Have you been following along our Arizona national park road trip? Next stop, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge, Arizona. Park #73 on our quest to visit the 400+ units in the National Park Service!
Like many of the sites we visited on this trip, we didn’t know a lot before we arrived. The day pretty much follows our typical park visit: Climb out of the car, spend some time talking to a ranger, look at the map, and decide what to explore.
Here’s our report:
It’s an easy drive from Phoenix and Tucson.
We added our #parkchasing visit to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument on the first day of our Arizona road trip. Traveling south from Phoenix about an hour (51 miles), the monument was just a few miles off Interstate 10. Casa Grande Ruins can also be reached from downtown Tucson in about an hour as well (67 miles) by driving north on Interstate 10.
Our point here: unlike some of the other national monuments we’ve visited, it’s pretty easy to add a stop at Casa Grande Ruins to just about any visit to central Arizona.
What did we see there?
Up to this point in our #parkchasing trips, we had only been to sites with
Casa Grande Ruins protects what remains of a large, four-story, 60-foot long structure. It’s believed to have been the home of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert in the early 13th century. While archeologists aren’t entirely sure why Casa Grande Ruins was built, it was home to a large community of farmers and hunter-gatherers until it was abandoned around 1450. Visitors today can walk through a museum of artifacts collected from the site before viewing the ruins. They stand just a few hundred yards from the visitor’s center.
Farming in the Desert
Most surprising to thing to Greg–who spends his working days in the agriculture industry–was how the Hohokam used the waters of the Gila River for irrigation agriculture in the desert. The area around the monument is now one of the largest cotton-growing communities in the United States. Our first chance to see the white puffy stuff growing in person!
National Park Service Connections
The most surprising thing to me was how connected Casa Grande was to other NPS sites in the area. Sometimes when we visit parks, the sites don’t always tell a very connected story–even if the Native American communities once had close ties.
However as we continued through the #parkchasing week, we’d discover how closely connected the Hohokam’s trade routes were with the other villages now protected by the National Monuments. Hohokam Pima, Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki all showed their connections back to Casa Grande, the first site we visited.
What’s with the canopy over the ruins?
When we first spotted the ruins, we questioned the giant steel and concrete canopy. I remember asking Greg as we approached the ruins,
‘Is that really necessary?’
Necessary or not, the canopy also tells an integral part of the story of many of the desert Southwest archeological sites. Throughout the early pioneering days, places like Casa Grande were devastated looters, tourists, and curious Euro-American settlers. So much damage was done to Casa Grande, that President Benjamin Harrison declared it the first prehistoric and cultural reserve in the United States in 1892. Get close and you can still see names and initials carved into the walls of the structure before it was protected.
Casa Grande Ruins was then re-designated a national monument by President Woodrow Wilson on August 3, 1918. Shortly after in 1932, the park service constructed the canopy in efforts to further protect the walls and floors from the elements. It’s a pretty dramatic step to take and reminded us of the structure built at Florrisant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado if you’ve traveled there as well.
Today the National Park Service holds different philosophies about protection and preservation. You probably wouldn’t find anything like the canopy constructed now. But as Casa Grande Ruins enters its second century under federal protection, it acknowledges how far we’ve come in learning about how to preserve our history.
No, you can’t go inside.
A few friends and family asked us if we’re able to tour inside Casa Grande Ruins. Not so much. In an effort to prevent further damage to the walls and floors, all the NPS sites we visited in Arizona were closed to entry.
You can approach the exterior of Casa Grande and look into many of the rooms. Not being able to enter the structure didn’t impact our visit though. You still get a sense of how impressive the structure is and the labor it must have taken to construct without our modern building conveniences.
Other things to know about Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
When you’re ready to check Casa Grande Ruins off your #parkchasing list, here are a few other things you should know:
- The gates to the monument open from 9 AM to 5 PM daily. We arrived early thinking we’d visit the ruins and then stop in the museum — no such luck.
- There’s no fee to enter the monument.
- Don’t get caught off guard by hiking in the Arizona heat. The area around the ruins exposes you entirely to the sun and desert. Prep your visit with water, a hat, and sunscreen.
- For anyone interested in a visit to Hohokam Pima National Monument (the one national park you can’t technically visit), we think Casa Grande Ruins should be a close comparison. Experts believe the desert lifestyle of the two villages showed similarities. The museum at Casa Grande Ruins also contains artifacts from the excavation of Snaketown, the site at Hohokam Pima.