Casa Grande Ruins



Who were the ancient Sonoran Desert people? Archeological evidence suggests they may have descended from an earlier hunting and gathering “Archaic” culture that began in this area around 5,500 B.C.E. Over time, as the area grew hotter and drier, wild plants and animals became less abundant. Domesticated corn from Mesoamerica was introduced and appears to have influenced a gradual transition from hunting and gathering to a more settled farming existence. Adapting to the dry conditions of the desert, these early farmers learned to use water from mountain run-offs and rivers to irrigate their fields. By 300 C.E., these desert dwellers had formed a distinct culture, identified in part by their particular form of pottery called “red-on-buff.”

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Paul Coze painting
Ancient canal construction
The ancient Sonoran Desert people discovered that as their villages grew, farm land adjacent to the rivers was becoming scarce. To bring water to land farther away from the rivers, they began to dig canals around 400-500 C.E., a technique they continued to use for the next thousand years. 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.

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Illustration by R. Leer
A bountiful desert harvest
The crops grown by the ancient Sonoran Desert people eventually grew to include not only corn but several varieties of beans and squash, as well as cotton and tobacco. In addition to their crops, the Hohokam continued to make use of the many native plants and animals of the desert. These included cactus fruits, pads and buds, agave hearts (century plant), mesquite beans, and the medicinal creosote bush. The local game included birds, squirrels, rabbits, snakes and lizards, as well as fish and clams from the rivers and canals. Larger game such as mule deer and bighorn sheep could be hunted in the mountains.

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Illustration by Rebecca Leer
Hohokam Canals, Gila River Valley
Once the idea of irrigation farming took hold, it spread gradually throughout central and southern Arizona. From about 600 to 900 CE, more villages were established in the Salt and Gila river valleys. Hohokam colonists moved up the Verde River valley north of Phoenix, and up the Salt river valley east of Phoenix. They also moved downstream as far west as Gila Bend. Growth of new villages and canal systems also took place along the Santa Cruz river in the Tucson area.

Casa Grande Ruins collection, cat. no. 1054
Casa Grande Ruins collection, cat. no. 1054
NPS Photo
An ancient shell & turquoise necklace
As the ancient Sonoran Desert people expanded, their contacts with neighboring tribes greatly increased. Trade flourished, bringing material goods and ideas from far and near. They imported turquoise, pottery, pinyon nuts, obsidian (volcanic glass) and even sea shells from the Gulf of California and the Pacific Coast. From Mexico came copper bells, iron pyrite mirrors, and parrots. And what did these desert dwellers have to offer in exchange? Their farms produced surplus crops for export. They also traded their finely crafted shell jewelry and pottery. Casa Grande Ruins became a crossroads in the trade system. One major route, reconstructed by archeologists, went from northern Mexico into the Tucson area, and from there into the Gila River Valley.

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Casa Grande Ruins museum illustration
Hohokam Ball Court
The idea of a ball game played in an arena or court may have been imported from the Mesoamerican cultures. Archeologists have found over 200 oval-shaped, earthen-sided structures located in large Hohokam villages throughout southern and central Arizona. Some archeologists speculate that a game was played within these courts by two teams and a hard rubber ball. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument preserves a Hohokam ball court which can be viewed from a public observation platform.

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Casa Grande Ruins museum illustration
Pit House
Desert dwellings changed over time. The earliest types consisted of large oval pits dug several feet into the ground. A brush and pole framework covered the pit, and a layer of mud was applied to the outside. Appropriately, these structures are called “pit houses.” Though pit houses continued to be used, by the 1100's more permanent, above-ground structures began to be built. Using caliche, a natural concrete-like material found under the top soil throughout this region, they built houses with solid walls and flat, caliche-covered roofs.

