Below the cream- and red-colored cliffs of the Mogollon Rim, the Verde River brings life to a broad desert valley. Spanish explorers named the river verde ("green") for the luxuriant growth that lines its banks. The waters come from narrow canyons of Oak Creek, Wet and Dry Beaver creeks, West Clear Creek, Sycamore Creek, and other streams.
Prehistoric tribes camped in the area, finding a great variety of wild plant food and game between the 3,000-foot elevation of the lower valley and the rim country 4,000 feet higher. From about A.D. 600–700, Native American groups began cultivating the Verde Valley, taking advantage of the fine climate, fertile land, and abundant water. Trade and contacts with the Hohokam culture to the south also aided development of the region. Hohokam people probably migrated into the Verde Valley too, though archaeologists can't determine whether early farming communities were actually Hohokam or simply influenced by their culture. Verde inhabitants learned to make pottery, grow cotton, weave cloth, and build ball courts.
The Sinagua people arrived from what is now the Flagstaff area between A.D. 1125 and 1200, gradually absorbing the local cultures. Villages then started to consolidate. Large, multistoried pueblos replaced the small pithouses of earlier times. Two of these pueblos, Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot, have become national monuments. Archaeologists don't know why, but the Verde Valley population departed by 1425. The elaborate Hohokam culture, based in the Gila and Salt River Valleys to the south, also disappeared about this time. Perhaps some of the Sinagua migrated northeast, eventually joining the Hopi and Zuni pueblos.
Early Spanish explorers, arriving a century and a half later, found small bands of nomadic Tonto Apache and Yavapai roaming the valley. In language and culture, the Tonto Apache are related to the Apache and Navajo tribes to the east, while the Yavapai share cultural traits with the Hualapai and Havasupai to the northwest.
Anglos and Mexicans poured into the valley during a gold rush at the Hassayampa River and Lynx Creek in 1863. Farmers and ranchers followed, taking for themselves the best agricultural land along the Verde. The displaced tribes attacked the settlements but failed to drive off the newcomers. Soon the army arrived, building Camp Lincoln, later christened Fort Verde. General George Crook eventually subdued local tribes through clever campaigning and the enlistment of Apache scouts.
Tonto Apache and Yavapai received the Rio Verde Reservation in 1873, but the federal government took it away two years later, ordering the displaced tribes to proceed to the San Carlos Reservation, 150 miles away. In the cold February of 1875, they started the two-week journey on foot; of the 1,451 who began the trek, at least 90 died from exposure, were killed by infighting, or escaped.
Early in the 20th century, some Apache and Yavapai received permission to return to their Verde River homelands. What were once thousands of Native Americans occupying millions of acres now number less than 1,000 people on a few remnants of their former lands on the Camp Verde, Prescott, and Fort McDowell reservations.
Meanwhile, Anglo farmers in the Verde Valley prospered. Cottonwood, founded in 1879, became the valley's main trading center. Copper mining succeeded on a large scale at Jerome, which sprang to life high on a mountainside in 1882. Mine company officials built a giant smelter below Jerome in 1910 and laid out the town of Clarkdale. Depletion of the ore bodies in the early 1950s, however, forced many residents of Jerome and Clarkdale to seek jobs elsewhere. Today the Verde Valley thrives due to industry, farming, and popularity with tourists and retirees.
THE BALD EAGLE
Like many humans, the bald eagle prefers fast food and a home near waterways. Fish make up over half its diet, supplemented with small mammals, birds, and some carrion. The Second Continental Congress designated this bird as a national symbol in 1782 and Congress gave it official protection in 1940, but by the early 1970s biologists could find only seven pairs in Arizona. Populations have come back now that DDT has been eliminated and nesting sites protected.
Southern bald eagles live in central and northwest areas of Arizona and nest in the central part. Eagles may be either year-round residents or winter visitors who nest elsewhere, most often in the Pacific Northwest. Their yellow eyes have vision thought to be eight times sharper than ours. White feathers cover the head and tail of adults, with brown over the rest of the body. Youngsters have dark-brown feathers with some white on the underside, so they are sometimes mistaken for golden eagles, Arizona's only other eagle species. Both sexes look alike except for size; adult males weigh 8-9 pounds, while females weigh 10-14. They hold their wings—which span up to 7.5 feet—horizontally when soaring, unlike the uptilted wings of vultures and golden eagles.
Breeding pairs look for a tall tree or cliff site with good visibility, protection from wind, and a nearby source of fish; nests average 6-8 feet across. Resident eagles breed in January and February, so that the young won't be subject to heat stress. The mother lays two or three white eggs, which hatch in about 35 days. Both parents attend to the incubation and feeding of the eaglets. After 11 weeks the babies can fly, then after several more weeks they can live on their own. Because raising eaglets is such delicate business—frightened parents can break eggs or stay away from the nest too long—known breeding areas are closed to the public December 1-June 30. It's best to view with binoculars from a quarter of a mile away or more. Good places to sight bald eagles include the Verde and Salt Rivers, Lake Pleasant, Bartlett Lake, the Coolidge area, and Alamo Lake.
