the land that this ancient tribe once inhabited. However, the Sinagua people actually built their pueblos adjacent to creeks, rivers, and even a large sinkhole.

Start a tour of the region's Indian trails at the V Bar V Ranch, which is east of I-17 at the Hwy. 179 exit (you'll find the V Bar V just past Beaver Creek Campground). On this former ranch, ancient Indians left cryptic petroglyphs on the rocks near Beaver Creek. This waterway was long an important agricultural area, and south of here along the creek, you'll find the region's most impressive ruin.

Set in a cliff 100 feet above cottonwood-shaded Beaver Creek, Montezuma Castle is a cliff dwelling consisting of 20 stone-walled rooms on five levels. Associated with this cliff dwelling is a second, even larger, pueblo that stands at the foot of the cliff. Although you cannot enter these ruins, there are good viewing areas and interpretive displays. A few miles away lies one of the state's more remarkable ruin sites. Montezuma Well is a sinkhole 350 feet in diameter, and its waters were once used to irrigate nearby fields. Into the walls of this collapsed limestone cave, the Sinagua built many small rooms. By the way, despite the names, these two ruin sites have nothing whatsoever to do with Aztec leader Montezuma.

Northeast of Montezuma Castle, near the town of Clarkdale, stands a very different sort of Sinagua ruin. The pueblo now preserved in Tuzigoot National Monument was not built into a cliff but rather was constructed atop a hill overlooking the Verde River, the waters of which were used for irrigating farm fields. An interpretive trail meanders through the ruins of the old pueblo.

The town of Sedona lies at the foot of the Mogollon Rim, a 200-mile-long, 2,000-foot-high escarpment that is dotted with Indian ruins for most of its length. The area to the west of Sedona is particularly rich with ruin sites, and though most of these are quite small and difficult to find, one ruin site, Palatki, is fairly easy to reach (though it is at the end of a dirt road that should not be driven after it has rained). This cliff dwelling may not be as impressive as Montezuma Castle, but neither is it as crowded with visitors.

Heading north to the Flagstaff area will bring you to two more national monuments. Walnut Canyon, east of the city off I-40, preserves numerous small cliff dwellings, some of which have their original mud-plastered walls that still show the handprints of ancient Sinagua masons. Farther north, off Highway 89, you'll find Wupatki, the region's fourth national monument and one of the state's most fascinating ruin sites. Within the monument there are several easily accessible old pueblos, but Wupatki is by far the most interesting of these. Here, on windswept plains, the Sinagua built a pueblo atop a rock outcropping. The reason for choosing this site was likely the presence of an unusual geological phenomenon†a natural blowhole. This hole in the ground is the opening to a network of caves, and, depending on atmospheric conditions, either blows or sucks air. This ruin site is also interesting for its restored ball court similar to the ball courts that are found in Aztec and Mayan ruins in Mexico.

If you are planning a trip to this area, you probably have plans to visit the Grand Canyon. If so, you'll find one last ruin site, this time an Anasazi pueblo, along the East Rim Drive within Grand Canyon National Park. Tusayan Pueblo is amid pine trees and is set back from the rim of the canyon. There is a small museum/visitor center at the ruins, and a self-guided trail wanders through the site.

The Route:
This itinerary can be done either by staying one night in Sedona and one night in Flagstaff or both nights in one or the other city. To reach the V Bar V Ranch from Sedona, drive south on Hwy. 179 and cross I-17; from Flagstaff, drive south on I-17 to exit 298 and go east. To reach Montezuma Castle National Monument, continue south on I-17 to exit 289 (take exit 293 to reach Montezuma Well). To reach Tuzigoot National Monument, take Hwy. 260 north from Camp Verde. Return to Sedona or Flagstaff on Hwy. 89A.

To reach Walnut Canyon from Flagstaff, drive east on I-40 to exit 204. To reach Wupatki National Monument, go north on Hwy. 89 from exit 201 off I-40. To reach the Grand Canyon, continue north to Cameron and then go west on Hwy. 64. Return to Flagstaff on Hwy. 180.