The first person to walk here did so over a thousand years ago when the Hohokam arrived at what is now known as Colossal Cave Mountain Park in Vail, Arizona. The Hohokam were attracted by running water and plentiful game.
They built shelters, farmed, hunted, gathered, and harvested. They sat in the shade of pit houses and made stone tools, pottery, baskets and jewelry. They used the year-round 71 degree cave for storage and ceremonies, inhabiting the valley for 500 years before they suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
Today visitors can take their own trek back in time, adding new footprints to a journey down the Path of the Ancestors once used by the Hohokam, Sobaipuri, Apache, and Papago (now Tohono O’odham).
The mile-long archaeological loop trail winds through a riparian area with a natural andesite dam once kept full by the Agua Verde River. “In the desert, water is everything… it means life… so the Hohokam built canals and farmed here in order to survive,” said Lauren Hohl, park education coordinator.
“When we go into the desert, we look around and see cactus and dirt. When they went into the desert, they saw groceries, a pharmacy, a hardware store—everything they needed to not only survive, but thrive off the land,” Hohl said. “Early on, the Hohokam were nomadic and had a lot of seasonal camps and shelters and that’s what this area was for them.”
Native Americans took advantage of the natural shelter of the cave—undiscovered by settlers until 1879 when a rancher searching for stray cows spotted an entrance into the mountain cavern.
“Pioneer explorers were blown away by what they found,” said Hohl. “Woven baskets, woven sandals, sewing utensils, calendar sticks, spear points, and tool-making materials, all perfectly preserved in the dry cave. One room had a rock ledge covered with antlers and bones and stone tools, things that were stockpiled for intentional use on subsequent trips.”
Unfortunately at the time there were no laws to protect the cave and its contents, much of which quickly disappeared. In the early 1920s, archaeologists took steps to protect what was left, salvaging and documenting their discoveries. “We do still make an occasional find, like a pottery shard or a bone needle, but the cave is fully explored and we know everything that’s there,” Hohl said.
The cave entrance is within viewing distance of the Path of the Ancestors and when greened up by summer monsoon rains, “It’s like a tropical forest—an earthen cathedral—where you come in from 100-plus degrees in the desert and it’s 20 degrees cooler in the woodland mesquite bosque. It’s kept primitive on purpose because visitors want that sense of escape from the contemporary. It’s a terminus where desert, riparian, and woodland overlap and it’s filled with hundreds of species of birds, wildflowers, and wildlife. I’ve seen tracks of deer, bobcat and even mountain lion on the path and I once walked into the middle of a troop of 30 coatimundis [a mammal related to the raccoon] who exploded into the underbrush.”
While existing in primitive desert conditions may be easier when things are lush and blooming, that wasn’t always the case. Drought made the earth parched, monsoon rains flooded arroyos and washed away potential food. “One of the pre-spring Hohokam moons was Starvation Moon before everything greened out and fruited up,” said Hohl. “This was a rough few months for survival.”
Because of their nomadic nature, the Natives who traveled here to set up temporary camp made it a habit to make what they needed at the time and then toss it before heading to the next location. They gathered the brutally sharp and strong yucca, weaving its fibers into fish nets and snare traps, sewing kits and thread, baskets and sandals. Depending on seasonal water for crop irrigation, they planted maize, barley, squash, pumpkins, cotton and several kinds of beans—common, scarlet runner, tepary, lima, and jackbeans—along the edges of the gently-falling ephemeral waterways.
While there is no turnstile at the start of the path to count visitor numbers—“popularity is evidenced in all the visible footprints, horse hooves, and animal tracks along the trail,” said Park Director Martie Maierhauser.
Learn more about Colossal Cave by checking out this timeline.