Early in 1865, 19 men set out from Prescott to start a farming settlement in the Verde Valley. They knew the mining camps around Arizona's new capital at Prescott would pay well for fresh food. The eager farmers chose land where West Clear Creek joins the Verde, about five miles downstream from the modern town of Camp Verde. After the farmers had planted fields, dug an irrigation system, and built a fort, raiding tribes destroyed much of the crops and livestock. Army troops marched in and built Camp Lincoln, one mile north of the present townsite. Because some people thought that too many place names then commemorated the former president, the army later changed the post's name to Camp Verde.
Native American hostilities kept the cavalry and infantry busy during the late 1860s and early 1870s. The infantry built a road, later known as the General Crook Trail, west to Fort Whipple (near Prescott) and east along the Mogollon Rim to Fort Apache. In 1871 the post moved one mile south to its current location, where more than 20 buildings lined up beside a parade field. An 1882 battle at Big Dry Wash marked the last large engagement between soldiers and Native Americans in Arizona. Having served its purpose, Fort Verde closed in 1891.
Today exhibits and the four surviving fort buildings at Fort Verde State Historic Park give a feeling of what life was like for the enlisted men, officers, and women who lived here. Other attractions near town include the multistoried cliff dwelling of Montezuma Castle, the unusual lake at Montezuma Well, wilderness areas, and the Verde River.
Fort Verde State Historic Park
Like most forts of the period, Fort Verde served as a supply post and staging area for army patrols. It never had a protective wall, nor did Native Americans ever attack it. Today, a 12-acre park (928/567-3275, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Thurs.-Mon., $4 adults, $2 ages 7–13) preserves the administration building, commanding officer's house, bachelors' quarters, doctor's quarters, and the old parade ground. A gift shop sells history books. From Main Street in downtown Camp Verde (two miles east of I-17 Exit 287), turn east one block on Hollamon Street.
Begin your visit at the adobe administration building, used by General George Crook during the winter campaign of 1872–73 that largely ended Native American raids in the region. Exhibits recall the soldiers and their families, Apache army scouts, settlers, and prospectors who came through here more than 100 years ago. You'll see old photos, maps, letters, rifles, uniforms, saddles, and Native American artifacts. The three adobe buildings of Officers' Row have been restored and furnished as they were in the 1880s. Cavalry, infantry, and Indian scout reenactments take place during Fort Verde Days on the second weekend in October and a few other times during the year.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
This towering cliff dwelling so impressed early visitors that they mistakenly believed followers of the famous Aztec ruler had built it. Actually, this pueblo had been neither a castle nor part of Montezuma's empire. Sinagua built it in the 12th and 13th centuries, toward the end of their stay in the Verde Valley. The five-story stone and mortar structure contains 20 rooms, once occupied by about 35 people. It's tucked back under a cliff 100 feet above Beaver Creek. The overhang shielded the village from rain, snow, and the hot summer sun but allowed the winter sun's low-angle rays to warm the dwellings. The ruins are well preserved but too fragile to be entered, so you must view them from below. An even larger pueblo, Castle A, once stood against the base of the cliff; it had six stories and about 45 rooms, but little remains today. A level, paved one-third-mile trail loops below Montezuma Castle to the foundations of this second ruin.
The visitor center (928/567-3322, www.nps.gov/moca, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, extended in summer, $3/person age 17 and up) has exhibits of artifacts and the everyday life of the Sinagua. Ask at the information desk to see the photo album of the cliff dwelling's interior. Related books, videos, and maps are sold. Giant Arizona sycamore trees shade a picnic area beside the river. Take I-17 Exit 289 and follow signs two miles; from Camp Verde, drive north three miles on Montezuma Castle Road, then turn right two miles at the sign.
This natural sinkhole, 11 miles northeast of Montezuma Castle, attracts visitors both for its scenic beauty as a desert oasis and for its prehistoric ruins. The Sinagua built pueblos here between A.D. 1125 and 1400, using lake water to irrigate their crops. Parts of their villages and irrigation canals can still be seen. The sinkhole measures 470 feet across and is only partly filled by a 55-foot-deep lake. Signs describe some of the plants and animals that dwell in the clear water. You may see turtles swimming in the lake but no fish, as the carbon dioxide level is too high for them. A one-third-mile, self-guiding loop trail climbs to the rim, where a short trail winds down to the lake and to ruins sheltered in a cave. The main trail continues along the rim past a pueblo site and a large rectangular structure, which may have been a kiva, before beginning its descent to an ancient irrigation ditch. A short side trail to the left leads to the outlet where the lake drains into the ditch as it has since Sinagua times. Modern farmers continue to use the water, which flows at 1,100 gallons per minute. The main trail returns you to the parking area.
On the drive in, a tree-shaded picnic area and a prehistoric canal segment are down the road to the right a half mile before Montezuma Well. In another quarter mile on the main road, you can stop on the left to see a pithouse exhibit. Timbers that once held up the walls and roof have long since rotted away, but distinct outlines remain of the supporting poles, walls, entrance, and fire pit.
