Indian Mesa Ruin

Salt River Valley Arizona

by Gordon Burhop

The Indian Mesa ruin, in the Salt River Valley some 40 miles north of downtown Phoenix, is little known and even less visited.  It is located within the city limits of Peoria, Arizona, and just outside the city limits of Phoenix.  The mesa can be seen from Interstate 17. 

Indian Mesa ruin Az - wall

This unstabilized ruin, built by Hohokam Puebloans about 1000 years ago, holds many clues to the story of the original occupants.  The early people located their village, not on the highest hill, bur rather in a location from which most of the surrounding countryside could be observed.  When the community was occupied, from about 1000 to 1200 AD, the inhabitants were apparently concerned about attack.  They located their village in an easily defendable position. 


Indian Mesa ruin at the top

Indian Mesa’s flat top spans about five to seven acres.  The village, with some standing wall ruins about five feet high, may have housed about 100 people.  There is only one route to the top.  It follows one end of a circling 100-foot drop and terminates at a narrow cleft.  Portals in the village walls overlooking the trail would allow occupiers to shoot arrows directly at any approaching attackers.  At a right angle another limestone wall with portals, would have allowed defenders to launch arrows at any hostile climbers.  The village was mostly self contained, water being available from the Agua Fria River below.  Many pottery shards still litter the ground.  Some of the shards are up to a half-inch thick, suggesting that they may have been parts of large water containers.  We also found a metate, or a stone milling basin, which the women used to grind their corn and mesquite seeds.

Indian Mesa ruin river near by

Indian Mesa is located on Bureau of Land Management lands. The lake, originally used for agricultural irrigation, is unique in a number of ways.  It is the most popular lake in the Phoenix metro area, but few people see the north end because of its inaccessibility.  The lake is also one of the biggest, hosting many water sports and activities.  The park supports camping, fishing, boating, all-terrain vehicle trails, nature walks, water skiing and more, mostly at the south end near the dam. 

The Agua Fria River feeds the lake but only in a small way.  The lake is mostly a storage facility for Colorado River water brought in via the Central Arizona Project (CAP).  A few years ago the New Waddell Dam was built, submerging the old Waddell Dam.  The CAP Canal channels Colorado River water from just south of Lake Havasu City some 200 miles away to southeast of Tucson.  This is an important component in Arizona’s water plan.  The close proximity of the Southern Bradshaw Mountains contributes to the difficulty in reaching the north end of the park where Indian Mesa is located.

Indian Mesa ruin

My friend, Klaus, and I decided this would be a good day trip.  We had been in the vicinity previously and were familiar with the area.  We did take note of two important variables. 

Indian Mesa ruin map

One was the weather.  Arizona’s summer monsoon season was in full swing. The monsoon occurs when the seasonal winds change direction.  The humidity rises and the chance of afternoon rain and flash flooding increases. 

The second variable was the level of the lake.  If the lake level is raised, it is nearly impossible to get into the area.  Checking the lake report we found the lake at 71 percent.  This is low enough to allow access.  We had attempted to reach the site previously when the lake was 87 percent full, and we had to turn back.  Much of the trail at that time was flooded to a depth of 20 feet.  Keep in mind the lake level is artificial and not necessarily dependant upon the weather. 

Although the sky was dreary, we checked the weather report and decided we could beat the afternoon threat.  We wouldn’t be traveling far and it seemed like a minimal risk.

After an early breakfast we headed north on I-17 to Table Mesa Road, taking it to the west.  From the park boundary, it is about two miles to Indian Mesa.  It is against park regulations to access the site from the park, as we do not have any designated trails to the ruin location. In addition, an eagle closure area has been established in the area to protect nesting bald eagles from December 15 to June 15. If hikers or other users try to access the area from the park, they will be in violation of the park rules and the closure. The Agua Fria River was low in spite of the previous day’s rain.  We considered that to be a good sign.  When the lake is at a high level, this is as far as you can go.  The lake bottom nourishes much greenery to support animals.  A local rancher still runs cattle in the area.  The riparian area also supports wild burros.  These curious, feral animals whose ancestors were released by miners over 100 years ago, showed little fear of us.  The burros usually stay within five miles of the lake, needing a reliable water supply. 

Indian Mesa ruin will animals

We passed beneath the white cliffs and crossed a flat area and began to climb above the highest waterlines of the lake.  A short, quarter mile climb brought us to the top of the mesa.  On the way, we observed Arizona pincushion and barrel cacti in bloom.  The natives would have harvested barrel cactus fruit as a food source.  After we explored the ruin, it was getting close to noon, and we decided to take the prudent approach and left Indian Mesa behind. 

This trip can also be done from east to west, exiting at the Crown King-Castle Hot Springs trails or the opposite direction starting from the west side of Lake Pleasant.  We did the former.  On our way we passed a bald eagle breeding area, which is sometimes closed.  We didn’t see any eagles, but turkey vultures circled ominously above.  On the trail, we did discover a Gila monster, which is not often seen.  If approached from the west, the Humbug Creek crossing may be flooded.  This is an obvious indication that the lake is too high.  From the east, if the green area below the white cliffs is flooded, the lake is too high.  Given favorable weather and lake conditions, this is a wonderful day trip from Phoenix.

Indian Mesa ruin gila monster

You will find an Arizona Highway Map and the New River, Arizona, and Governors Peak, Arizona, topographic maps to be useful guides to reaching Indian Mesa.  


Editor’s Note
If you visit the India Mesa ruin, please avoid climbing on the prehistoric walls.  Leave all artifacts in place, just as you find them.  If the site is damaged or the artifacts disturbed, the archaeological value of the site is compromised.  Help protect the prehistoric heritage of our desert Southwest. 

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