Welcome back to this continuing series of articles on the great Southwest of the United States. After a six day stay in the Tucson area (not nearly long enough, lots to see and do) we hit the trail up I-10 about 70 miles to Casa Grande, Arizona. Some of our Wisconsin friends, Laura and Tony, spend the major part of the winter at an RV resort so we stopped off for three days to visit with them and see some of the sites in the area. Since we are intent on visiting as many national parks, monuments and historic sites as we can, we traveled to the nearby Casa Grande Ruins National Monument at Coolidge. At the end of this article, I also share a brief stop we made at the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site near Gila Bend, Arizona after leaving Casa Grande.
Let’s start with the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. While many national monuments boast scenic beauty, Casa Grande (translated as great house) is more of a tribute to the historic culture of the Hohokam peoples. They lived and thrived in this challenging environment from around 300 to around 1450 AD. From the many archeological digs performed in this area, we learn that the Hohokams started out as hunters and gatherers and gradually transitioned to farming. They are credited with mastering irrigation by digging an extensive system of canals to divert water from the nearby Gila and Salt Rivers. It is thought they erected the four story Casa Grande in the late 1300’s. Made from caliche (a concrete like mixture of sand, clay and limestone), the Casa Grande was situated at the four points of the compass and has a circular hole that aligns with the sun during the summer solstice. It is thought they used the information they gathered by observing the sun, moon, stars and planets to determine when to plant and harvest.
A visit to Casa Grande Ruins is enhanced by taking one of the hourly tours (offered from November through April) led by volunteer docents. Our docent happened to be from Fargo, North Dakota where we’ve lived in the past. She helped us learn about the Hohokam culture, the history of the area and the building of this great house.
Due to safety concerns, no tours are available of the interior of Casa Grande. Here are a few interior photos taken from our walk around this massive structure.
The docent also pointed out the remains of compounds that surround the Casa Grande. This is where most of the people lived their daily lives using the great house as a gathering place.
I should mention at this point that Casa Grande was recognized in 1892 by the Federal Government as the first prehistoric and cultural reserve in the US. It was designated a National Monument in 1918 and in 1932 a protective shelter was built to cover the Casa Grande to prevent further deterioration of the structure. A new shelter was built in recent years to replace the old one as it became unstable. Just imagine, this structure has been standing with some deterioration for nearly 700 years! Quite an achievement by a culture that had no modern equipment or engineering and architectural plans to guide them.
The well appointed visitor center was built by the CCC in the 1930’s. It contains a lot of cultural and historic information to help visitors understand the wonder of this monument.
In the Visitor Center was a gentleman selling native jewelry. Meet Fredrick Ted Henry of the Navajo Nation. I struck up a conversation with him and he saw that I am a photographer so he pulls out this well worn photography book. He goes on to explain the photograph in the book of “Navajo Woman and Infant Canyon de Chelly” was of his mother and baby sister. The photograph was taken between 1933 and 1941 by none other than Ansel Adams, one of the most well known and revered photographers of the Southwest. The photo is listed in the National Archives so may have been taken when Adams contracted with the Department of the Interior to take photos of National Parks. Mr. Henry was very proud of this photo and it was fascinating to hear the story behind it. It was the highlight of our stop at Casa Grande, for me at least!
After our pleasant stay in the Casa Grande area, we turned west on I-8 to our next stop. Since we got a late start, we decided to spend the night in Gila Bend, Arizona rather than get to our next stop at sunset. There isn’t much to this town but we discovered there was a petroglyph (a type of rock art created by prehistoric cultures) site about 25 miles west and north of Gila Bend. The Painted Rock Petroglyph Site is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and contains hundreds of ancient petroglyphs.
Upon arrival, one wonders what the big deal is, it looks like a pile of rocks in the middle of the desert!
But it’s more than that, it’s one of the largest collection of petroglyphs in the Southwest with over 800 documented images. The images are thought to be made by the Hohokam people but other cultures may have contributed to the rock art.
Here’s a sample of what we saw.
The petroglyphs had meaning and typically featured local animals, plants, peoples, and sacred symbols.
Some of the etchings in the stone are made more recently such as this one by D. E. W. who passed by here on January 7, 1909. Likely, he was a soldier or prospector traveling through the area. An interesting aside, General Patton conducted tank training near here in preparation for battle during WWII.
While at this site, we came across this display about Pomp Charbonneau. Jean Baptiste “Pomp” Charbonneau was born to Sacagawea and said to be delivered by Captain Meriwether Lewis during the Lewis and Clark Expedition at Ft. Mandan in present day North Dakota, near where I grew up. The Expedition leader, Captain Clark, later became Pomp’s guardian and provided for his formal education. Charbonneau became a scout during the Mexican-American War and is the only known member of the Corps of Discovery to set foot in Arizona. I’m guessing that he traveled near here during the Mexican-American War but it’s unclear if he actually saw these petroglyphs. Anyway, an interesting set of factoids in an out of the way place!
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Saguaro National Park featuring those magnificent cacti. Well, here’s a photo I took at the Petroglyph Site of a dead and decaying saguaro. Just thought you might be interested! I was and wondered what killed it!
I hope you enjoyed our stop at these two historic locations in south-central Arizona. Up next is a visit to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Until later, travel safe.