I was late leaving Saguaro National Park. Not super late, just later than I wanted to be, and I felt like the time I’d allotted for visiting Casa Grande Ruins National Monument had evaporated while I scampered among the saguaros and talked to the lizards and deer I’d found on my morning hike.
I started heading north from Tucson, toward Flagstaff where I planned to spend the next few days, still undecided on whether or not to stop at Casa Grande Ruins.
But I was hungry. I needed gas. Suddenly, I remembered In-N-Out has locations in Arizona and I’d already spent 36 hours there without scarfing down a snack from my favorite regional fast food joint. I asked Siri if there was an In-N-Out on my route, and, like magic, the next one was in the town of Casa Grande, just a few miles from the ruins.
It was a sign, I figured. I was meant to eat a cheeseburger and visit the ruins of Casa Grande, it seemed, and so I did.
HISTORY OF CASA GRANDE RUINS NATIONAL MONUMENT
Somewhere around 1350 A.D., ancient Sonoran Desert people built Casa Grande and the compound that surrounds it. It is one of the largest prehistoric structures in North America. Archeological evidence suggests the people who lived at Casa Grande developed irrigation farming and had an extensive trade network, as well as time for recreation.
But we don’t know why they built the site, or what purpose it served for these ancient people, called Hohokam. This archeological term is used to describe the ancient farming people who lived in the southern deserts of Arizona from the first years A.D. to about 1450 A.D. It’s not the name of a specific tribe or language, but is used to describe the people based on their building and pottery styles. Many of today’s tribes trace their history back to the people of Casa Grande and consider the site a sacred place.
Around 1450 A.D., the site was abandoned. With no written language left behind by the people who lived there, the first written account of Casa Grande comes in 1694, from Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit, missionary and explorer. He used the words “casa grande” (or “great house”) to describe the ruins and the name stuck.
Later expeditions visited the ruins in 1775 and 1846 and the 1860s saw the arrival of a railroad line just twenty miles west of the ruins along with a stagecoach route that ran right past the Casa Grande, which brought visitors, vandals, graffiti artists and souvenir hunters to the ancient site.
In the 1880s, anthropologists, philanthropists and historians reported on the conditions of Casa Grande and stirred up awareness of the site. In 1889, a petition presented to the U.S. Senate requested government action to repair and protect the ruins and, in 1892, “President Benjamin Harrison set aside one square mile of Arizona Territory surrounding the Casa Grande Ruins as the first prehistoric and cultural reserve established in the United States,” according to the National Park Service.
The first shelter roof went up in 1903 and excavations and repairs started a few years later. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson named Casa Grande Ruins a National Monument and transferred management of the ruins to the National Park Service.
The current shelter roof was finished in 1932 and was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. In the late 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built several structures to assist and support park operations, but since then the site has remained pretty much unchanged.
GREAT HORNED OWLS
According to a volunteer I chatted with at the park, owls have a long legacy at Casa Grande National Monument. A pair of great horned owls moved into rafters of the Olmsted shelter shortly after it was built in 1932 and it’s entirely possible and quite likely that a pair has been there ever since.
During my visit, the resident owls were nesting and were quite active. The female, nestled into the ruins and sitting on her eggs, was a little hard to see clearly, but the male was hanging out in the rafters, keeping his owl wife in his sights and watching as tourists meandered around the ruins.
Normally these creatures are nocturnal, but they’ve made their home in a National Park and visitors keep them up and on guard during the day.
The best part, for me, was when they hooted softly at each other. It was barely audible over the noise of other guests, but it was incredible to hear.
The owls are at the park year-round and mate for life. Sometimes they leave remnants of their dinner scattered around the park and the staff always does an early morning sweep of the place to make sure there aren’t any rabbit bits lying around to horrify visitors.
IN CONCLUSION & SOME NICE TO KNOWs
I’m real glad the fast food gods put an In-N-Out in Casa Grande and that I took the time to get a hamburger and experience these incredible ruins. The scale of the building is hard to gauge in photos, but it’s more than three stories tall and quite imposing in real life.
The volunteer I talked to said he felt the spirt of the ancient Sonoran Desert people there and kept returning year after year to volunteer there for that reason. It was clear in talking to him that he was passionate about the site, about the history there, including all the unanswered questions we have about the people who lived there more than 650 years ago.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is between Tucson and Phoenix, in Arizona, and I spent about an hour there. If you tack on a ranger-led program, watch the video or read everything in the museum, your visit could stretch closer to two hours.
The desert is hot, especially in the summer. Hydrate or die, y’all. Also remember that sunscreen and a hat are really great things to have when you’re scampering around the desert.
There’s a shaded picnic area at the park that’s pretty nice and all parts of the park are accessible via paved or hard-packed dirt. Dogs are welcome too, so long as they are leashed.
Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is open year-round, with summer hours running from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May through September, and winter hours running 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through April. Admission to the park is $10 or free with an America the Beautiful pass.