Exploring Arizona’s Ancient Native Dwellings

Montezuma Castle

I squint my eyes, trying to blur out the gaps in the mud walls and the crumbling walkway below it. What was it like to live here? Did the landscape look the same a thousand years ago? I try to imagine animals and kids running around under the canopy of desert sky. In my mind, I can hear the sound of a mano and metate grinding out corn and the click of a weaver’s shuttle. For a moment, I’m transported back to a time before memory.

Check top-ten lists of Arizona’s best destinations, and you’re not likely to see any ancient ruins on the list. However, these lesser-known sites are some of the most fascinating and significant locations in the state!

Why Visit Ancient Pueblo Ruins?

With the Grand Canyon, water parks, and the upbeat pulse of downtown Phoenix, why would anyone want to strike out on the road less traveled just to see some broken-down old homes?

The history lovers and wanderers among us know why. It’s out in the desert, where the landscape stretches to a ripple of violet mountains at the horizon, that you can capture the true spirit of the Southwest.

In fact, you’ll never get a complete look at Arizona until you drive down the lonely roads that lead to these pueblos. Some have impressive visitors centers loaded with information and experts in archeology, while others require a long, contemplative trek into the wilderness.

Wupatki Ruins

Must-See Ruins in Arizona

There are a lot of ruins in Arizona. Although I’ve barely started to explore the thousands of dwellings hiding in remote places, I did spend two decades in the state and see dozens of pueblos. Here are some of my favorite pueblos so far:

  • Tuzigoot National Monument is located near the “ghost town” Jerome. This has a great visitor’s center with bimonthly presentations! The pueblo is partially rebuilt, so you can walk inside and get a valley panorama from the roof.
  • Palatki National Monument is overshadowed by Sedona, Arizona. And I mean that quite literally! This hardly-known settlement is built into an imposing cliff face of the Red Rock area’s signature auburn stone. Be sure to book a tour in advance here so you can see the petroglyphs and dwellings!
  • Montezuma Castle. Although this cliff dwelling has nothing to do with the famed South American ruler Montezuma, it is a fantastic place to see. It looks exactly like a Southwestern-style castle cut high into a cliff face!
  • Montezuma’s Well. Visit this quiet attraction, and you’ll be startled by a gaping hole in the middle of the high desert brush. The massive hole is filled with black water and lined with small cliff dwellings, plus the ancient canal they used to survive.
  • Wupatki National Monument. There are actually several pueblos here, and I dragged my patient husband through every one of them! From views of the Painted Desert to tiny canyon communities, there’s a lot to see here. The main pueblo has a visitor’s center. Here, you can also see the fascinating natural “air conditioning” that rushes up through a hole in the earth during summer!
  • Elden Pueblo. You might say this is the most ancient neighborhood in Flagstaff. I watched excavation in action and stopped to chat with an archeologist as I walked through the self-guided tour of Elden Pueblo. Stop by soon, and you might get just as lucky!

If you’re headed to Arizona, don’t just see the flashy and touristy attractions. There’s much more to the State than Phoenix’s streets and the Colorado River! Take some time to slow down, drive along a long stretch of highway, and discover the ancient.

About the Author

Breana Johnson photo

Breana Johnson is an American expat living on the Caribbean Island of Sint Maarten. She surfs, snorkels, and spearfishes when she’s not tutoring local kids or writing. If she could have any job title in the world, it would be Professional Hummus Taste Tester. For now, she’s settling for freelance travel writer. You can catch up on Breana’s adventures at her blog, www.3rdCultureWife.com.

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