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Frank Worth painting
Caliche house
The 1100’s also marked the beginning of several significant changes. The traditional burial practice of cremation was expanded to include full interment burials. Ball courts were gradually abandoned, and flat-topped, rectangular-shaped earthen structures called platform mounds were built. Villages became more formally organized. Caliche homes were grouped into caliche-walled compounds, and these compounds were arranged around public plazas and public structures. The Casa Grande was built within one of these compounds and today serves as the main visitation area for the public at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

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Frank Worth painting
Casa Grande village compound ca. 1400
The building of the Casa Grande was a major event of the Classic Period (1100 – 1450 C.E.). The best dating methods available indicate that this large, caliche structure was built during the 1300's. The construction appears to have been well planned and organized, requiring tons of material and a huge cooperative effort on the part of many people. Today we can only marvel at the Casa Grande and try to imagine what it was used for. Though many theories have been suggested, we still aren’t sure as to its purpose. All we can assume is that the Casa Grande must have been very important to the people who built it.

The Casa Grande as it appeared in the early 1890's before stabilization work began.
The Casa Grande as it appeared in the early 1890's before stabilization work began.
Cosmos Mindeleff
The Casa Grande circa 1890.
During the late 1300’s and early 1400’s, the ancient Sonoran Desert people suffered a period of widespread depopulation and abandonment. Speculations as to the cause have included drought, floods, disease, invasion, earthquakes, internal strife, and salinization of farmland. Today, several American Indian groups have ancestral links to the ancient people. Their cultural traditions, together with on-going archeology and the continued interest of visitors at Casa Grande Ruins, all combine to keep the legacy of the ancient Sonoran Desert people alive to this day.

Chiricahua




In the far southeastern corner of Arizona are the beautiful Chiricahua Mountains, one of several “sky island” mountain ranges surrounded by expansive desert grasslands. The Chiricahua Mountain Range is an inactive volcanic range twenty miles wide and forty miles long. It forms part of the Mexican Highland section of the Basin and Range Biogeographical Province and rises up dramatically from the valley floor to over nine thousand feet, cresting in a series of uneven, volcanic looking peaks. At the northern end of the range is an extraordinary area of striking geological features and enormous biodiversity. Tucked deep into these steep, forested valleys and beneath the craggy peaks are the remains of violent geological activity that continued for many millions of years—the pinnacles, columns, spires and balanced rocks of Chiricahua National Monument. The Apaches called this place 'The Land of Standing-Up Rocks', a fitting name for an extraordinary rock wonderland. Early pioneers in the late 1800s sensed the unique beauty and singularity of the rock formations in the area. They were instrumental in persuading Congress to protect this ‘Wonderland of Rocks’, so much so that in 1924 the Chiricahua National Monument was created.



There are approximately twelve thousand acres of wild, rugged terrain within which the rock formations and a great ecological diversity are protected. In 1976, Congress decided to further preserve the land, designating 87% of the monument as Wilderness. This precludes any development and human intervention, thus ensuring the preservation of the geological formations for future generations and the continuation of undisturbed space and habitat for the many unique plants and animals that are found in this special region. As well as the exceptional geological aspects of this park, the monument hosts a biological crossroads, a meeting-place of four different ecological regions. In the Chiricahua Mountains, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, and the Rocky Mountain and Sierra Madre ranges all meet. The convergence of these four biomes makes this area unusually rich in both floral and faunal biodiversity. Rocky Mountain representatives such as the Ponderosa pine and Engelmann spruce co-exist beside the Soap tree yucca from the Chihuahuan desert. Stately Arizona sycamore and various types of oak dot the well-watered canyons. Apache pine grows here at the most northern end of the Sierra Madre range. Chihuahua pine is found, as are Douglas and White fir, Arizona cypress, Cane cholla, Prickly pear and several species of ferns, mushrooms, and fungi. There are five major drainages within the monument, several with intermittent creeks that support a mixture of deciduous and evergreen woodlands. The heavily forested canyons provide habitat for numerous wildlife, including coatimundi, white-tailed deer, javalina, and many species of birds; over three hundred bird species are found in the Chiricahua Mountains, some of whom have migrated north from Mexico.



