Arizona was one of the major pre-Columbian cultural centers of North America, and it is one of the best places to experience ancient history in the United States. Looking out from an airplane window, it’s hard to imagine that the vast grid of Phoenix streets below obscures a network of thousand-year-old canals. Much of Arizona’s Salt River Valley was once the center of the Hohokam people, canal builders who turned the desert green growing corn. The city’s prominent modern canals often sit atop their ancient counterparts.
The region’s deep layers of history are exposed at a number of intriguing sites across the state. Here are some of my favorites, with highlights from our southwest road trip.
Just minutes from the Phoenix airport is a former Hohokam village to explore. Built along one of the aforementioned canals, Pueblo Grande was a regional center for managing water for the agrarian civilization. Over time, the desert climate has taken its toll on the original structures, which are in a more advanced state of decay than the cliff dwellings you can view elsewhere (see below). Fortunately, it’s an easy stop, and the small museum is a satisfying introduction to the history of the area.
North of Phoenix, the Salt River Valley, home of the Hohokam, gives way to the lands of the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi). These people, relations of the modern Hopi, are known for the cliff dwellings they built into canyons across the Southwest. One of the best preserved and most striking cliff dwellings in central Arizona, Montezuma Castle National Monument is right off the highway near Camp Verde. The structure has no relationship to the Aztec ruler (settlers mistakenly assumed it was a northern outpost of the Aztec Empire). The five-story house is tucked into a large cliff 90 feet above Beaver Creek. It looks far more impressive in person than in photos, and standing beneath the dwelling, it’s easy to picture people living there. The park was lightly trafficked on the Thursday in spring when we visited, and the short trail makes for a fascinating quick excursion near Sedona.
En route to the Grand Canyon, we made a detour to the Wupatki National Monument, outside Flagstaff. The park protects dozens of Puebloan villages scattered across the stark high plains of northern Arizona. The great house of Wukoki is one of the few Pueblo structures you are still allowed to walk inside. From its tower, the cone of the now-dormant Sunset Crater Volcano is visible to the south and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the north. The Pueblo people built these great houses after fleeing the 11th-century eruption of the Sunset Crater. They survived in such a dry region by hunting and farming in the low places in the landscape, and the site was abandoned about 200 years later. Wupatki was made a national monument in the 1920s, but Navajo shepherds still toiled here until the 1970s. It was sleepy during our Friday afternoon visit, which made it easy to contemplate the lives of the people who once called this place home.
The Navajo Nation encompasses the entirety of northeastern Arizona, and it contains some of the most dramatic archaeological sites in the Southwest. If you are driving to Monument Valley through Navajo country, it’s worth stopping for a short hike at Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de Shay”), outside Chinle. The hike winds 600 feet into the canyon from a roadside overlook. At the canyon floor, you will be rewarded with a view of White House, one of the most photogenic cliff dwellings in the country.
Navajo National Monument is located in the north of the Navajo Nation near the border of Utah. Despite the name of the monument, the multiple cliff dwellings that the park preserves are all Puebloan. Navajo peoples moved into the area later from the north and east, both by choice and from forced relocation. There is a short self-guided hike to a view of the Betatakin dwelling (“Betatakin” means “house built on a ledge” in Navajo), but guided tours operated by the park will get you much closer to it as well as to the Keet Seel dwelling.