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Where I Go To Explore Like a Kid Again: Agua Fria National Monument

This piece was originally published in July 2017 Travel issue of Vrai Magazine. I couldn’t find it online anymore, so I’m republishing it here.

The interstate climbs uphill for a dozen miles, generating a steady stream of sedans, pickups and SUVs jockeying for position in the passing lone, intent on overtaking the slower-moving traffic.

Frustrated drivers are racing to get to the top of the plateau where the congestion will even out and they’ll finally regain the speed limit. Their passengers, meanwhile, are hoping for a stop at the upcoming rest area after a nervewracking ride.

As a child in the backseat, I was interested in neither. Each time we finally crested the mesa top, I’d immediately look east, across the grassy plateau to a small, unassuming knoll. A watchful eye would notice that the knoll, listed on maps as Joe’s Hill, was actually on an adjacent mesa, with the top edge of a gorge that divided the two occasionally peeking into view as our minivan sped past. To my eyes, that sliver of cliff face was visual confirmation that there was something interesting over there.

Unfortunately, it would take nearly two decades for me to finally peer into the river gorge and explore what was on the other side. By that time, those mesas and canyons had been protected as Agua Fria National Monument.

Ask anyone in Phoenix where the Sunset Point Rest Area is and they’ll answer without hesitation. But ask them where Agua Fria National Monument is and you’ll receive many confused looks. In spite of being located conveniently along one of the most popular roadways in Arizona and directly across the interstate from the state’s best known rest stop, relatively few people know much about the national monument.

Amid the grassland mesas and the river canyon I saw as a child lies the remains of a fascinating prehistoric people known today as the Perry Mesa Tradition. There are hundreds upon hundreds of pueblo ruins, rock art panels, and other archaeological resources to be found here. But you need to be willing to investigate the area in order to see any of them. I’ve brought a dozen friends with me to Agua Fria over the years and each one is immediately stunned. “I never knew this was here,” is a confession repeated by most first-time visitors.

Agua Fria National Monument was designated in 2000 by President Clinton, who called it “one of the most significant systems of later prehistoric sites in the American Southwest.” Managed as part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Lands, these national monuments differ from those managed by the National Park Service. While the national parks are known for their interpretative visitor centers, ranger talks, and famous lodges, these new national monuments feature none of those.

Agua Fria National Monument has no official visitor center, no paved roads, and just two short trails. What it might lack in visitor amenities, however, it more than makes up for by offering an unusually unconfined adventure. Here, the experience really is what you, the visitor, make of it. There are no roped off areas, no manicured trails, no entrance fees and—thank goodness—no crowds, either. You’ll need some curiosity and imagination to enjoy your time here, as you won’t find any interpretative walks or detailed trail guides, either. While it may not seem particularly visitor-friendly at first blush, this model often provides a far more personal and meaningful experience.

It’s probably not a surprise that my first foray into the backcountry of Agua Fria led me towards the place I’d always examined from afar. A bumpy truck ride and a short offtrail hike later, I found myself at the edge of the river canyon. In front of me lay the ruins of an ancient settlement, nearly 300 rooms in total, perched at the edge of a deep side canyon emptying into the main gorge. On the other side of the gorge was Black Mesa, the plateau bisected by the busy interstate.

I bent down to inspect some painted pottery sherds, which littered the ground all around the structure. Unlike many famous ruins, these have not been partially reconstructed. You find them as they are: worn down, overgrown with vegetation and deserted for centuries. Piles of partially toppled walls provide a mere hint of the ruin’s former glory.

I spent some time reconstructing them in my mind before scrambling down the edge of the cliff a bit to inspect a rock face filled with ancient art. I studied the images, pondering the interplay between the various depictions. As I turned to scout further down, I couldn’t help but look back across the canyon towards the semis and sedans barreling down the highway just two short miles away. Was anyone staring back, probing the horizon for future places to explore as l once had?

I think that’s why I treasure this place so much. Every time I visit, I can relive that childhood sense of wonder at what might lie over there—whether “over there” refers to a cluster of ruins at the canyon’s edge, or just a mundane pile of rocks in the distance. Like most of the National Conservation Lands, Agua Fria National Monument is a place that’s meant to be explored and investigated, not a place to blandly stroll from interpretative marker to interpretative marker. The excitement of discovering something on your own, whether a solitary petroglyph or an unexpected ruin, creates a visceral and intimate memory that’s hard to replicate in more developed parks. Once you spend some time enthusiastically inventorying the land, inspecting that rock face or traipsing down the hillside just to see if there’s anything there, you’ll understand why I cherish a national monument like Agua Fria so much. As I approach 40 years old, it’s where I go to explore like a kid again.