One of Arizona’s most impressive prehistoric sites, Tonto National Monument is an easy day trip from Phoenix. What sets it apart from other national parks and monuments is that you can hike to the remarkably well-preserved Lower Cliff Dwelling and step inside its 20 rooms without a guide. The Lower Cliff Dwelling also offer incredible views of the Tonto Valley Basin below and Roosevelt Lake in the distance.
Interestingly, no one knows exactly why the Salado people chose to build their homes here 700 years ago. Some archaeologists speculate that the caves offered protection from the elements or hostile neighbors; others believe the inhabitants were just trying to get away from the congested Tonto Basin floor. Equally puzzling is why they left sometime 1400 and 1450 CE.
Whatever the reasons, they were gone long before Americans settled in the area. By the early 1900s, the cliff dwellings had become so popular that archaeologists feared tourists might damage them. Tonto National Monument was established in 1907 to help protect them.
What to Do There
The Lower Cliff Dwelling is the main attraction at Tonto National Monument. Before you hike up to it, check in at the visitor center. Spend some time in the small museum to learn about the Salado people and see artifacts, including pottery. The 18-minute film is a good introduction before hitting the trail.
Although it's paved, the Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail is steep, gaining 350 feet in just a half mile. If you have bad knees or are out of shape, consider limiting yourself to the view from ground level. If you do head up, expect your journey up and back to take about an hour, depending on the number of breaks you take and how much time you spend at the ruins.
Inside the Lower Cliff Dwelling, you’ll see partial intact rooms, some with their original pine and juniper roofs, and walls blackened by smoke from cooking fires. You can enter any room except Rooms 14 and 15. The first is the only completely intact room in Tonto National Monument; the second has its original clay floor and a fire pit.
Besides the Lower Cliff Dwelling, the monument also has a 40-room Upper Cliff Dwelling, which you can see via guided tour. Because the terrain is uneven and there’s a 600-foot elevation gain, it is intended only for experienced hikers (children 8 and under are not allowed). Bring plenty of water for the 3-mile round-trip trek to the ruins, and wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes.
Along the way, your guide will stop several times to share information about the Sonoran Desert and the Salado people. Take the opportunity to stay hydrated even if you don’t feel thirsty. Inside the cave, you’ll see two-story structures, partially intact roofs, parapet walls which served as balconies, and two large rooms thought to have been used for gatherings or ceremonies.
How to Visit
Tonto National Monument and the visitor center are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. year round, except December 25.
Although the Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail also opens at 8 a.m., it closes at 4 p.m. September through May (from June through August, the Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail closes at 12 p.m.). You must already be on the trail before it closes. Note, too, that the Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail may be closed at any time due to lightning, flooding, bee activity, or other safety concerns.
Guided tours of the Upper Cliff Dwelling are offered at 10 a.m. every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday from November through April. Reservations are required and open on October 1 for the upcoming season. To make a reservation call (928) 467-2241.
Admission to the national monument is $10 per person. Children under 16 are free, and all America the Beautiful passes—including annual, senior, and military—are honored.
While you can bring your pet, they must be leashed at all times and are only permitted on the Lower Cliff Dwelling Trail. They are not allowed in the actual cliff dwellings, on the Upper Cliff Dwelling Trail, or in the visitor center. Don’t plan on leaving your pet unattended in your car for any reason—it’s illegal.
In addition to the visitor center, Tonto National Monument has shaded picnic tables but little else. There’s free spring water available to refill your water bottles in the visitor center, but you’ll want to bring your own snacks, drinks, and lunch since the monument does not have a restaurant or café. If you forget, you’ll find grocery stores and restaurants in Globe and Roosevelt Estates.
While you cannot camp at the monument, camping is available at Roosevelt Lake, 15 minutes away. There are also campgrounds throughout Tonto National Forest.
Since Tonto National Monument is a fragile environment and archaeological site, it is important to follow these guidelines to minimize your impact on the cliff dwellings:
- Do not climb, lean, sit, or stand on the walls.
- Because oils from hands can cause deterioration, don’t touch the walls.
- Do not pick up or move rocks that are part of a wall, no matter their size.
- Do not dig for artifacts or remove artifacts from the site.
- Do not eat in the cliff dwellings. Crumbs and trash can contaminate the site and attract critters.
- Stay on designated trails. Venturing off the trail can damage the soil and desert plants.
- Do not smoke or light fires or candles.
Tonto National Monument is located near Roosevelt Lake. It is approximately 30 minutes from Globe and two hours from downtown Phoenix.
You can get to Tonto National Monument via SR 87 (Beeline Highway) or US 60. For most visitors, SR 87 will be a slightly shorter drive. Take 87 north toward Payson. Turn right at SR 188, and continue 39 miles to the monument. If you are coming from the East Valley, however, US 60 may save you some time. Drive east on US 60 towards Globe. Turn left on SR 188, and head 25 miles to Tonto National Monument.
In the past, you could take the Apache Trail (SR 88) to Tonto National Monument. Unfortunately, the stretch from the Fish Creek Hill Overlook to the Apache Lake Marina closed indefinitely following a fire and flooding in 2019. Even if SR 88 does eventually open, it is partially dirt and has blind turns and drop-offs without guardrails. Do yourself a favor and take either SR 87 or US 60 instead.
What to Do Nearby
A trip to Tonto National Monument from Phoenix will take most of the day, but it can be combined with these nearby attractions:
- Roosevelt Lake: You can fish, boat, and camp at Roosevelt Lake, the largest lake in central Arizona. Stop at Roosevelt Dam to marvel at the world’s highest masonry dam, completed in 1911.
- Besh-Ba-Gowah Archaeological Park: Another Salado site, Besh-Ba-Gowah is located one mile south of Globe. You can explore the ruins and visit the museum, which houses a large collection of Salado pottery and artifacts. There’s also a botanical garden and gift shop.
- Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park: If you take US 60 to Tonto National Monument, you’ll pass Boyce Thompson Arboretum on the way. The 392-acre arboretum features more than 3,000 different species of plants. Check the calendar for seasonal hours.