Montezuma's Well is part of Montezuma Castle National Monument and is open during the same hours, but there's no admission charge here. From Camp Verde or Montezuma Castle, take I-17 north to Exit 293 and follow signs five miles; another approach begins at I-17 Sedona Exit 298, turns east, then south three miles on a gravel road.
Out of Africa Wildlife Park
This unusual animal park (4020 N. Cherry Rd., 928/567-2840, www.outofafricapark.com, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily) features big cats from all over the world in both near-natural habitats and shows. In the very popular Tiger Splash show, the tigers dive into a large pool with their human friends in pursuit of balloons and toys. Wolves, hyenas, lions, reptiles, and birds appear in other demonstrations. Safari expeditions take you into the bush to see free-roaming wildlife such as giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, sable, and gemsbok.
Facilities include a playground, places to eat, and gift shops. A variety of programs runs through the day, so you'll get the most out of a visit with an early start. Formerly in the Phoenix area, the park has recently moved to a 104-acre site northwest of Camp Verde. Head three miles northwest toward Cottonwood on AZ 260 from I-17 Exit 287, then left on Verde Valley Justice Center Road.
General admission (add tax) of $36 Adults, $34 Seniors 65 years+, $22.00 Veterans & Active Military, and $20 Children 3–12 includes an African Bush Safari tour and all shows. Tiger feeding and a few tours are extra.
Visitors enjoy pretty scenery, a picnic area, nature trail, and river access on the bank of the Verde River at Beasley Flat. The nature trail extends half a mile along the riverbank in the recreation area with viewpoints and river access trails; the lower section has a paved loop. From downtown Camp Verde, head south on Main Street about half a mile, turn right 8.5 miles on Salt Mine Road/Forest Road 574, then left two miles on unpaved Forest Road 529. Fishermen can also access the river six miles in on Salt Mine Road. From I-17, you can take Exit 285 and go east 1.8 miles toward Camp Verde, turn right 0.5 mile on Oasis Road, right 7.4 miles on Salt Mine Road/Forest Road 574, then left two miles on unpaved Forest Road 529. No camping or motorized boats are permitted. Prescott National Forest offices have a map handout.
River Running on the Verde
Experienced boaters in kayaks or rafts can venture downriver 59 miles from Camp Verde to Sheep Bridge near Horseshoe Reservoir. You're likely to see wildlife and well-preserved prehistoric ruins along the way. An area of shoreline is closed Dec.–April to protect a bald eagle nesting site. The main river-running season lasts from January to early April during spring runoff, but inflatable kayaks can sometimes negotiate the shallow waters off-season. The ice-cold water in winter and spring necessitates use of full or partial wetsuits. With time for rest stops and scouting rapids, rafts typically average two miles per hour.
The wildest water flows between Beasley Flat and Childs. Canoeists often experience trouble negotiating the rapids here, winding up with smashed boats. Unless you really know what you're doing, it's best to avoid the potentially dangerous conditions below Beasley Flat.
Shuttle services may be available—ask at the Camp Verde Chamber of Commerce. The Verde Ranger District offers a River Runners Guide to the Verde River and can let you know if any companies offer rafting tours.
Cedar Bench Wilderness
Three trails cross the 16,000-acre wilderness, which extends along the Verde Rim as high as 6,678 feet and drops to a section of the Verde River at 2,800 feet in a remote area south of Camp Verde. Backcountry travelers can reach trailheads at the lower elevations off Forest Road 574 near Beasley Flat and from the rim via Dugas Road from I-17 Exit 268. Utah and alligator juniper, which the pioneers mistakenly called "cedars," grow at the higher elevations and in some canyons along with pinyon pine and Gambel oak. Chaparral covers much of the lower slopes. The Prescott, Tonto, and Coconino Forest maps show the back roads. The Verde Ranger District Office near Camp Verde provides information on road conditions and trails.
Pine Mountain Wilderness
Pine Mountain (6,814 feet) crowns part of the Verde Rim south of Cedar Bench Wilderness and Camp Verde. The 20,100-acre Pine Mountain Wilderness offers solitude and natural beauty far from towns and highways. Forests of majestic ponderosa pine, pinyon pine and juniper woodlands, and chaparral cover the rough terrain. The rugged eastern side drops to an elevation of 3,800 feet in the Verde Valley. You might see mule or white-tailed deer, javelina, bear, or mountain lion.
To reach the trailhead, take I-17 Dugas Road Exit 268—18 miles south of Camp Verde and six miles north of Cordes Junction—then head southeast 18 miles on dirt Forest Road 68 to Salt Flat, a quarter mile before Nelson Place, an abandoned homestead. This road is best attempted in cars only in good weather.
You can hike a 9.6-mile roundtrip loop to the top of Pine Mountain on Nelson Trail #159, Pine Mountain Trail #14, Verde Rim Trail #161, and Willow Springs Trail #12. Allow six hours and carry water. Elevation gain is about 1,600 feet. Other loop hikes in the area can be done too. Consult the Prescott, Tonto, or Coconino forest maps and the 7.5-minute Tule Mesa topo map. The Verde Ranger District Office near Camp Verde can advise on road and trail conditions.
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