While we were enjoying an Xscapers event in Casa Grande, Arizona, we escaped for a day with a couple friends to visit Casa Grande National Monument in nearby Coolidge, Arizona. Translated, Great House, these ruins were once, a cultural gathering place rich in ancestral and ecological history. Today, visitors like us come to gather for a different reason.
More than 650 years ago, Casa Grande region was an incredibly fertile region in southern Arizona. The Ancestral Sonoran Desert People deemed it as their farming community because of the location’s water sources that led to them building irrigation canals.
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Casa Grande Ruins National Monument
Ancestral Sonoran Desert People
Casa Grande Ruins is one of the largest existing historic structures in North America who’s purpose remains question. Through the years and extensive research, archeologists concluded that the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People built their community due to the location’s rich fertile soils and the abundance of water sources. They painstakingly hand-dug an impressive irrigation canal system (Hohokam) that would aid in sustaining their farming and artistic livelihoods.
The Ancestral Sonoran Desert People erected earthen buildings and walls, thus, creating their own compound that lasted for centuries. And some of those walls and structures remain today. They farmed cotton, beans, squash and corn.
Also known as the Hohokam Indians, they dressed very simple using animal hides and woven fibers from plants for their breechcloths. In the winter, they dressed in heavier buckskins, woven blankets and cloths. And because of the desert terrain, they made sandals to protect their feet.
The Ancestral Sonoran Desert People were amazing artists. They handcrafted pottery out of the Tucson Basin clay. They mined for minerals in which they ground into fine powdered pigments to make their slips and paint.
However, still researching, it’s still vague and unclear why the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People tribe up and left. There is evidence that perhaps a drought period made them disperse. All that was left were the structures and walls they built. Since there’s no written records or evidence of their abandonment, it’s been estimated that the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People abandoned Casa Grande about 1450 C.E. leaving what is now the Casa Grande Ruins.
Casa Grande Ruins was Discovered
In the late 1600’s, Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino happened upon the Ruins. In his travel journal, he described the remaining large ancient structure as Casa Grande, Spanish for great house. Word got out which enticed others to explore the region. In the days of our Country’s age of revolution, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza set out his expedition to find it. Almost 75 years later in 1846, a military detachment led by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny came upon the Ruins. It didn’t take long after for the word to get out. Public interest and visitors began to show up.
Fun Fact: In 1833, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny was deemed Father of the United States Cavalry.
Casa Grande Ruins Abandoned and Vandalized
By the 1880’s, because of the nearby railroad construction twenty miles afar and stagecoach route, mindless visitors took to desecrating the Ruins. Visitors dug up artifacts, carved their names or messages into the red adobe structures and pretty much vandalized anything they could.
Cause for concern, only a few short years later, a traveling historian and anthropologist Adolph Bandelier journaled what he saw and reported his displeasure and findings. Soon, a group of prominent Bostonians became interested in preserving this historical site. A petition was sent before the U.S. Senate in 1889 requesting protection and preservation of the Casa Grande Ruins. Under the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison, repair and restoration of the Ruins was established. This was the U.S. government’s first cultural reserve and prehistoric restoration.
Casa Grande Ruins Proclaimed a National Monument
In 1901, restoration was in full order and the management and overseeing the project was transferred to the General Land Office. Two years later, a roof was built directly over the big house structure to help protect it from the weather elements. Major repairs and excavation continued.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Casa Grande Ruins as a National Monument in which, was was then, transferred to the National Park Service.
Preserving Casa Grande National Monument
Through the years since the inception of this incredible preservation of what the Ancestral Sonora Desert People left behind, several restoration projects continued. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, adobe buildings to support the monument park were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, they remain today and little has changed since then.
The visitor center building and a new steel shelter roof over Casa Grande Ruins Great House was erected. Roads and walkways were paved and beautification projects began.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument today
Steadily declining in visitation, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument draws less than 70,000 visitors annually. Because of it’s size, location and not very much to see or do is my guess as to why it’s not popular. That said, the National Park Service continues their research, interpretive programs and preservation of the Ruins and grounds for present and future generations to enjoy and learn.
Scientists, Archeologists and Anthropologists continue their studies, collecting artifacts and cataloging their finds. But know that Casa Grande Ruins National Monument isn’t just about the ruins themselves. Biologists and Environmental Scientists monitor everything from the environment to the groundwater leading to it. They also study the plants and wildlife within the park.
What to do at Casa Grande Ruins National Monument?
From a distance, the grounds appear as an inhospitable environment. However, the grassy and spiny desert floors is home to many different species of plants and animals. But to see them takes patience and quiet. Don’t expect to see them up close or in a short period of time. You’ll have to train your eye to see what lives on the desert floor.
While we were visiting, we enjoyed an hour-long guided tour and lecture. Our tour guide talked about the Hohokam culture, archeology and the basic history of the Ruins. The guide also took us on a tour of the grounds while showing us the ruins and building structures. Oh! And important to note, the tour is wheelchair and handicap accessible.
Had we known, we would have signed up for a backcountry archeology hike (more like a walk). But if that interests you, contact the park office in advance as there is a limited number in the tour. Unfortunately, due to safety and continuing preservation, the staff and volunteers do not offer Great House tours.
Families and kids are welcome to visit and learn how the people who once flourished here lived and survived. Kids can earn their free official Casa Grande Ruins National Monument Junior Ranger Badge by completing their booklet! They can learn about this cool place, view the museum exhibits, examine the touch table and watch the video. And, they can see up close the incredible structures that have survived the test of time.
Speaking of museum, we took the time to visit the museum. There was an array of period artifacts. Also, there were quite a few of educational placards with information about their existence and how the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People lived. There also is a half hour video in the small auditorium.
There’s a small gift shop at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. Bring your National Park Service Passport so you can stamp it and pick up a souvenir or two.
Check out this book that gives a great historic montage of Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
National Monument Entrance Information
We’re happy to tell you that admission to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is totally free! However, if you’re bringing 15 or more people in your group (Roadschoolers or Rallies?), You’ll need to make a tour reservation in advance.
Lastly, the Casa Grande Ruins is part of the desert environment. We highly recommend you hydrate well and carry your own canteen or water bottle.
For an up-to-date listing of events, lectures and tours, check out the National Park Service Casa Grande Ruins National Monument News Releases.
Don’t forget to check out other National Parks and Monuments we’ve visited.
We hope this blog entices you to go visit Casa Grande National Monument in Arizona. Though small and not well-visited, it is a piece of America that needs to be seen and learned about.
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