The Chiricahua Mountains are part of the Madrean Archipelago, a collection of forty neighboring mountain groups that lie between the Colorado Plateau and the Sierra Madre Occidental. It is so named because it resembles an oceanic archipelago - a sea dotted with islands - only here the sea is hot desert grassland. We call these isolated mountain ranges ‘sky islands’. The Chiricahuas are a perfect example of a sky island that formed during the Basin and Range faulting.

Mammels









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Coatis are members of the raccoon family, which also includes the ringtail "cat."  They all have long, striped tails.
Coatis are members of the raccoon family, which also includes the ringtail "cat." They all have long, striped tails.
M.L.Sipes
Coatimundi
Chiricahua National Monument is enveloped in the Coronado National Forest, creating a large block of relatively undeveloped land and containing a variety of habitat types. This provides enough space for large mammals, such as the black bear and mountain lion, to find the resources they need in order to survive. The forests and grasslands also provide food and shelter for both the white-tailed and mule deer. Many smaller mammals also occur within the Monument. Several species, such as the coatimundi and the Chiricahua (Mexican) fox squirrel, have limited range in the United States, but are a fairly common sight at the Monument. There are also mice, rats (including kangaroo rats), skunks, ringtail cats, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, javalina (peccaries) and bats. In fact, there are 16 species of bats in the Chiricahua mountains, including several nectar bats, which feed on the pollen and nectar of flowering plants in much the same way as the hummingbirds do!

The Chiricahua mountains were also historically the home of the jaguar, north Americas largest cat. Although rarely seen since the 1940's, the jaguar is listed as an endangered species in the United States, and occassionally they are seen wandering north of the Mexican border. The ocelot and the jaguarundi are two smaller cats that have also been documented historically in the Chiricahua mountains. As with the jaguar, both of these cats are listed as endangered species, and are rarely seen. Often killed for their skins or to protect livestock and poultry, these animals are now being managed in order to try and increase their numbers and recover dwindling populations. Because cats are secretive and solitary, it is difficult to monitor their progress, but it is important to retain any remaining habitat, so that if their populations do come back, they will have somewhere to go. We are hopeful that these animals will someday be more common at the Monument, as predators play an important part in a healthy ecosystem.
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Insects, Spiders, Centipedes, Millipedes






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The western Hercules beetle is an amazing creature, found only in Arizona.  Males commonly grow up to 70mm (2.75 inches) in length, making them one of the largest beetles in the U.S.  Males have a large horn, females are hornless.
The western Hercules beetle is an amazing creature, found only in Arizona. Males commonly grow up to 70mm (2.75 inches) in length, making them one of the largest beetles in the U.S. Males have a large horn, females are hornless.
M.L.Sipes - NPS
Western Hercules beetle (Dynastes granti)
Insect life is abundant at Chiricahua National Monument. Often overlooked, they can be found just about everywhere in the monument - on the rocks, on the trees, in the leaf litter underfoot, as well as flying in the air. Butterflies, moths and grasshoppers are abundant during the summer and fall months, as well as numerous kinds of ants, spiders, beetles and other insect life. Because of the relatively mild climate and the summer monsoon moisture, insects thrive here, utilizing the long growing season to harvest pollen from flowering plants and feeding on green plant material. Aquatic insects are also abundant in the springs and rock pools. Insects provide food for many other animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. They are also important pollinators for most of the flowering plants. It is unknown how many different species of insects, spiders and other invertebrates occur in the Monument, but we do know that they play an important role in the ecosystem.

The insect pictured is a western Hercules beetle - one of North America's largest! They live in the leaf litter and rotting vegetation on the forest floor. The males have a large horn that protrudes forward, and is sometimes used to spar with other males as a test of strength. Female Hercules beeltles don't have a horn. Each individual has a different arrangement of spots on the back.

Reptiles






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Birds

Chiricahua National Monument is home to a wide variety of birds. This part of Arizona is famous for its avian diversity, and several borderland sites, including Chiricahua National Monument, have been identified as "Important Bird Areas" by the American Bird Conservancy. These areas are home to federally listed Threatened and Endangered species, species with restricted ranges, and large numbers of migratory birds. As birds fly north or south on their yearly migrations to Mexico, central- and south America, they are "funneled" through parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Many migrants stop for brief periods along the way, and others come to stay for the summer or winter months, so there are always interesting birds to search for.



