Agua Fria National Monument Area

71,000-acre Monument

by Gordon Burhop

In the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton initiated the action that would lead to the creation of the Agua Fria National Monument, which is located about 40 miles north of the Phoenix, Arizona, metropolitan area, just off Interstate 17.  Because of building encroachment, Clinton felt it was time to protect this unique and sensitive wilderness treasure.  It officially became a national monument on January 11, 2000.

The 71,000-acre monument, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the administering federal agency, “encompasses two mesas and the canyon of the Agua Fria River.  This expansive mosaic of semi-desert area, cut by ribbons of valuable riparian forest, offers one of the most significant systems of prehistoric sites in the American Southwest it [also] contains outstanding biological resources.”

My friend Klaus and I figured that it would be the highlight of our trip when we set out recently to explore the Tonto National Forest’s northeastern corner and the monument itself.  We launched from the Scottsdale-Carefree area after having a good breakfast and checking out Carefree’s famous sundial, the largest in the western hemisphere.  We knew that most of the drive could be done with a family sedan, but we also knew that a high clearance vehicle would clearly be preferable.  Our plan was to go north to the Bloody Basin and Sheep Bridge areas, make a loop to the west, cross the monument, and come out on I-17 at Cordes Junction, the northernmost entrance into the area.

The road is now paved as far as the Mistress Mine.  That’s an old gold strike turned tourist stop where awhile back, my wife, Judy, and her brother and his wife had seen a presentation about Wyatt Earp, the famous frontier lawman and adventurer.  I remember that trip especially because we discovered the biggest tarantula I ever saw. The mine was destroyed by the Cave Creek Complex fire in 2005, the Cave Creek Mistress Mine Rock Shop & museum are still open.

Heading north we passed the headwaters of Cave Creek, which serves as the head of a fine hiking trail.  We then took a side trip off the dirt road on a paved road up Mount Humboldt and Horseshow Lake.  At over 5000 feet elevation, Humboldt has a tower for a fire lookout, microwave dishes for aircraft and dam control, and the best scenic view in the area.  We followed a roundabout high desert trail to a point just upstream of the north end of the lake. 


From there, Klaus and I proceeded north on Forest Road 24, paralleling the Verde River.  We passed a few ranches (there are only a very few) and a dramatic drop-off into a drainage and beautiful canyons.  We finally reached the juncture with Forest Road 269.  We could turn right, over to Sheep Bridge on the Verde River, or we could turn left, to the Agua Fria National Monument.  Since we were on an adventure, we turned right, planning to return to the juncture and head on to Agua Fria National Monument.

The road roughly follows Tangle Creek, which has many great camping places.  It also has fairly consistent water, a rarity in these parts.  As we reached a high ridge, the historic, and recently restored, Sheep Bridge came into view 500 feet below.  Originally, the bridge, which crosses the Verde River, was constructed for use by Basque sheepherders who moved their animals seasonally to and from the high and low country for grazing.  Before the bridge, the Basques faced a time-consuming and hazardous river crossing with their animals. 

If you get careless, crossing the river can still be time-consuming and hazardous.  We watched from the bridge as some people in a sports utility vehicle tried to drive across the river from west to east.  Why anyone would even want to cross that direction puzzled us.  They’d just have to turn around and come back anyway.  Nevertheless, the people apparently thought that smooth water would be the safest water and in they drove.  They got to the point where the water level approached the side mirror, above the middle of the door.  You know what happened.  Nothing. They stalled. 

Now the way to do it right was to enter at a rocky place about 50 feet down stream, where the river was clearly shallow.  Being like a cat when it comes to driving in water sometimes pays off.  I had learned that the hard way.  The stranded SUV had some help along, so Klaus and I continued our adventure. 

Just north of the bridge, there is a hot spring.  We pulled on our swimsuits and took turns soaking in a bathtub-sized sump, which was created out of masonry.  The 95-degree mineral water overflows into the river.

Refreshed, we retraced our route back towards Tangle Creek.  On the way, we happened upon a large Indian ruin that probably dates back 800 or more years.  Here, on the opposite hillside, there is a large conglomerate of boulders bearing rock art created by chiseling or scribing images onto the surface of stone.  These are called “petroglyphs.”  (By comparison, images painted onto stone surfaces are called “pictographs.”  On a previous trip we had discovered a petroglyph showing a herd of deer, delicately carved, very rare.  The ruin, with its stone foundations and walls, covered many acres.  Some of the wall ruins stood four to five feet tall.  Pottery shards littered the surface.  We found pendants in the form of half-dollar-sized disks with a center hole.  We left everything undisturbed for the other adventurers to enjoy.  We hope that they will all do the same.

Now we headed for the Agua Fria National Monument.  Most of the area is high desert, and the endemic flora clearly marks the transition from the lower to the higher elevations.  En route, Klaus and I found several more prehistoric ruins.  Having done a lot of research, we knew where to look.  At one site the occupants obviously had to haul and store large quantities of water.  The shards on the ground were very thick, suggesting very large, heavy vessels. 

At another site, the inhabitants manufactured a lot of arrowheads—a process called “flintknapping.”  It almost seemed as if youthful flintknappers had been trained there.  Many arrowheads were incomplete and spoiled. 

At another place, we found the rather famous “Red Deer” rock art.  The “Red Deer” is a petroglyph/pictograph.   That is, the scribed image was painted over with red pigment, making it an extremely rare combination.

Finally, on the way out of the monument, we were lucky enough to see three antelope.  We joined Interstate 17 just south of Cordes Junction and drove back to Phoenix, another successful adventure.

Other attractions in the area include Desert Botanical Garden, Montezuma's Castle National Monument, Arcosanti and Tonto National Monument.

For additional information contact:

USDA Forest Service
2324 E. McDowell
Phoenix, AZ 85006

Phone      1-602-225-5200
FAX      1-602-225-5295  

You will also find a Phoenix metro area map and a Tonto National Forest map to be useful.




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