Going to the Tonto National Monument is an all-day trip from Phoenix, especially if you want to take the most scenic road to Roosevelt Lake. Google claimed that the drive was about 2 hours long on Apache Trail (88), but the drive down the twisting, dirt roads is more realistically between two and three hours long. It takes longer if you stop along the way, of course, and taking your time is a good idea on Apache Trail for both safety and your enjoyment.
Just before the Apache Trail turns into a dirt road, you will see three small buildings near the edge of Fish Creek. The buildings are somewhat ramshackle, and their boxy architecture and wooden walls is purposefully reminiscent of a small historic Western town. This is Tortilla Flats; and it is one of my personal favorite places to stop whenever I am on the 88. There isn’t much here- a small restaurant, a gift shop, and a country store. The restaurant has a great atmosphere that fits the area to a T. The walls are coated in layers of signed dollar bills, most from the US, but I always like to peek around for money from all over the world. The bar is also lined with horse saddle stools, and the bathrooms are surprisingly humorous but I won’t spoil why. The food here is good, mostly sporting American classics. As much as I enjoy stopping by the restaurant here, however, I mostly come to Tortilla Flats for its delicious prickly pear ice cream, which I like to eat next to the (sometimes) gurgling stream that runs right by the area.
Past Tortilla Flats the dirt road begins, and while this area is breathtakingly beautiful, anyone who wants to drive this road needs to take their time, and keep their eyes on the road. There are cliffs along long stretches of the road, and at times the road narrows until vehicles will need to stop and pull over in order to let each other pass. Along this part of the Apache Trail is the small Apache Lake, and the Roosevelt Lake Dam. After stopping to view the dam, the road curves up one final hill, and at the top the largest lake in Arizona expands out to either horizon- Roosevelt Lake.
For some reason, I was expecting there to be a sizeable town around Roosevelt Lake, but in the direction from Roosevalt Dam towards the Tonto National Monument all I saw were a few small settlements. One was a high-end gated community perched on the edge of the lake, some looked like a mix of large camp grounds and RV grounds, and about eight miles from the turn off by the dam was a small collection of low buildings including a gas station, and an all American restaurant called Boston’s Lake House Grill (that seemed surprisingly far from the lake for its name).
From the lake to Tonto National Monument was a short drive up from the relatively flat desert surrounding Roosevelt up into a small box canyon. The visitor center here was under construction when I visited, so there wasn’t much there to see, and we immediately headed out onto the trail leading to the Lower Cliff Dwelling. This is the only trail accessible to visitors without a ranger or guide, it is a mile long (round-trip), and it is nicely paved and thus welcoming to most people, although it is steep.
I got winded a few times on the way up, but it was a good excuse to stop and take in the scenery, which was always worth the pause. The plant communities surrounding the path up to the Lower Cliff Dwellings was amazingly rich, and was so lush that I almost felt like I was taking a stroll through Phoenix’s manicured Desert Botanical Gardens. All of the charismatic plants of the Sonoran Desert were represented in vibrant greens on either side of the trail, and any time spent at one of the trail’s benches would reveal a variety of bird, mammal, and reptile life as well.
Of course, the crowning jewel of the trail and the national monument itself are the ruins. Unlike Montezuma’s castle, Tonto National Monument allows visitors to carefully climb inside of the ancient Salado ruins here. They are watched over by a volunteer, who dutifully reminds visitors to not lean or sit on the stone walls tucked into the mountain-side, and who is prepared to answer any questions that visitors may have about the people who once lived here, as well as the surrounding area. Inside the warm, stone and mortar walls of this ancient Native American village, it is easy to see what drew people to this place. The shallow cavern that the buildings were constructed in makes the place feel safe and protected. The walls are dark with the remains of fires from hundreds of years ago, but the closeness of those ancestral families doesn’t seem to have abandoned this place. Just over the remaining walls, or through the surviving doorways and windows, visitors can catch glimpses of the Salt River Valley and the lake, beckoning with its life giving waters, and the lush desert around it.
In short, Tonto NP is a must-see for anyone interested in Arizona history, or in the ingenuity of our ancestors. There is a second set of ruins in the park as well, but visitors must join a tour in order to see them, and the hike is more difficult than the trek to the Lower Cliff Dwellings. If what I saw was any indication, however, I think that the trip to the Upper Dwellings would certainly not disappoint anyone with the time and ability to make the journey further into the mountains.
And if you have any questions about Tonto or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂
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