Our diverse habitats and southern location bring a variety of Mexican species across the border - such as the Elegant Trogon and the magnificent hummingbird. In fact, thirteen species of hummingbirds are know to occur in the Chiricahua mountains, and many of these are Mexican species that are rarely seen in the United States. In all, there are around 200 species of birds that have been documented in this area, making it a great stop for both the serious and casual birder!


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Spiny lizards are common, and love to pose for pictures too!  Males have a colorful, blue throat.
Spiny lizards are common, and love to pose for pictures too! Males have a colorful, blue throat.
R.Olsen - NPS
Mountain (yarrow) spiny lizard
Reptiles are abundant at Chiricahua; over 30 kinds of snakes are here, more than a dozen lizards, and even a turtle! It’s hard to come here without seeing at least one spiny lizard, hanging out on the wall at the visitor center or dashing along the rocky trails. Look for spiny lizards and whiptails on walls, boulders and trees, moving quickly and defying gravity by hanging upside down, sideways and on seemingly smooth surfaces. Other species, like the Great Plains skink, are harder to see, preferring to hide under rocks and logs. The cryptically colored horned lizards, known to many as the “horny toad,” can hide in plain site, blending well with the gravel and debris on the ground. Look closely around anthills, where they sometimes lie-in-wait for a meal of ants.

If you are lucky, you might see a western box turtle wandering through the grassland near the Bonita Creek picnic area. The box turtle is the only “dry-land” turtle found in this part of Arizona, and has a striped, domed shell that can close up completely to protect the occupant from harm. Although smaller than the desert tortoise of the Sonoran and Mohave deserts, the box turtle is still highly visible during warm weather.

If it’s snakes that you are looking for, Chiricahua is the place! Over 30 species can be found here, from the rare to the common, large and small, it seems this is a place that snakes can thrive. The varieties are endless - there are blacktailed and blackheaded, patchnosed, hognosed, or hooknosed , ringneck or blacknecked, checkered or spotted, blind, green or glossy. It would seem that snakes are everywhere, and yet they are seldom seen. Drive carefully, that stick on the road might just be a snake! Most are harmless to humans, but there are several kinds of rattlesnakes here, as well as the western coralsnake, which are venemous. Look but don’t touch is a good rule to follow if you should happen upon a snake of any kind. Snakes keep to themselves and most will slither rapidly away when approached by humans. Although they are feared by many people, snakes seldom pose a threat to humans, unless they are being pursued. Snakes play an important role in the ecosystem by eating rodents, as well as other small animals and insects, and they are also food for many predators, including large birds of prey.
Amphibians





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The canyon treefrog is one of only a few amphibians that live in the Monument.  It is a small frog - only about 2 inches long - but has a loud voice that can be heard during the summer rainy season.
The canyon treefrog is one of only a few amphibians that live in the Monument. It is a small frog - only about 2 inches long - but has a loud voice that can be heard during the summer rainy season.
L. Brock
Canyon treefrog
Permanent water sources are rare in the desert southwest, and Chiricahua National Monument is no exception. Several small springs are present on site, but water disappears quickly after surfacing, leaving only small pools or boggy meadows to indicate its presence. Winter rain and snow, and summer monsoon storms provide intermittant flows in the normally dry streams. Still, several amphibians find a way to persist in this arid climate. Rock pools hold water long enough for the canyon tree-frog to lay its eggs, and for tadpoles to metamorphose into “ground dwellers” before the water dries up. Several species of toads and the tiger salamander are also able to utilize the limited water resources effectively enough to produce young.

These animals are seldom seen during the heat of the day, but are active during the cooler nights, especially after a summer rainstorm. The most common amphibians at Chiricahua are the tiger salamander, southern spadefoot toad, great plains toad, and the canyon treefrog. Listen for the explosive, whirring voice of the canyon treefrog near rocky pools along Rhyolite Creek. This tiny frog – usually less that 2 inches long – has a big voice, and is more often heard than seen. Toads and salamanders can frequently be found on or near the roads, or near buildings where nighttime lights may attract their insect prey.

