Since purchasing a National Parks Annual Pass at Montezuma Castle National Monument, my fiance, Brooke, and I have been eager to get our mileage out of the pass. Tuzigoot is a natural follow-up to Montezuma Castle National Monument, both built by the native peoples of this land many centuries ago.
An easy drive from Phoenix- I-17 North to 260 West, then just follow the signs in/through Clarkdale- brings you to the park entrance, leading you down a winding lane ending at the office and museum. You can actually see the Tuzigoot pueblo long before you arrive. If there’s a safe place to pull over, snap a picture of the skyline. I wish I had.
Spotting the pueblo atop its perch overlooking the valley and the river from the road is a neat little prologue of what’s to come. It can also inspire a bit of imaginative historical experience: picture yourself cresting a hill and seeing the structure (taller, and with roofs), perhaps as you come home from a day hunting and gathering in the valley or perhaps after trekking across the central/northern Arizona desert and forest as a nomad or an outsider.
To many, the pueblo served as a beacon on a hill that meant home, family, and protection. To others it meant uncertainty. To us, a day trip.
I have some Native American blood in me (Cherokee, I’m told), so Brooke jests every time we come to a Native American site that I’m “coming home.” While I don’t subscribe to any traditions or other connections to this part of my heritage (or any part, for that matter), I couldn’t shake the feeling of life in this place.
For 400 years (roughly 1000-1400 AD) Sinagua people occupied these rooms, numbering over 100 (rooms, that is). From the volunteer park ranger, a retired cowboy of local upbringing, we learned how the rooms served as a family’s comprehensive living space, terraced into the hill under wooden roofs, accessed by ladders.
Interestingly, the ranger informed us, dwellers essentially walked right on top of the roofs of their neighbors to access their own quarters.
We also noticed the varying height/depth of the unearthed pueblo. According to the ranger, average heights of the dwellers was closer to five feet than six, with men coming in around 5’5” and women a bit shorter. With this frame in mind, the dwellings can be understood in a more relative size.
Learning more about the demographics of these historical dwellers puts the whole complex into a much clearer perspective. For instance, most individuals of Tuzigoot only lived to their early twenties. Down the hill, a “senior community” housed those who managed to survive into their 30s and 40s. No mention was made beyond the fourth decade; these folk never even lived to see a senior discount. The downhill location made it easier for this elite group to bring up water to their dwellings from the river.
Today, access to the top-most room is made possible via concrete stairs respectfully integrated into the pueblo. Before ascending to the top floor, visitors walk through the room below. According to the ranger, children of the tribe who met an early fate were buried under the floor for spiritual purposes. Why the parks service chose to route tourists through this quarter specifically is unclear (and a bit creepy).
The National Park Service did a great job building paths to lead in and around the dwellings (the downhill structures cannot be accessed), allowing for what is essentially a 360-degree view of the place. Most of the rooms are not for modern footsteps, but there are opportunities to step right into the dwelling, right into the past.
Peering over the stone walls delivers an eerily timeless panorama. Save for the mining operations and the towns they spawned, the historic lay of the land is preserved well enough to envision acres upon acres of lush vegetation fed by the river, harvested by the Sinagua.
Tuzigoot can be enjoyed in full in less than an hour, but you could easily spend more time at the monument learning the history, chatting up the incredibly knowledgeable ranger, or just enjoying the views and the thousand year old structure. We didn’t check out the museum in the office; after conversing with the ranger, it seemed unnecessary (and we typically skip them anyways).
On your way out, look for signs marking the lane to the river. A quick jaunt down a lightly wooded trail brings you to a peacefully trickling river; a bit father down and the river widens, but this spot is better for fishermen than those seeking a bit of aquatic therapy.
A tip: Those who devote their time to these parks do so because they love to. Ask them for suggestions on what to see in the area, and they always deliver. The ranger at Tuzigoot suggested Montezuma Castle (which we visited a month prior), Montezuma Well (about 40 minutes away), and the town of Jerome, a mere five minutes drive.
Images taken by the author.