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Upper Ruins
Tonto National Monument
January 1, 2011
by Chuck Parsons
Bundled-up Trailblazers start at the Tonto National Monument [photo by Wayne Shimata]
Front Row (kneeling) left to right: Doug, Eileen, Nancy, Monika, and Quy.
Back Row (standing) left to right: Steve, Chip, Wayne, Rob, Sandy, Glenn, Chuck, Ajay, Ted,
our gracious tour guide Peg, and Wendy.

From the way hikers are outfitted in this picture one might mistakenly presume Tonto National Monument to be located in northern Minnesota or perhaps even somewhere near the Arctic Circle. On the drive to the monument we were surprised to see sheets of ice and hundreds of thick, foot-long icicles hanging from the rock walls along US 60 east of Superior, especially as we got closer to the Top-of-the-World area at 4,600 feet. Ted’s car thermometer registered a bone-chilling 19 degrees at this point. B’rrr! Can this really be Arizona? Puzzled winter visitors must be scratching their heads today, wondering if perhaps they accidentally got off their plane in the wrong state.

By the time we finally arrive at the monument at 9:30 AM on this first day of 2011, it has already warmed up to a balmy 28 degrees. The Tonto National Monument Visitor Center sits at an elevation of 2,800 feet in the Upper Sonoran Desert, directly across from Roosevelt Lake. Heat, rather than cold, is typically a cause for concern here in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. But a major winter storm has just swept across the entire state, plunging temperatures to 30 below zero at the Grand Canyon and dumping snow as far south as the northern outskirts of the Phoenix Metro area. A large mass of frigid air with record-setting low temperatures is now hovering over the desert and we are certainly feeling its effects today, some perhaps even wondering if another Ice Age is approaching. The warm sunshine feels good on our multiple layers, as we gather against the thick, heat-absorbing sandstone wall of the Visitor Center for our first group picture of the New Year.

How do you thaw out a frozen lock?
With boiling hot water, of course!
[Wayne Shimata photo]
Less than a hundred yards up the trail we come to this large metal gate with a heavy brass padlock. Our guide, Peg, struggles to open the lock until she finally realizes that it’s completely frozen. Rains from the day before had soaked the lock and it froze solid overnight, making it impossible to insert the key. What to do now? There’s a barbed wire fence on either side of the gate so we can’t simply go around it.

Peg radios the Visitor Center to inform them of our dilemma as we all huddle together in the icy-cold deep shade of the canyon where the coldest air always settles. Despite gloves, my fingers are growing numb in the biting cold as I wonder how long it takes for frostbite to set in. I’m also wondering if we should all have our heads examined for being out here in the first place instead of at home in a nice warm bed. It seems like an eternity before Peg’s husband finally comes hustling up the trail with – what the heck? Is he actually carrying a coffee pot with him? No hacksaw? No bolt cutters? Hot coffee might warm us up a bit, but it certainly won’t help the frozen lock. Or will it? He quickly submerges the lock in the hot water and lets it soak for a minute or two. Peg tries the key once again and this time the lock pops open and we all file past the gate, anxious to get moving again before we turn into human popsicles.

Once past the gate we start moving at a brisk, steady pace to warm up a little, although none of us feel any too warm at this point. The trail meanders back and forth across this leaf-filled creek bed with pools of ice-covered water as it gradually gains elevation. Peg had warned me the day before when I was checking on trail conditions at the monument that there was flowing water in the creek as well as patches of ice along sections of the trail. The storm had dumped a full two inches of rain in the area in addition to snow at the higher elevations. One year ago in January, 2010, the area was pounded with even more rain and this same creek was flowing four feet deep and became impassible, making tours to the Upper Ruins impossible for several days. By comparison, it doesn’t seem too bad now, although a fall into these icy waters would certainly be painful.

Whatever you do, don’t slip and fall in here!
Back in the sunshine at last! [Ajay Kak photos]

We finally make our way out of the deep shade of Refrigerator Canyon and break out into full sunshine. On many of our hikes in Arizona, particularly during the hot summer months, we sometimes curse the sun and pray for thick cloud cover to help cool us off. But not today. On this frigid day in January that would bring joy to the heart of a polar bear we embrace the sun and welcome its warming rays. We have to climb a total of 600 feet in 1.5 miles to reach the Upper Ruins of Tonto National Monument, but as long as we can do the rest of the hike in sunshine no one is complaining.

Arizona Trailblazers slowly make their way up the trail.
[photo by Wayne]    Over hill, over dale…
through freezing rain, driving snow, and even hail…
those Arizona Trailblazers just keep on rolling along.

Negotiating the first of many switchbacks on the upper trail.
[photo by Ajay]

The Sierra Anchas across Roosevelt Lake are snowcapped. [Wayne]
Although we have experienced all of these conditions and even worse on some of our past hikes, our biggest challenge today is the cold and we are well prepared for that. From time to time Peg stops the group and discusses subjects ranging from the geography, history, and culture of the region to the local plants and animals and how important they were to the native people (known as the Salado today) who occupied this area so many centuries ago.

The giant saguaro cacti that symbolize the Sonoran Desert are interesting curiosities for us to admire and take pictures of, but they were crucial to the very existence of the Salado people who utilized them as a source of both food and shelter. A wide variety of other plants, from yuccas, agaves, prickly pear and cholla cactus, jojoba, mesquite, ironwood, walnut, and pinyon pine trees, collectively provided much of the food and building materials the Salado’s and other cultures needed for their survival. Modern man would be hard-pressed to live off this land today, and most of us would probably starve trying to survive out here now. But the resilient and resourceful native people were experts at it and not only survived but thrived in this harsh environment for centuries.