All amphibians need water to lay their eggs in, and often live in or near a permanent water source. Desert dwelling amphibians, like those at Chiricahua, have adapted to a life with limited water; salamanders live in moist, shady areas under fallen wood or debris, while spadefoot toads burrow into the soil and estivate (similar to hibernate) to avoid dry periods. Amphibians are important “indicator” species, often reacting to pollutants that have entered into the air or water. In many areas the amphibians have disappeared (or have acquired various physical deformities) due to contaminants, such as herbicides, pesticides and pollution. We continue to monitor amphibian health, even in places where the animals and habitat are protected, because pollutants can travel great distances through the air, soil and water.
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Wildflowers






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The prickly poppy is one of the most conspicuous wildflowers around - with large white petals and an eye-popping yellow center.  It's leaves and stems are covered with sharp bristles, and it is often found along roadsides.
The prickly poppy is one of the most conspicuous wildflowers around - with large white petals and an eye-popping yellow center. It's leaves and stems are covered with sharp bristles, and it is often found along roadsides.
D. Dougall - NPS
Prickly poppy (Argemone pleiacantha)
Wildflowers in bloom are a rare and beautiful sight in the desert regions of the southwest. Since many flowering plants are annuals, they only appear when rainfall and temperatures are just right - meaning that it's hard to say when or if there might be wildflowers blooming. During ideal times, when moisture is high and temperatures are appropriate, the deserts can be blanketed in flowers. This usually occurs in April or May in the southeastern part of Arizona. If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, you may see an unforgettable display of color.

There are also many blooming perennial plants that live here, and although they may not be quite as showy, they can be depended on to bloom in all but the driest of years. These are the plants that provide the staples for desert dwelling insects, birds and animals, many of whom rely on pollen, nectar or fruits to survive the dry summer months. These hardy plants, such as the agave, rabbitbrush, yucca, many species of cacti, and others, including shrubs and trees, tend to bloom each year, even when conditions are too dry for the annual wildliflowers. They also bloom for longer periods of time, and often into the hottest summer months and late fall, providing a colorful show for visitors from early spring until October or November.

Trees and Shrubs





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This seedling pine tree is quite happy to grow up next to a fallen tree.  The downed log will provide some protection from wind, and will assist in catching moisture and other debris (such as leaves), providing extra nutrients to the seedling tree.
This seedling pine tree is quite happy to grow up next to a fallen tree. The downed log will provide some protection from wind, and will assist in catching moisture and other debris (such as leaves), providing extra nutrients to the seedling tree.
Seedling pine R. Thomas
Chiricahua National Monument has a great variety of trees and shrubs. Growing at elevations from around 5000 to over 7000 feet, the habitat transitions from lowland desert scrub to upper elevation pine-fir forests. The prominant species include manzanita, Arizona Sycamore, alligator juniper, oaks, pines, Arizona cypress, madrone, and acacia. Mesquite and acacia occur at lower elevations, intermixed with the grasslands and other "desert" plants, such as agave and rabbitbrush. Cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows are found in the canyon bottoms, where a narrow riparian corridor forms along the ephemeral streams. As the elevation rises, the species change to a more pine and oak dominated, mature forest. The apache pine, douglas fir and ponderosa pines tower above, while oaks, manzita and bunchgrasses grow sparsely in the shaded forest floor. Pinyons are most common at the highest elevations, with juniper, cypress and a variety of shrubs. Many of these species provide food for the wildlife that lives here. Berries, acorns and pine-nuts are staple foods for many birds, and for mammals of all sizes - from squirrels to bears. Large trees provide nesting sites for birds, as well as den sites for small mammals. Shrubs growing closer to the ground provide browse for deer and cover for small animals such as mice and rats. The structure and resources that trees and shrubs provide are vital habitat components for a majority of the animals that inhabit the monument.
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