Tonto National Monument uniquely showcases two cliff dwellings, a 20-room dwelling and a 40-room dwelling, that are the only known dwellings of the Salado culture. Construction of the two dwellings began around 1300 AD, possibly as an alternative to the growing populations in the Tonto Basin and Salt River Valley, where large trading centers and settlements focused around agricultural commodities and pottery were emerging.
The Salado found much of what they needed for construction in the Tonto Basin's quartzite rock, pinyon pine, juniper, and occasional ponderosa pine logs. Each pueblo inside the larger dwelling was built with the unshaped quartzite rocks found in abundance around the Tonto basin. Quartzite does not fracture or split as easily as sandstone, which may have attributed to the rougher and more unrefined architecture of the Salado in comparison to the beautifully constructed architecture of the Anasazi to the north at sites such as Mesa Verde.
The walls of the pueblos within the larger cliff dwellings were built from unshaped quartzite to reach roughly 6 feet high before they were slathered with mud. Crossbeams of pinyon pine or juniper were covered with Saguaro ribs, river reeds, or grasses and then layered with enough mud to support a second story and fire pit. The roofs of each second story building had a small parapet to allow for a safe place to work and play.
The Salado people spent much of their time outside playing, working, and creating beautiful textiles and pottery. The pottery of the Salado is very sought after because the Salado created polychromatic pottery using ocher and other dyes, and as many as 400 pots were found as far away as Chihuahua, Mexico. Polychromatic pottery and stylistic textiles representing the Salado are visible at the visitor center along with fantastic informational displays.
After a successful few centuries of living, working and trading in the Tonto Basin, the Salado left in the mid to late 1400s. Possible reasons for their exodus include drought, disease, or warfare, though the exact cause remains a mystery.