Madness! Madness, I tell you!
“Madness! Madness, I tell you!” This is the refrain that kept repeating in my head as I scrambled up narrow, rocky Devil’s Chasm in search of a 700 year old cliff dwelling village site in Sierra Ancha Wilderness, Arizona. I crawled under boulders, climbed over slick waterfalls, gripped vines to scale the nearly vertical canyon wall, and all the while thought, “This can’t be right. This can’t be the way home for anyone. This can’t be the path they took to carry logs to build their village or trade goods to and from the valley. Who would live here and why?”
The “why” of the matter is what I was there to understand. We’ve all seen pictures of primitive and exotic cliff dwellings of the American southwest and heard explanations about the reason for their use and abandonment that range from access to water to defense. In my previous post Why Pueblos & Cliff Dwellings I touch on the causes for population influx to this region of Arizona that lead to overcrowding and a need to find defensible homes.
To tell the truth, I’ve always kind of poo-pooed the theory that cliff dwellings were built for defense. I felt that it was a pessimistic view of an unknown culture that was postulated by men who sit around their basements painting figurines of soldiers and thinking everything in world history has to do with war. But after climbing up this canyon, I can’t imagine any other reason a community would build a home here and I felt that way even more strongly after I finally emerged from the brush, arms covered with scrapes and hair full of leaves, and got my first glimpse of the beautiful fortified village on a cliff in Devil’s Chasm.
The complex is a stone castle nestled on a ledge under an overhang on the cliff. It perfectly follows the contour of the ledge, even to the extent that a central room has a rounded contour, like a turret, that matches the contour of the landscape. It is a truly graceful and imposing architectural triumph in this wilderness.
The building also takes up almost every square foot of flat land along the length of this canyon. It is built on the only shelf available for such a construction and uses all of it. A sheer rocky cliff extends above it, below it and to either side of it. It begs so many questions about how the inhabitants used their living space. How did the elderly and infirm every leave the compound? Where would small children play? The thought even crossed my mind that people might have been sent to live here as a punishment. Maybe criminals or outcasts or members of some unsavory cult found a little enclave where they would not, could not, be bothered, nor could anyone escape. Sitting on a narrow cliff band just outside the door of the pueblo contemplating the terrain, I must say that the mind reels.
“Inaccessible” and “defensible” are truly the two words that can be used to describe this choice of a place to live. They should put a picture of this cliff dwelling under those words in the dictionary. One approaches the compound by scrambling up a steep wash under a towering cliff face that is black with desert varnish.
The ruin appears to have had three floors (possibly the top floor was open air rooftop space) and five modules of rooms. The building is on such a narrow shelf that it is built as one long shotgun house. You enter through the west/upcanyon side and to exit the east side you must pass through all of the ground floor rooms.
All rooms are totally enclosed and would have been very dark except for tiny 8×4 inch (approx.) peep holes in some of the rooms. I think these windows must have been necessary for ventilation, especially if they were burning fires in these close quarters.
A rounded portion of the building, that I like to call “the turret”, doesn’t have a peep hole and it is also the largest section of the building because of the curvature. It is an interior module, the second one you pass through when moving through this shotgun building. It has fire stains in two corners.
Only this room and the one next to it in the 3rd module have fire stains in the corner and those fire stains are only on the ground floor. Maybe in other rooms the fire was in the middle? There are lots of smoke stains on the underside of all remaining interior wood beams. This must have been a very smoky place to hang out. *cough cough*
The shelf that this is built on has a down-canyon slope so not all rooms are on the same level. There’s about a one foot drop from room to room on the ground floor and sometimes on the upper floor as well, but the floor is reasonably level within each room meaning that the floors were leveled before the walls were put up. Tremendous effort would have had to go into building this imposing edifice in such a place. There must have been a tremendous sense of community or a strong motivating factor that fueled this construction. The inhabitants would have had to have that sense of community to live here too. These are very close quarters. There is no external escape. If you were not working hard in the canyon gathering food, you’d be in or on top of this one small building with your cohabitants all the live long day.
There are four broken metates (grinding stones) still in the building.
My favorite room is a smaller one with the fire stains next to the turret. It is warm and cozy. It feels like people were comfortable here. This is where I chose to curl up and eat my lunch and try imagine myself living here.
Where did they get water to make the mortar and for that matter from where did they gather water for daily use? This is a mystery that seems like it might be a little easier to solve. I believe that this pueblo used to share this shelf on the cliff with a reliable seep. It looks like water seeped from the rock behind part of the building and along the cliff to the west. I say this because that portion of cliff is covered with black desert varnish that spills to a steep wash that leads to the main canyon. Also, the desert varnish stain stops just at the edge of where the building construction begins. In fact, the two overlap by about 10 feet, but in that space the building stands away from the cliff by a few feet, not using the cliff wall as the rear wall of the room. The rest of the building does use the cliff as a rear wall. I can imagine that at one time there had been a water catchment at the base of the seep to collect water for daily use. The seep is dry now, but the black desert varnish stain and the greenery that grows at its base are the clues.
Also, water still reliably runs deep in Devil’s Chasm, but it disappears underground in the upper parts of the chasm, emerging again halfway down and spills out into Cherry Creek. Since there is abundant water, the canyon is rich with food. I saw canyon grapes, prickly pear fruit, and nut bearing trees. I’m sure many of the canyon plants are edible, but I lack the expertise to identify a lot of them.
Unlike other cliff dwellings I saw on this trip, none of the rooms at Devil’s Chasm had separate storage compartments. That fact, combined with how tremendously difficult it is to reach the facility made me wonder if perhaps this was not so much a village site as a remote, secret food storage facility. Perhaps instead of all rooms being living space with a ancillary storage compartments at the back, whole rooms were used for storage space and only a few inhabitants lived here full time to protect the goods. It is possible that there was cooperation between this site and a farm down in Cherry Creek Canyon. In addition to storing wild food gathered from Devil’s Chasm, perhaps agricultural goods like corn and beans harvested from a Cherry Creek farm may have been hauled up this canyon to be hidden away from marauders.
