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Don't confuse the Tonto name of this imposing national monument with that of The Lone Ranger's sidekick. (Tonto is a Spanish word meaning "fool" or "idiot", so I guess the cowboy didn't highly esteem his partner after all.) The Tonto National Monument is the site of well-preserved cliff dwellings that were used by the Salado people during the 13th through early 15th centuries. These shallow caves -- with their masonry dwellings in the Tonto Basin of the Sonoran Desert -- offer a remarkable insight into the life and culture of the Native Americans who lived here.

The dwelling inhabitants farmed in the Salt River Valley below the dwellings. One of the earliest known cotton farming communities, dating from about 100 to 600 AD, is located near the monument. The inhabitants' pottery and woven textiles can be found in the Visitor Center Museum.

The monument is about a two-hour drive from Phoenix (consider the Apache Trail for this drive) and is about three hours from Tucson. The park was authorized by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1907, with 640 acres being set aside for the monument. (There are now 1,120 acres.) The first known written record of the dwellings dates from 1880, and the site was visited by noted archeologist Adolph Bandelier three years later.

Highlights

There are two areas of dwellings, the Upper and Lower. If you have only 30 minutes, look at the 18-minute orientation video at the visitors' center, view the Lower Cliff Dwelling from the deck and visit the museum. If you have 60 minutes, do the above and hike the half-mile Lower Cliff Dwelling trail. If you have more time and the Upper Cliff Dwelling trail is open (November through April), make a reservation for the three-mile round-trip hike.

On occasion, Africanized honeybees, sometimes known as killer bees, often attempt to occupy cracks and crevices along the cliff faces. When their hives are too close, the dwellings may be temporarily closed until the bees can be removed. When that happens, you can hike the Lower Cliff Dwelling trail to within viewing distance of the ruins, but not enter them. Packing tip: You may want to bring water instead of drinks with sugar in them, as in addition to the bees, there are wasps around

On occasion, there may be special activities scheduled, such as a full-moon hike, off-site hikes, and living history talks and demonstrations. The guided tour to the Upper Cliff Dwelling begins at 10am, three or four of them given weekly depending on staff availability. Tours are limited to 15 people. The hikes and tour take three to four hours and there is an elevation gain of 600 feet over large rocks on a steep, winding trail. You should consider this hike if you hike on a regular basis, regularly exercise several times weekly, and if you have no serious health problems that limit your activities. Make reservations in advance (tel. 928/467-2241).

Early bird tours are offered at 8am Saturdays in October and May to beat the heat; reservations are required. There sometimes are volunteer-led photo walks to the Upper Cliff Dwelling; reservations are also required.

The Tonto National Forest surrounds the monument and you can enjoy trails here, camping, hunting, as well as water activities on Roosevelt Lake.

Flora & Fauna

In the Sonoran Desert, you may spot everything from snakes and cactus to frogs and wildflowers, depending on the season when you visit. Look for the saguaro, a columnar cactus that can grow to great heights, or maybe you will be lucky enough to view one of the four different varieties of skunk that live here (hooded, hog-nosed, striped, and spotted). Be sure to look out for a crested saguaro, the crest appearing on one in about 150,000 cacti.

In all, there are at least 1,650 species of birds here, six species of amphibians (including the deadly Gila Monster), 32 types of reptiles (four species of snakes are venomous, including three types of rattlesnakes and one coral snake), 26 species of land mammals, and at least 14 species of bats.

Hours & Admission Fee

Every national park will offer free admission on June 21, the first day of summer. The parks will also be free on Sept. 24 (National Public Lands Day) and on Veterans Day weekend (Nov. 11-13), thanks to the National Park Service's Free Entrance Days program.

The monument site is open daily from 8am to 5pm except on Christmas Day. The trail that leads to and from the Lower Cliff Dwellings closes to uphill travel at 4pm.

The charge for admission is $3 per adult (good for seven days); children under 16 are free. You need to make reservations for Upper Cliff Dwelling tours, but there is no additional fee.

Visitors

There were 60,497 visitors here in 2010, says the NPS.

More Info

Tonto National Monument (tel. 928/467-2241; www.nps.gov/tont)