What to our eyes might seem an arid and windswept landscape was home for centuries to the pre-historic Ancestral Puebloans (once called). They built communities, farmed, hunted, created beautiful baskets and pottery and etched petroglyphs into sandstone walls. Their roots go back to 500 B.C. and beyond.

By A.D. 500, these desert dwellers began settling into pueblo structures and digging irrigation canals. The golden age of pueblo building was around A.D. 900–1100. By the Spanish Conquest in 1540, the people dispersed, leaving tantalizing hints of their civilization.

We are awestruck by the engineering feats and stone-cutting skills that enabled these people to build complex settlements in natural stone alcoves and on mesa tops. Their haunting structures captivate us still. Archaeologists have unearthed some knowledge of the pueblos, but there is much still to learn. Other peoples, such as the Hohokam, also left behind significant structures.

Where available, guided tours offer the best insights into to the Ancestral Puebloans’ and other ancient peoples’ cultures. The rest of their story is left to our own imaginations.

Stand High Above a 26-Mile Labyrinth

Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle in northeastern Arizona presents unforgettable scenic as well as cultural aspects. Jointly administered by the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service, it is one of North America's longest continuously inhabited landscapes. People still live in the 26-mile labyrinth below cliffs that soar as high as 1,000 feet. Of the 700 standing ruins, only 13 have been protected from further degradation. Local guides navigate jeeps and 12-passenger Mercedes Benz Unimogs along the lush canyon floor to the best sites.

Navajo National Monument, west of Kayenta, preserves three of Arizona’s most intact cliff dwellings. To get to them, you must go with a ranger. Guided tours are offered in summer on an easy, paved trail that leads to Betatakin and on a more strenuous course to distant Keet Seel. The third site, Inscription House, is not currently accessible to the public.

See Sunset Crater’s Volcanic Past

Wupatki National Monument, between Flagstaff and Cameron, boasts seven significant pueblos, one with about 100 rooms. Other features are an identifiable community meeting room and Arizona’s northernmost ball court. The 11th-century eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano initially caused the people to flee, but later improved soil conditions. The pueblos you can see now were built after the eruption.

At Walnut Canyon National Monument, just east of Flagstaff, the half-mile Island Trail passes close to 25 cliff dwellers’ rooms. The shorter Rim Trail at the mesa top offers dramatic canyon views. At Homolovi Ruins State Park, just northeast of Winslow, two large, late 14th-century pueblos are open to the public.

The Salado people inhabited the well-preserved cliff dwellings of the Tonto National Monument, in the Sonoran Desert east of Phoenix, between about A.D. 1150-1450. The site became a national monument in 1907, one of the first protected under the 1906 Federal Antiquities Act. The monument will celebrate its centennial on Dec. 19, 2007.

View Hilltop Pueblos and Preserved Cliff Dwellings

Tuzigoot National Monument, southwest of Sedona, is a 110-room hilltop pueblo begun around 1,000 A.D. Nearby Montezuma Castle National Monument, considered one of Arizona’s best-preserved cliff dwellings, was built by a group connected to the Hohokam people of Southern Arizona. At Casa Grande National Monument, between Phoenix and Tucson, see the Hohokam’s towering structure, built perhaps for ceremonies or as an astronomical observatory – or as something else entirely.

(Updated by the Arizona Office of Tourism - 2009)