Ancient Mysteries In Modern Light

Photographers savor a rare chance to explore Upper Ruins

 Upper Cliff Dwellings at Tonto National Monument.  Normally open only for special tours, the Upper Ruins overlook Roosevelt Lake. For reasons that remain mysterious, people started in the 1200s to abandon villages along the Salt River and moved to this lofty fortress.


Upper Cliff Dwellings at Tonto National Monument. Normally open only for special tours, the Upper Ruins overlook Roosevelt Lake. For reasons that remain mysterious, people started in the 1200s to abandon villages along the Salt River and moved to this lofty fortress.






Breathtaking views.

All await discovery among the 700-year-old Upper Cliff Ruins of the Tonto National Monument.

Normally, the national park requires reservations for tours up the rustic three-mile, round-trip trail — and that is only from November to April. Guests may take a guided tour, photo walk or full-moon hike to the top.


Tom Brossart photo

Photographer Joe Zinn enters the cavern that for 700 years has sheltered the Upper Cliff Dwellings at Tonto National Monument.

However, on March 17 and 18 the park will allow rare, open access to the fortress-like multi-room ruins. At the height of its use, the ruins housed more than 100 people. Now, the view from the Upper Cliff Dwellings includes breathtaking views of Roosevelt Lake, which is not as visible from the Lower Cliff Dwellings.

As aspiring photographers, my daughter and I jumped at the chance to take the photo tour.

The photo walks are hosted bi-monthly by Peg and Rex Lavoie, retired professional photographers who volunteer at the national park.

On a crisp morning, Brooke and I joined an intrepid group of photographers.

“We noticed that when photographers went on the hike to the cliff dwellings, they would often delay the group in order to get good shots,” said Rex explaining the idea that inspired the tours.

When asked why they work through the national park, Rex said Peg always dreamed of being a ranger.

“She helped me through my career, now it’s her turn,” he said.


Tom Brossart photo

Photographers play with light to capture the moods of the Upper Ruins of Tonto National Monument in the course of a three-mile, round-trip hike to the 700-year-old ruins protected by a deep overhang.

Before heading out on the trail, Peg warned the group about desert critters that could cause harm, the length and difficulty of the “moderately strenuous” trail and the delicacy of the plants.

“Please stay on the trail at all times,” she said.

The Lavoies cater to photographers who understand capturing the subject, style and technical aspects of their gear. Often, rangers identify potential attendees by the equipment they carry. Today in our group, Joe Zinn, a nature photographer from Colorado, lugs his $8,000 camera and $1,000 tri-pod to the top to gather shots for his corporate clients.

Before heading out, the two pass out paperwork on the elements of shooting good photos.


Tom Brossart photo

Metates used for grinding corn emerge from the shadows of ruins abandoned for unknown reasons in the 1400s.

“Always remember, the quality of your finished product is in direct proportion of the effort you apply creating it,” they write before explaining composition, equipment, color, light and telling a story with pictures in their literature.

As the tour starts, Rex soon stops along the trail to point out a view or perspective of the trail that makes for a compelling photograph.

“Look at the tunnel effect of the trees over this part of the trail,” he points out, “It makes a nice ‘S’ curve.”

The mesquite trees still bereft of leaves, but surrounded by the greenery of wild cucumbers, grasses, finger-leaved gourds, miner’s lettuce and wildflowers, bend and curve over the trail to create a natural tunnel.

Soon the trail leads through a streambed with a trickle of water fed from a spring oozing water that has percolated through the limestone cliffs. Butterflies and bees harvest water from the shallow pools.


Roundup photo

Roundup editor Tom Brossart works to capture the drama of bright light spilling into the dark cavern behind the ruins.

“This water source is the same the Salado Indians used,” Rex says as we cross the stream.

It is easy for the group to imagine the Salado harvesting the natural foods as we pass by amaranth and prickly pear. The Salado planted corn, beans, squash and cotton.

“Their life was simply about making food, clothes and shelter,” says Peg.

Coming out of the streambed, the switchbacks start. Well maintained, the trail still has steep steps that anyone with bad knees would find a challenge.


Tom Brossart photo

Part of the ruins seen in mid-morning light.

All along the trail, bright orange poppies and brilliant blue lupine flowers inspire snapshots.

At a halfway point, a stone bench allows for a view of both the lake and Upper Dwelling.

“This is our Kodak spot,” said Rex as he shows us photographers the various angles possible.

After taking some of our first shots of the ruins, we gather up our gear and push to the top.


Tom Brossart photo

Sherry Goode and Brooke Kubby (left) capture the scene.

It is now about 10 a.m. — normally an awful time for great photos, but a wonderful time to capture the mystery of the ancient pueblo architecture.

Peg admonishes us to not lean either ourselves or our gear against the fragile walls of the structure; otherwise, we are free to snap away.

Rex takes us into the back of the cave. The former residents spent hours carrying water up the steep slope to dump into a cistern built under walls that seem to drip with bygone rivulets of water.

The largest part of the structure still has evidence of age-old floors with the cross support beams still present. The floors have disappeared in most of the rooms, but in two rooms the sturdy beams of cottonwood and sycamore trunks continue to hold up the cross section of Saguaro ribs smothered in mud and clay that made up the floors of the multi-storied dwellings.

Rex points out different angles to consider. Gasps of discovery and rapid clicks of camera shutters fill the cave as the group moves from angle to angle capturing shots of the lake through timeworn windows and doors.

“Consider using your high dynamic range, because you have a greater range of contrast than what you’re seeing.” said Rex, “Remember, the eye can see 180,000 stops.”

As the aspiring students pepper Rex with questions, Peg moves off the lower section of the ruins to act as guide in some of the open rooms.

Entering one of the newest rooms built, the doorway requires everyone to double over to enter. I’m paranoid I will touch one of the delicate walls and it will crumble.

“Most of the Salado Indians stood at a height of five feet to five feet six inches,” said Peg, “They made their doorways small to avoid the drafts.”

Inside the room, blackened walls attest to the primal fires lit to keep the people warm or cook their food.

After a couple of hours, we finish up our photo shoot and head down the hill to replenish ourselves with lunch. We’re tired but excited to discover the treasures we’ve captured through the lenses of our cameras.


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