This is just one of the many switchbacks we encounter along the second half of the trail to the Upper Ruins. It’s a steady uphill grind all the way from here to the ruins, but the views just keep on getting better as we look back down on shimmering Roosevelt Lake and the snow-capped Sierra Anchas to the east. Between the sun warming us and the exertion of the climb, we gradually begin to thaw out and the freezing weather encountered in the long, shady stretch of canyon far below us now starts to become a distant memory. The oxygen-charged chilled air is pure and bracing and supercharges the lungs, giving us extra energy for the climb. Several more switchbacks later we begin to see the distant outline of the Upper Ruins, giving us even more incentive to push onward and upward.

Another 15 minutes or so and we find ourselves at the threshold of the Upper Ruins and the end of our 1.5-mile, 600-foot climb. As we stop to take a short break, we’re treated to magnificent views of Roosevelt Lake and the lofty, snow-capped Sierra Anchas in the background. I’ve made this trip a number of times over the years, and this is by far the most snow I have ever seen in the Sierra Anchas so this is an extra treat for all of us today – the icing on the cake to pardon a pun.

First good view of the Upper Ruins. [photo by Wayne]
Trailblazers finally reach the base of the Upper Ruins. [photo by Ajay]
IMG_0079sa Upper Ruins with Roosevelt Lake and Sierra Anchas
in the background. [photo by Wayne]

Although the mountains have been here for millennia, the Salado never gazed out over this vast lake that was only created about a century ago with a man-made dam on the Salt River. But in their time, except for periods of extreme drought, the river flowed freely year round and at flood stage would have been a sight to behold and could have possibly covered an area even larger than the present-day lake.

Catastrophic flooding of the Salt River sometime during the late 14th century caused massive damage and untold suffering for the ancient people of this area, destroying many farms and villages near the river, wiping out miles of vital irrigation canals, and making thousands of acres of fertile farmland completely useless and barren.

Wow! The folks who lived here had quite a view! [photo by Ted]
Multiple levels within the ruins. [photo by Ajay]
Tonto National Monument lies in the middle of a 300 square mile chunk of central Arizona we now call the Tonto Basin, located between the Mogollon Rim and the Lower Sonoran Desert. Early archeology records indicate the first people begin occupying this basin almost 1,700 years ago, gradually transitioning from primitive hunter-gatherers to hunters and farmers, cultivating fields of corn, beans, squash, and cotton with an intricate system of irrigation canals. Later, they made sophisticated pottery and baskets and were part of a vast trading network that stretched from present day Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. Populations grew and thrived, and at its peak the Tonto Basin supported thousands of people in a vast melting pot of many distinctive cultures that populated hundreds of small communities throughout the area. These multi-storied cliff dwellings with numerous rooms were occupied from approximately 1250 AD to 1450 AD and once housed as many as 150 people.

Then over time things slowly began to unravel as climate change created much more arid conditions and made farming increasingly difficult and non-productive. With increased population growth and pressures on the environment, the once plentiful plants and animals throughout the region begin to decrease significantly. Tension, instability, and occasional warfare broke out between neighboring cultures and communities as a result of intense competition over dwindling resources. Increasing numbers of people begin to migrate temporarily to more favorable areas and resettle. But in the end, as the prolonged drought increased in severity and resources reached dangerously critical levels, mass migrations slowly emptied the Tonto Basin and many other areas throughout the Southwest of a people who had occupied the land for nearly a thousand years.

The Upper Ruins — up close and personal. [photo by Ajay]
Main wall of the Upper Ruins. [Rob]
The Salado Window on the World [Ajay]
Doors and windows within the Upper Ruins. [photo by Ajay]
Ceiling beams and thatch roofing. [Ajay]
The Lower Ruins. [Chuck]
Interior view of the Lower Ruins. [Ajay]
Mule deer near the Lower Ruins. [Wayne]
Pictures by Ted:
rock rock
Nature’s artistry is on display as bright mineral colors cheer us on the trail.
Intricately eroded rocks are the bugs’ cliff dwelling.
Methinks this spider should go on a diet.
Ted, is the large white object in your picture of the spider web a bird? Sure looks like a bird to me. H’mmm—bird-eating spiders, here in Arizona?

After completing our tour of both the Upper and Lower Ruins, we stow our gear away and hustle on over to Eileen’s Bar & Grill, temporarily located at the far south end of the Visitor Center parking lot. Eileen has several bottles of bubbly (most of it sparkling apple juice) to share with the group after our tour of the ruins.

Pictures by Wayne:
Ajay is ready to pop the cork.
Glenn looks on as Eileen pours the bubbly.

We’re not sure just how the Salado welcomed in the New Year, but this is how the Arizona Trailblazers do it. After Eileen pours out the champagne and the sparkling apple and cranberry juice, we all raise a toast to welcome in the New Year. Then we go on to raise several more toasts to 2011 and the many great hikes and camping trips that await us in the coming year.

After we finally run out of toasts (and bubbly), we drive into Globe to enjoy a great Mexican dinner at Libby’s El Rey Cafe on US 60.

What a great way to celebrate New Year’s Day!

I know it was tempting for most of us to just roll over and sleep in on such a cold day, and I certainly didn’t expect such a large turnout for a New Year’s Day hike. At one point we had 23 people signed up to do this trip to Tonto National Monument, but were limited to no more than 15 for the tour to the Upper Ruins.

Thanks to Eileen for furnishing the refreshments and thanks to all of you for your participation in the first Arizona Trailblazers hike of 2011. May the year 2011 bring good fortune and blessings to all of us, and may all of our future paths converge somewhere on the Trails of Arizona.

Arizona Trailblazers toast the New Year and welcome in 2011.
Hungry Trailblazers noshing chips and salsa at Libby’s in Globe.
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updated November 10, 2018