by Hank Leukart
February 18, 2010
Becoming Indiana Jones
Discovering ancient Indian ruins on the steep rim of Arizona’s Sycamore Canyon.
A cliff dwelling built by the Verde Hohokam sits on the rim of Sycamore Canyon in Arizona. (view all Sycamore Canyon Ruins, Arizona photos)
RESCOTT NATIONAL FOREST, Arizona — After sleeping in on the first morning of our Indian ruins road trip, I wake up confused, trying to remember if the wolfcow and white horse from the night before actually existed or were simply images from a dream. Wendy, Rich, Vik, and I repack our backpacks and begin hiking the fourteen mile trip toward Verde Hohokam cliff-dwelling ruins purportedly hidden high on a ridge in the Arizona wilderness. As we make our way up steep Sycamore Canyon toward flat Packard Mesa, Wendy says that she can’t believe that the Verde Hohokam would build their homes so far from everything. But as soon as she says it, we realize together that that in the Verde Hohokam’s world, one without roads, cars, and maps, there was no concept of “everything.” The cliff dwelling we’re hiking toward was probably as close to “everything” as anywhere.
Quickly, we find ourselves off-trail (due to a sketchy path and a vague description in our trail guide), and we hike through a dangerous obstacle course of cacti that we dub “Cactus Pass.” As we search for the trail, I slip and fall onto a purple cactus, which gleefully deposits a bunch of spines in my leg that feel like burning needles. I’m embarrassed when we’re forced to bring the hike to a halt so that Wendy can use tweezers to remove a bunch of particularly painful spines from my thigh. But soon, we’re scaling 500 feet up a ridge toward what we think is the location of the cliff dwelling. When we reach the top of one side of the Canyon’s rim, we walk toward the supposed GPS coordinates of the ruins, only to find that we’re blocked by a cliff and a 1,000 foot drop below us. We don’t see any ruins. As the sun begins to set, I realize why my middle school teachers chose a safe, local state park for Grand River Day.
“I know we’re very, very close!” I insist, hoping we can continue in the dark. Wendy takes the role of a responsible teacher and reminds us that we can continue searching again in the morning.
Unable to sleep after setting up camp, I spend an hour in my tent studying the topographical map on my GPS device and realize that the ruins’ actual site is located high up on the steep face of the Canyon lip opposite the one on which we’re camped. I decide that we’re going to have to shuffle our way around the precarious Canyon’s edge to get there. At sunrise, we begin hiking again, precariously making our way around the rim, inching slowly toward what we believe to be the site of the ruins, hidden behind a curve in the rock and a towering plateau. The climbing over crumbling red sandstone and dangerous cacti as we snake our way around becomes too perilous for Rich and Vik, and they decide to stay behind. But Wendy and I continue on, eventually dropping our packs to creep forward more easily.
“We’re totally like Indiana Jones!” I yell right before embarrassing myself again by falling, this time palm-first, on top of another purple cactus. When I look at my hand, impaled by about twenty cactus spines, I start to grow skeptical that anyone would build a house requiring a seven-mile, uphill climb through deadly cacti every day after work (which, I suppose, for the Verde Hohokam, meant hunting and gathering food). Just as I’m about to declare that the ruins’ supposed coordinates must be wrong, I see that my GPS device reports that only 200 yards remain until we reach our target.
“Two football fields!” I yell back to Wendy. “If we don’t see the ruins there, we’re turning around.”
But soon, as we claw our way up a smooth sandstone incline, I see the ruins of a dwelling, made of orange sandstone bricks, towering above us under a large cliff.
“I’ve found the ruins!” I yell, trying to sound as much as possible like Indiana Jones. I wish I were wearing a wide-brimmed fedora. As I continue scrambling toward the cliff dwelling from far below, I discover the imprint of a trail that would have made our approach much easier. When we reach the cliff-dwelling, Wendy and I take a quick look around and then rush back to retrieve Rich and Vik so that we can escort them back on the newly discovered trail.
When the four of us finally arrive at the ruins together, we look out at the grand expanse of Sycamore Canyon’s floor, over 1,000 feet below us. The impressive view makes me wonder whether the Verde Hohokam built their home in such an inaccessible location for the same reason that movie stars build mansions on the top of cliffs in Malibu, California. I can’t suppress my excitement and again start acting like a nerdy middle school teacher, reciting more facts from our archaeological guide.
“Archeologists believe that Indians positioned hilltop ruins sites atop high ridges, in sight of each other, intentionally, so that they could to communicate over long distances using smoke signals,” I explain. I’m excited to discover that our book suggests that my great-view theory is partly accurate. “At one time, it was possible for Native Americans to make line-of-sight contact using these hilltop lookout posts from the Phoenix area to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim.”
I look out at the horizon, half expecting to see smoke signals or a magical wolfcow with a glistening white horse, revealing to us why Native Americans disappeared from here seven hundred years before. But all I see are the remarkable red and orange buttes and plateaus of central Arizona.
I realize that there’s a part of me wishing that one of my middle school teachers were actually with us. They always seemed to have the answers.
Cacti in the Arizona desert can be surprisingly dangerous, especially if you make the mistake of falling on one palm first.
How to Take an Indian Ruins Road Trip
There are thousands of Native American ruins sites in the American Southwest. Amateur archeologists could spend weeks exploring them all. Here’s a driving itinerary including some of the best. View this road trip on a map.
- MONTEZUMA CASTLE NATIONAL MONUMENT: The Sinagua built this cliff dwelling, which, strangely, has (almost) nothing to do with the Aztec Montezuma. These ruins are impressive and easy to get to by walking a quarter-mile, paved loop. $5 per person.
- PALATKI HERITAGE SITE AND HONANKI INDIAN RUINS: These two quarter-mile hikes near Sedona take hikers to the ruins of the largest cliff dwellings in Red Rock Country between 1150 and 1300 A.D.
- CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT: Seeing this beautiful canyon will make you want to stay here forever. Unfortunately, due to a unique arrangement with the Navajo Nation, hiking or backpacking anywhere in the Monument requires a paid Navajo guide — except for the White House Ruins Trail, a 3.5-mile round trip hike into the Canyon to some impressive Anasazi ruins. Jeep and horseback riding tours are also available. View my hike on the White House Trail.
- FOUR CORNERS: This is the point at which Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet. Tourists pay $3 to stand on the exact intersection. I have no idea why anyone would want do this. We did it. You’ll do it too.
- MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK: This fantastic park, called an Archeological Disneyland by some, boasts some of the most notable and best-preserved cliff dwellings in the US. In the summer, take guided tours to Cliff Palace and Balcony House; during the winter, take a guided tour to Spruce Tree House. No matter when you go, drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road to see ruins from lookout points and try one of the park’s hiking trails. $15 per vehicle in the summer; $10 per vehicle in the winter.
- HOVENWEEP NATIONAL MONUMENT: This Monument allows visitors to see six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages. $6 per vehicle.
- MONUMENT VALLEY NAVAJO TRIBAL PARK: Drive this 17-mile dirt road loop to see the gorgeous buttes and plateaus of Monument Valley close up. A high clearance vehicle is recommended. Definitely worth the $5 per person, especially if you enjoy photography.
- NAVAJO NATIONAL MONUMENT: See three Anecestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
- OFF THE BEATEN PATH: There are many Indian ruins sites outside National Parks and Monuments which can only be reached with help from Native American guides or enterprising hikers. Dave Wilson’s Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen helps amateur archeologists willing to hike long distances find some of these sites.