Photo by Lee Allen
Colossal Cave Mountain Park guide Lauren Hohl points out some of the landmarks left a thousand years ago along the Path of the Ancestors.

Walk the Path of the Ancestors

Lee Allen


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.



Southwest AZ Anthropology's picture
Southwest AZ An...
Submitted by Southwest AZ An... on

Archaeologists continue to push the myth that prehistoric Native Americans, "suddenly and mysteriously disappeared". Then use another myth, like the yet unproven theory, Bering Strait, to help them continue their myths. While the tales the anthropologists make up are entertaining, its hard to believe them, because its so obvious what has occurred in human kinds timeline.

Hartson Doak's picture
Hartson Doak
Submitted by Hartson Doak on

Archeology has now pushed back the Native Americans to have been in the americas to about 200,000 years. Saying just over a thousand years in this article, implies that the First nations are relatively resent to this area. This is probably not correct.

Seadog's picture
Submitted by Seadog on

The story is a nice segment of history and my be only 1000 years old. However
I believe our ancestors where here a lot longer the that what is stated in the story.

Mists Of DAwn's picture
Mists Of DAwn
Submitted by Mists Of DAwn on

SO no one really knows , I read one thing and then another, I was reading about the Asians coming across the ice bridge from Russia. I hear a lot of myths. I sure would like to know what is the real truth is. I will continue to study and search but it was written by man it is hard to believe. All I know Indian Nation was here first. So tell me this why is it the Indians call them American Indians When that is what the white man names it USA. It was the Indian Nation and that is what we should be calling the Indians . Maybe am wrong and if I am set me to the right direction.

so.paiman's picture
Submitted by so.paiman on

It really is interesting their use of a limited time line, when the O'odham(a-tha-am) people have songs and stories of when volcanoes were here,way more than 10,000 years ago.The B S theory(bearing strait) is beginning to show itself as incorrect. Most of what is called knowledge and accepted as fact should remain theory,an educated guess. Our people have always called themselves people or maybe the people of , what ever area they were known for. Indian is a term that comes from that famous lost explorer columbus.

Martha Farrellbegg's picture
Martha Farrellbegg
Submitted by Martha Farrellbegg on

Very interesting and enlightening. Thank you!

Elizabeth Peter
Submitted by Elizabeth Peter on

The runic writings on those "calendar" stick should be compared to the runic writings of the Seklers, in Transylvania.(many date back to 17,000 yrs.) They used these sticks to keep track of events, barter notes, etc. The Turan peoples, such as the Scythians, Huns, and Magyars were all relatives that spread all over the giant Asian continent. (frome the Yellow River to the Elbe River in today's Germany). They kept a seed group in today's Carpathian Basin, and the small group remaining there is called the Szekelys (Seklers). The Archeology is massively oppressed, hidden and defrauded for centuries. The genocide went on even longer. However, these groups DID move East (mostly) and West (some as far as today's Ireland).
Native Americans are relatives of the Turan families - the REAL Caucasians! That is the TRUTH!

timupham's picture
Submitted by timupham on

The O'odham are believed to be the descendants of the Hokokam. Oral tradition places the O'odham -- who are divided up into the Tohono O'odham (Papago) and the Akimel O'odham (Pima), but speak a mutually intelligible language -- as the Hokokam's descendants. Rain and snowmelt were very important to the Hokoham, because it created the water, that filled their intricate canals, and made their corn, beans, and agave grow. As seen in the "Cloud Song."

Na:nko Ma:s Cewagi

Ce:daghim 'o 'ab wu:sanhim.
To:tahim 'o 'ab wu:sanhim.
Cuckuhim 'o 'ab him.
Wepeghim 'o 'ab him.

Cloud Song

Greenly they emerge.
In colors of blue they emerge.
Whitely they emerge.
In colors of black they are coming.
Reddening, they are right here.