How to Ruin a Good Vacation

Touring the state's most interesting Indian ruins:

While the Indian ruins of northwestern New Mexico tend to garner all the attention, Arizona has plenty of its own ruins, including Anasazi cliff dwellings, mud-walled Hohokam structures, and stone-walled Sinagua pueblos. The greatest concentrations of easily accessible ruins are in the Flagstaff and Sedona areas, on the Navajo Reservation, and south and east of Phoenix.

You can start ruining your vacation right outside Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport with a visit to Pueblo Grande Museum & Cultural Park, which preserves the site of a Hohokam village. There isn't much to be seen of the pueblo itself, but there are informative exhibits

Much more impressive ruins can be found about 90 miles north of Phoenix near Sedona. Within an hour's drive of Sedona, you'll find not only numerous small ruin sites, but several larger sites. Just outside the town of Clarkdale, on the Verde River, stand the ruins of Tuzigoot, a Sinagua pueblo that was built atop a hill overlooking the river valley. Today the ruins are preserved as Tuzigoot National Monument, and an interpretive trail winds through the partially restored ruins.

However, the most impressive Sinagua ruins in the area are those at Montezuma Castle National Monument. Here a five-story 12th-century cliff dwelling constructed by the Sinagua people has been preserved, and although you cannot enter the ruins themselves, there are good views from the base of the cliff. Eleven miles north lies Montezuma well, a natural sink hole around the walls of which the Sinagua built many small dwellings. The sinkhole, which you can't even see until you are right on top of it, is an altogether unexpected sight In this dry landscape. Incidentally, neither of these sites has anything to do with the Aztec ruler Montezuma.


Continuing north to the Flagstaff area, you'll find Walnut Canyon National Monument, which lies just east of the city off I-40. In this 400-foot deep limestone-walled canyon, the Sinagua built many small dwellings on narrow ledges. A trail leads down into the canyon and into many of the cliff dwellings, in some of which 600-year-old handprints can still be seen in mud used to plaster the stone walls. North of Flagstaff, in the windswept high plains east of the San Francisco Peaks, lies Wupatki National Monument, which preserves several small Sinagua pueblos. Wupatki pueblo, the largest of the ruin sites, was built on the site of a natural blow hole that either blows or sucks air depending on atmospheric conditions. Wupatki is also noteworthy for its restored ball court, which is similar to the better-known ball courts built by the Aztecs and Mayans.

While the sites mentioned above can all be visited in one or two days from either Flagstaff or Sedona, the state's most impressive ruins require a bit more time and energy to visit. Within Navajo National Monument, which is east of Lake Powell on the north side of the Navajo Reservation, there are two large cliff dwelling sites-Keet Seel and Betatakin. These two sites, which are built beneath the overhangs of large caves, can only be reached on foot or horseback and the number of visitors allowed to the sites and the times of year that the sites can be visited are limited. It's a 5-mile round-trip hike to Betatakin and a 17-mile round-trip hike or horseback ride to Keet Seel, although there is a campground at the latter ruin site.


The state's other significant concentration of cliff dwellings is in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which is 110 miles southeast of Navajo National Monument. Although many cliff dwelling can be seen from the two rim drives within the monument, only one of these, the White House Ruins, can be visited without a Navajo guide. To get a close-up canyon-bottom look at other ruins, you'll need to either take a "shake-and-bake" tour of the canyon in one of the six-wheel-drive trucks that carries visitors deep into the canyon or hire a guide and drive your own sport utility vehicle into the canyon. You can also ride horses into the canyon or hire a guide and hike in.

From Canyon de Chelly, it's about 175 miles south to the town of Springerville, where you'll find both Casa Malpais Archaeological Park and White Mountain Archaeological Center. The former is an unusual site in that some of the rooms were built into existing shallow caves to form a sort of catacomb system. The latter center is a privately owned ruin site that allows the paying public to participate in the excavation of Raven Site Ruins

From Springerville, it's about 135 miles southwest to Globe. Here you'll find the reconstructed Besh-Ba-Gowah ruins, a Salado Indian site that, more than any other ruin in the state, gives the feel of ancient pueblo life. A detour northwest from Globe will bring you to Tonto National Monument and the southernmost cliff dwellings in Arizona. The cliff dwellings here, which can only be reached by short, but relatively strenuous hikes, were constructed by the Salado people between the 12th and 15th century. From here, you can take the gravel Apache Trail road to the edge of the Phoenix metro area.

While in the Phoenix area, you should also consider driving south to the town of Coolidge, where you'll find another unusual ruin site. Casa Grande National Monument preserves a massive structure that was built with walls of hard-packed earth rather than stone or adobe. It is still not known what purpose the unusual building served. From these ruins, it is about 50 miles back to Phoenix, mostly on I-10.

The Route:
From Phoenix, drive north to Sedona or Flagstaff on I-17 (spend 1 or 2 nights in either city). After exploring the area's many ruins, head north on Hwy. 89 to the Tuba City junction and go northeast on Hwy. 160 to Navajo National Monument (spend the night in Kayenta). From Kayenta, drive east on Hwy. 160 and then southeast on Hwy. 59 to Hwy. 191, which leads south to Chinle and Canyon de Chelly National Monument (spend 1 or 2 nights). From here, drive south on Hwy. 191, via Ganado, Chambers, Sanders and St. Johns, to Springerville (spend the night). From Springerville, drive west on Hwy. 60, through Show Low, to Globe, and then drive northwest on Hwy. 88 to Tonto National Monument. From here, continue on Hwy. 88, which becomes the gravel Apache Trail, to Phoenix (spend the night). The next day, drive down to Coolidge to see Casa Grande National Monument.