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WEEKEND ESCAPE

Arizona's Apache Trail yields a cache of ruins

A mother and daughter brave a treacherous mountain road to join a ranger-led trek to ancient cliff dwellings.

March 21, 2004|Patricia Connell | Times Staff Writer

Globe, Ariz. — The $29 airfare from Burbank to Phoenix was my cue. I had recently read about the centuries-old cliff dwellings in Arizona's Tonto National Monument; the upper, larger dwelling, the article said, is accessible only on ranger-led tours November to April. This was my chance. It was also an opportunity to spend an uninterrupted few days with my daughter Elena, 15, doing mom-and-kid stuff.

I snagged a Priceline rate of $14 a day for a rental car and reserved places on a tour for the first weekend in March.

At the Phoenix airport Hertz counter, Elena's innocent request for a car with a CD player catapulted us from a subcompact to an 18-foot Ford F-150 truck at no extra charge. As the trip unfolded, I wasn't sorry to be surrounded by all that metal.

We headed east on U.S. 60 to Apache Junction, where we picked up Arizona Route 88 -- the 78-mile mountain road known as the Apache Trail -- and started rising from rolling desert into the spectacularly precipitous Superstition Mountains. Sixteen miles out we passed Canyon Lake, one of a chain formed by the damming of the Salt River, and a couple of miles later we cruised through Tortilla Flat, a former stagecoach stop and now a shamelessly kitschy tourist magnet -- to which we would return.

Past Tortilla Flat, the twisting, up-and-down route became more breathtaking and challenging. A notorious 22-mile stretch is unpaved and just a lane and a half wide, and although the AAA guide calls it "well maintained," there were sections of punishing ruts and washboard that made the truck rattle so thunderously I expected the doors to fly open. We hugged a sheer rock wall; westbound travelers were inches from an equally sheer plunge of hundreds of feet, and several times we had to squeeze past approaching cars in a dicey do-si-do. Riveted by the mountain panoramas and the demands of the drive, Elena and I agreed that we'd sneer at roller coasters forevermore

The pavement resumed at 356-foot-high Roosevelt Dam, dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt. At the visitor overlook is a plaque with a quote from TR: "The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have. To me, it is the most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful panorama nature has ever created." Amen -- though he doubtless had a driver.

After 30 more miles on easy highway, we reached the old mining town of Globe, where I had reserved two nights at Days Inn (though, on visiting them, I wished we had stayed at one of two exceptional B&Bs -- Noftsger Hill Inn, www.noftsgerhillinn.com, or Delvan's Drawing Room, www.miamiAZ.org/bed, in neighboring Miami). Night fell, and the full moon that rose over the desert awed even my jaded 15-year-old.

The next morning we retraced most of the trip's last leg to Tonto National Monument. From about 1150 to 1450, the prehistoric Salado people farmed here in the Salt River Valley. By the early 1300s, possibly for protection or because of swelling population (which may have reached 15,000), some had migrated to natural caves in the cliffs hundreds of feet above, where they built apartments of rock cemented with mud. The monument shelters the ruins of two of these complexes, a lower cliff dwelling of 16 rooms -- open to all -- and the upper dwelling of more than 30 rooms.

Sixteen of us joined ranger Jan Harper for the 1 1/2-mile hike 600 feet up to the larger dwelling. Along the way she identified plants and pointed out how the Salado used them. Yucca-fiber sandals are the monument's "most prolific artifact," she said, because every climb up the trail would have worn out a pair.

The upper ruin was a wonderfully evocative place, an aerie with stunning views over the broad valley and surrounding mountains. Ironically, what now dominates the valley view is the lake formed by Roosevelt's namesake dam, which destroyed 700-year-old Salado irrigation canals, yet Roosevelt created Tonto National Monument in 1907 to protect the cliff dwellings. Before the elements took their toll, the cliff homes had one, two and perhaps three stories, connected by ladders reaching through openings in the ceiling. Ancient handprints are still visible in the mud plaster.

We gathered in a room at the corner of the complex, which, because it was more exposed and therefore less desirable, was abandoned and used as a midden, or trash dump. Here archeologists have excavated worn-out yucca sandals, broken mortars, 9,000 potsherds, and hundreds of corncobs and clumps of agave fiber, which the Salado used as chewing "gum." Some still litter the site.

The midden also yielded two bodies, one of a woman with a badly set broken leg. She was probably unable to make the trek down the mountain, Harper said, and would have spent her life confined to this 70-foot-square niche in a cliff wall. The image was haunting.

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