Sedona suffers from what can only be called an embarrassment of riches. With numerous recreational opportunities, luxurious spas, fine dining and vibrant art galleries – all set amid startling beauty – it’s easy to forget about the dramatic history of the area.
On your next visit, walk in the footsteps of the ones who came before. Take time to explore the ancient North American cultures that once called Sedona home. They were drawn to the region for many of the same reasons as people today – year-round water, lush vegetation and abundant wildlife.
Palatki and Honanki Heritage Sites
Just outside of town, nestled against soaring magenta cliffs, the ancient ruins of the Sinagua are found at the Palatki and Honanki Heritage Sites. The Sinagua were an ancestral Pueblo people who flourished in central Arizona from about AD 600 to 1425. They left behind tantalizing evidence about their culture throughout the Verde Valley in the form of rock art, artifacts and ancient ruins.
Tucked into red rock canyons, Palatki (Hopi for “red house”) consists of two sites. One trail leads to the weathered two-story cliff dwelling. A second trail leads to alcoves sheltering a remarkable display of pictographs, or painted symbols, adorning the rocks. While most drawings are the work of the Sinagua, others date back to the Archaic period (3,000–8,000 years ago). Site stewards are on hand to explain what life was like for these prehistoric people.
Nearby, Honanki contains a more extensive set of ruins than Palatki, representing one of the largest ancient population centers in the Verde Valley. The site originally contained more than 60 ground-floor rooms. The Sinagua lived at Honanki (Hopi for “bear house”) from AD 1100 to 1300. It was occupied in more recent times by the Yavapai and Apache tribes.
The Sinagua made the most of the region’s abundant resources by hunting large animals and gathering wild plants. They eventually turned to farming, utilizing a variety of methods depending on the location. Early Sinagua sites consist of pithouses, but they later built stone pueblo structures like Palatki and Honanki. The most famous of these in the Verde Valley is Montezuma Castle.
First, there are a couple of things you should know about Montezuma Castle. It’s not, and he didn’t. It’s not really a castle, and Montezuma didn’t build it. The imposing five-story cliff dwelling rising above the Beaver Creek floodplain was built by the Sinagua people more than 600 years ago. The first Euro-American explorers to discover the structure presumed it to be Aztec in origin, hence the name. It was abandoned a century before the Aztec emperor Montezuma was born.
Built into a high limestone balcony, the 20-room Montezuma Castle is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the United States. It was inhabited from approximately AD 1100 to 1425, with occupation peaking around 1300. The Sinagua farmed the rich floodplain nearby. The castle is a remarkable piece of architecture. A thick roof of wooden beams mixed with clay and grasses often served as the floor of upper rooms. A series of ladders could be pulled in for the night.
Sometime around 1425, the Sinagua abandoned the area, leaving this and other large villages deserted. Reasons for their departure remain a mystery, but warfare, drought and disease are a few of the theories suggested. It is believed many Sinagua families moved north, joining other ancestral Puebloan groups at the Hopi Mesas.
Today, visitors to Montezuma Castle can savor a tranquil desert oasis radiant with history. A paved trail meanders beneath the shade of graceful sycamore trees and leads to scenic viewpoints of the towering cliff house. Along the way, informational signs fill in the ecological and cultural details.
V-Bar-V Heritage Site
Not far from Montezuma Castle, along the same Beaver Creek corridor, sits the largest-known petroglyph site in the Verde Valley. Petroglyphs are symbols etched into stone walls. V-Bar-V Heritage Site protects a staggering array of rock art created by the Sinagua circa AD 900 to 1300. Archeologists believe the panels of chiseled symbols function as a solar calendar. No surprise since successful farming, especially in arid climates, depends on knowing when to plant crops.
Bridging the Past with Today
Because the Verde Valley forms a transition zone between warm deserts and pine-clad forests, it has always provided a migration corridor for people and animals traveling between summer and winter. This geographic catbird seat made Sedona a natural trading route. That’s also true today. Several galleries in town specialize in American Indian art.
Visitors will find authentic handcrafted work from all the tribes in the region. Beautiful jewelry, pottery, baskets, Navajo rugs, Zuni fetishes and Hopi Katsina dolls are on display.
Katsina dolls are representations of various spirit messengers of the universe. The dolls are carved from the root of a cottonwood tree and painted or dyed. They’ve grown more elaborate and detailed over the years as they’ve become prized by non-Hopi collectors.
Not just stunning works of art, the American Indian goods showcase long-standing traditions and customs. They provide a link to the past, which, in Sedona, doesn’t seem so long ago at all.
(Brought to you by the Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau and contributor Roger Naylor, (928) 282-7722, www.VisitSedona.com.)