On my return back down the canyon I tried a different route. Whereas on the way up I had mostly stayed in the canyon bottom climbing up the waterfalls, on the way down I tried to stay high above the creek on the sandier south slope. This was much easier although there was still hand over foot climbing and several waterfalls involved. Trying this alternative route I may slightly modify my opinion that it is sheer madness to make a home in this narrow chasm, but still it is no easy baby. At least I can see that there is a route that doesn’t involve constant rock climbing.
Like the sherpa of Nepal who are acclimated to effortlessly carrying excessive burdens over mountains at airless altitudes, so too the canyon people (the Ancha, the Salado, whatever name you want to give them) of the Sierra Ancha must have been conditioned to their environment. Perhaps the traverse up this canyon was nothing to a sleek athletic race who were accustomed to a life of labor out of doors, but it took a doughy tourist like me all day to experience Devil’s Chasm. I rested often and enjoyed the view. And what a view!
Day Two: Cooper Forks Cliff Dwellings and Pueblos
I didn’t see another soul the day I explored Devil’s Chasm and wouldn’t for two more days until I left the wilderness on a Saturday. Well that’s not exactly accurate. I didn’t see another live person, but I may have seen a soul. I was there midweek and I honestly believe I was the only human in the Eastern Sierra Ancha Wilderness the whole time I was there. On the morning of the second day I had a visitation. It was someone I recognized and he had an important message for me then he sent me off to Cooper Forks Canyon to think about it.
Please “Follow” my blog to receive notice when the Cooper Forks story and photos are posted. I promise you will be glad you did.
A word to the wise.
Public land is a wonderful place to explore archaeological sites that exist fairly nearly in a natural state of decay. Prior to the American Antiquities act there was unbridaled looting archaeological sites and many artifacts were stolen and marred by greedy visitors. Now they tend to stay in pretty good shape as long as people who visit are respectful. “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.” The United States Department of Agriculture posts a sign somewhere near the access to all known archaeological sites in Arizona. It reads:
Ancient ruins, artifacts, fossils, and historical remnants in the vicinity of this notice are fragile and irreplaceable. The Antiquities Act of 1906 protects them for the benefit of all Americans.
Enjoy but do not destroy your American Heritage
Any person who, without official permission, injures, destroys, excavates or appropriates any historic or prehistoric ruin, artifact, or object of antiquity
on the lands of the United States is subject to arrest and penalty of law.
Permits to excavate or remove artifacts can be issued only to recognized educational and scientific institutions.
The fine for damaging an archaeological site is at least $250,000 and possessing an artifact stolen from an archaeological site is a felony.
That said, hike and ENJOY!
I’m really enjoying this series. I’d love to be able to expand the photos. I’m using WordPress for my blog also and have found a way to make this happen. I upload my photos to google plus then insert as hyperlink. There is an option during the insert setting to link to image. Anyway wanted to give you that tip.
Thank you so much. I actually didnt know that the images were’t either big enough or expanding. I’ll have to make sure to click that option in the future. If I get time this weekend I’ll go through and make that adjustment to this series. Thanks for the notes.
Just read your most recent post and photos were accessible and I could expand on my phone. Great photos and story. So interesting. Thank you for your time researching and sharing.
I am really appreciating your insights! I am planning a trip in early June with my 2 sons (10 & 11) and we are looking forward to exploring AZ and southern UT. We would love to visit these ruins. They are both strong hikers with experience backpacking from a young age, however, we have never been to this part of the country. Do you think this hike is doable for kids their age? Also, I hear rumor that there are an exceptional amount of rattlesnakes in Devil’s Chasm. Was that your experience? What time of year did you go? Thanks so much!
I didnt experience rattlesnakes but I went in late Fall. I think the kids could do the hiking but the very tricky part about this region is navigation. I cannot over emphasize how non-traillike a lot of it can be if you dont navigate it exactly right. Especially Coopers Canyon, thats just nothing but difficult terrain from start to finish. Pueblo Canyon was the easiest because there had been a fire, so the trail was accessible, very little bushwhacking. Devil’s Canyon was a lot of fun. They all were. Each canyon took me a whole day to travel out and back, taking time to explore and photograph, of course. Have a blast!
Its easy to take wrong forks in the canyons and terrain includes steep hillsides with loose, poor footing with cacti all around to catch you, lots of catsclaw bushes, dry waterfalls, boulder fields, heat, mud, water, narrow ledges… These canyons are more than just hiking. Remove the idea of trails from your mind. To prepare properly imagine endless obstacles and bushwhacking.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. We are so excited to visit this area of the country (we will also be venturing up into southern Utah!). I still feel on the fence about this particular hike, and may wait and see how we feel after we’ve been in the region for a few days and have acclimated to the environment/terrain a bit. No matter what we decide for this particular trip, this hike will stay on my bucket list. With so many magical places, I’m sure we will be coming back for more adventures!
Did you and your children end up following through with the hike? I was hoping to camp along Cherry creek and possibly do this hike this summer but I am worried about the rattlesnakes…
Any insight would be terrific.
Loved reading your description; thank you! We sat for 20 minutes or so outside the ruin, below the dark cliff face, to give a group ahead of us time to be in the space alone—all of us felt periodic drops of water on our heads from the overhang. Was the picture of the grapes actually from Devil’s Chasm? Those are booming; they are just buds this time of year.
The Devils chasm ruin was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. The curvature of it made me gasp. Yes those grapes are from that canyon. ❤️