Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Cliff Dwellers

We, the people of the Southwest, are surrounded by the ancient ruins of the Cliff Dwelling people.  In fact, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado are just a few of the states that have remnants from this fascinating culture.  The largest group of Cliff Dwelling ruins are found in the 4 corner region near the Mexican hat.  I had been there on a rafting trip in 8th grade and remember the large empty cliff city.  It had been a long time since I had visited these landmarks so we spent 3 days up in the north of Arizona where we created a homebase in Flagstaff to hop around to these locations.
Montezuma's Castle

We were hot and exhausted on our final day of travel.  But Montezuma's Castle provided wonderful shade and an easy walk to visit the ruins.  Known as the ancient farmers of the Verde Valley, the Sinagua(those without water) people principally lived off of farming.  They supplemented their staple crops by hunting and gathering. There are several areas around northern Arizona that are home to the Sinagua people which include Tuzigoot, Montezuma's Castle and Montezuma's Well.  Each site charges 5 bucks to enter.

No one knows why the Southern Sinagua abandoned their pueblos by the early 1400's.  Possible explanations include over population, depletion of natural resources, disease, conflicts within and between groups. Whatever the reasons, some Southern Sinagua may have migrated to pueblo villages to the north or Hohokam villages to the south, while others may have stayed in the valley and returned to hunter-gatherer ways.

Another great hike is to Walnut Canyon.  The stairs initially going down into the cliff village is steep so if you have a difficult time walking, take it slow.  Lots of people climb the stairs and it became a running joke from the passerbys both up and down the steps.  Bring water and a hat with you for a more comfortable visit.....and also use sunblock.  Remember that you'll be at a higher elevation and breathing can be difficult for some people.
Dwellings sheltered by overhanging cliffs, were home to Walnut Canyon's only permanent inhabitants more than 800 years ago.  Sinagua homes remained largely undisturbed until the 19th century.  In the 1880's, the railroad brought souvenir hunters to the ancient dwellings.  Theft and destruction prompted local efforts to preserve the canyon and soon drew national support.  In 1915 Walnut Canyon was declared a national monument.  Hundreds of years have passed since Sinagua voices and laughter could be heard.

Why did they live in the cliffs?  These canyons are secluded and out of sight from other people.  The cliffs protected the people from invaders and extremely cold temps.  It also provided some protection from the brutal summer sun.  Several "homes" located around the cliffs acted as lookouts for the village.
The close proximity of the homes also allowed for trading to happen and act as "local stores" for bartering items.  Cliff homes were generally situated on cliffsides facing south and east to take advantage of warmth and sunlight.  A few sites faced north and west; these may have been occupied during the warmer months.  Archeologists believe that it was the women who built the homes.  The dwellings were made from shallow caves eroded out of the limestone cliffs.
There are a lot of plantlife zones in the Walnut Canyon area. You'll see pines, cactus, and yucca at the various levels of the canyon.  Walnut Creek is so called because of the Arizona Black Walnut that grows along the riverbank on the bottom of the canyon.
So if you're in the area....

....stop by and see.....

....the amazing and ancient ruins.....
....of the Sinagua people.
We had a fun time here and loved visiting these old sites again.
As a kid, I thought they were cool.  As an adult, I view them with a deeper appreciation of history and culture.
Which of course begs the question?  What will our society leave behind for future generations?


  1. wow, these are awe-inspiring! thank you for sharing this bit of lost culture with us! truly amazing!

  2. Nice post, and such places always have intrigued me. Walnut Canyon - I enjoyed the surprising botanical diversity there more than even the dwellings! As a teen at Mesa Verde, I recall hearing some of the abandonment there was from the climate cooling too much, combined with drought...our guide even told us the Anasazi were growing cotton there in the uplands of SW Colorado. That's much warmer than today.

  3. We enjoy visiting sites like these. We stopped at Hovenweep National Monument in Utah on our vacation last fall. Talk about off the beaten path but so worth the trip.

  4. WOW...what an amazing place! I must get there one day! I might never want to leave though!!!

    The only thing they will find left behind by me will be a lot of trash and a few embroideries! Sadly.

  5. I love it! I was driving through New Mexico and saw some cliff homes from a distance...very nice photos. I must take a closer look next time.


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