The Arizona desert can be ruthless and unrelenting, even for the resident rattlesnakes.
Temperatures over 110 degrees are common for several months of the year, homes are sparse, water is nearly nonexistent and air conditioning is a must.
So how did the ancient Sonoran Desert people create such a thriving complex of homes, fields and food in this area so long ago? It was the Gila River, now a dry bed, that fed the land around it. And the enterprising Sonorans, equipped with little more than rocks and sticks, who dug tributaries from the river to their fields.
Archeologists have discovered hundreds of miles of prehistoric irrigation canals in the Gila River Valley, as well as the Salt River Valley of Phoenix, the Santa Cruz River Valley in Tucson, and on the American Indian reservations of Southern Arizona.
They were known to grow vegetables on top of each other — a corn stalk in the middle, beans that wound up the corn stalk, and squash so the leaves could protect the ground around the plants.
For thousands of years, ancient peoples inhabited the land in central Arizona until dams dried up the river and most of the ancient Sonoran people moved away or died. Speculations as to the cause of their depopulation include drought, floods, disease, invasion, earthquakes, internal strife and salinization of farmland.
Today, little remains of their thriving culture. But visitors to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, a three-story adobe-like building made of “caliche” built around the 14th century, provides a few clues as to how the ancient Sonoran Desert people lived. Though now crumbling, it is complex and took a large group of people to build it, yet little is known about what it was used for.
Located between Phoenix and Tucson, Casa Grande (literally translated as “big house”) is run by the National Parks Service, who saved the structure from the ruin of tourists who simply wanted to carve their initials into the walls.
It looms large under a steel roof, a stunning architectural marvel built by bridge designers in the 1930s. Casa Grande has also been given some structural reinforcements around the base and to the walls. But its glory and intrigue remain intact, as a knowledgeable tour guide talks proudly about the ancient Sonoran Desert people and their way of life.
After you park, enter the monument’s visitor center, where you’ll wander through brief exhibits with explanations and artifacts about the ancient Sonoran Desert people. You’ll also get to meet an artist who replicates their pottery and other utilitarian tools.
Take the time to watch a short film about the area’s history, Casa Grande and the people who built it. Then step outside amongst saguaro cacti and walk among the ruins. There’s plenty of room to see not only Casa Grande itself, but many of the walls of the outer courtyard, worn down over hundreds of years.
Ponder on what happened inside these walls — where some have doors, while others required the use of a ladder to enter a room. How tall were the Sonorans? Where did they find building materials? And why do we find artistry in even the most basic tools and baskets?
Visiting Casa Grande allows visitors to step back in time and contemplate a group of people who were industrious, active and maybe even liked to play a game of “softball.” It’s humbling to walk the grounds of an ancient people working just as hard at life as we do. ☸
Casa Grande Ruins
National Monument, 1100 W. Ruins Dr., Coolidge, Arizona.
It’s open year-round, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May through September, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through April, which is the busiest season. Admission is free.