Usery Mountain Regional Park – Tonto National Monument. Day 7 and 8.


Another spectacular Arizona sunset here at Usery Mountain.

Day 7.  February 16.  Today was a joyful day of reunion. I went to the airport to pick up both Peter and his son Davis. Peter looked rested and sported a winter “cowboy” tan (just face and hands) from the sunny and bright time in Montana.  Davis looked happy to be in sunny Arizona after the snow and cold of New Hampshire.

We decided to celebrate our reunion with dinner at a wonderful local restaurant which is known for its New Mexican cuisine.   The Blue Adobe is in Mesa and the food is fabulous: fresh and full of flavor with various chiles, cilantro, and lime juice showing up in the perfect places.  Peter ordered carne adovada (roasted pork) simmered in house seasonings and immersed in a special red chile adobo sauce.


This is the place for great New Mexican cuisine in Mesa.

Davis ordered the special chorizo stuffed chicken, which is pecan roasted chicken breast stuffed with green chiles, fontina cheese and chorizo, smothered with a mushroom cream sauce. My choice was blackened shrimp with avocado slices, cabbage nest of mango salsa and fresh lime. The guacamole was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted and a winning combination with the house Margarita.

I did not even have time to take pictures of our meals, so we knew we would make a return visit before the week was up.  Note to self:  they have happy hour from 3:00pm to 6:00pm every day when the house Margarita is $4 and the appetizers are $2 off the menu list.  Great way to begin our discussions of the week’s itinerary!


Davis and Peter on the trail up to the Lower Dwelling at Tonto National Monument.

Day 8.  February 17.  Our choice for the first day’s touring was the Tonto National Monument located about 65 miles east of us in the Tonto basin of the upper Sonoran Desert.  There are two cliff dwellings here, built around 1300 CE.  The basin, through which the Salt River flows, had been inhabited by native people for about 10,000 years and many of the tribes living in the area, including White Mountain, Chiricauhua, and Tonto Apaches, Yavapais, Pima-Maricopas and more, call this area part of their ancestral homeland.  Archeologists have named the architects of these two cliff dwellings the Salado, after the Spanish name of the major river here, Salt River. They lived in this basin from about 1000 to 1450.


View of the Lower Dwelling at Tonto National Monument from the steep, paved trail.

We stopped first at the Visitors Center to see a film about the place. As hunters, gatherers, and farmers, the Salado took full advantage of the surrounding desert resources. They gathered desert plants, cultivated cotton, corn, beans, and squash, hunted small game, and obtained water from an ancient spring that still runs today. People of the Salado culture were generally in good physical health. Skeletal remains show little evidence of severe, long-term deficiencies often found in prehistoric agricultural societies. The Salado culture created elaborate pottery and wove exquisite textiles.

We were excited to do the self-guided walk up to the Lower Dwelling (the Upper Dwelling requires signing up for a guided tour, which is currently booked six weeks out).  The Lower Dwelling is one-half mile up a steep, but paved path that gained about 350 feet in elevation.  Hey, there’s a reason why it’s called “cliff dwelling”.


Detail of one of the door openings in the Lower Dwelling showing the lintel and the adobe-covered stone walls.

The Lower Dwelling was limited by the shape of the cave in which it was located, which is 40 feet high, 85 feet long, and 48 feet deep. The estimate is that the 20-room dwelling housed about 40 to 60 people. The dwelling was constructed on unworked native rock laid with adobe mortar. The mortar was applied profusely and the rocks were set in it with no special attempt at fine work, and everything was completely plastered over with a thick layer of mud.

All water had to be hauled by the steep incline from the spring just below the cliff. The stone is unshaped quartzite.  There is lots of the stone on the talus slope below the cliff dwellings. The adobe is a creamy tan in color and full of small stones, which inhibited the making of very smooth plaster. The clay used to create their pottery and as a building material was probably obtained from the talus slope where there were places it could be dug by removing some of the larger rocks.


The roof of the only intact room in the Lower Dwelling reveals the roof of saguaro ribs, covered with clay and then mortar.

Nearly all of the doors in the dwelling were originally built in a rectangular or square shape, and then altered to a half-T, or to a narrower rectangular opening. Door lintels were usually made of sycamore or juniper planks.  In one of the rooms, we learned that the lintel was ponderosa pine and the nearest source was the mountain range about 40 miles away.  This was an intriguing detail that led us to wonder what was the significance of the room in which this lintel was used.  Lugging a slab of ponderosa pine from that distance, with nothing but human labor, must have had significance. Mysterious.


This beautiful piece of pottery, from the Salado cliff dwellings, reveals the distinctive multi-colored paints used to decorate the utilitarian pieces.

The walls were built of stone and mud with a central upright post supporting a main roof beam. Smaller roof poles were laid across the main beam, connecting it to the walls. A layer of saguaro ribs and a few inches of clay mortar completed the roof. The hatchway used to reach the roof above is also visible in one of the rooms. Occasionally a layer of grass or reeds were laid over the saguaro ribs to help ensure no clay would fall into the room below.

It seems that the Salado lived here for about 100 years.  Then, between 1350 and 1450, the region became more arid, characterized by a falling water table and a climatic pattern of alternating floods and droughts. The changing climate negatively affected agriculture. Important plants and animals decreased in numbers. Life became more difficult and stressful for the Salado. People left their small villages and consolidated into larger communities in the valley floor, abandoning the cliff dwellings.

We left the cliff dwelling with respect for the people who lived here and for the clues they have left behind, which continue to perplex and astound us.


Peter and Liz continue their pilgrimage to here at Usery Mountain Regional Park with some intense touring time as they welcome Davis to their Airstream home for one week.



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