Rising dramatically from the flat desert terrain southeast of Phoenix, the centuries-old Great House makes quite a first impression at the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.
Experts say the massive packed-earth structure was built in the 1300s. The past seven centuries have taken their toll, but the structure endures. Today, its slightly crumbling buff-colored walls glow warmly against the blue southern-Arizona sky.
While the Casa Grande Ruin National Monument is one of nearly 20 national monuments in Arizona, I believe it stands out from the field for a few amazing features: the sheer scale of the Great House, the fascinating agricultural story, and the prehistoric people’s ability to adapt to extraordinarily hot and dry conditions.
Because the national monument site is fairly compact, it can be enjoyed in a couple of hours. Luckily, there are plenty of other attractions in the region to add to your itinerary. I also love to explore the charming towns, sample the regional cuisine, and walk through the desert terrain.
Here are nine tips for exploring the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument area.
1. It’s An Easy Day Trip From Phoenix Or Tucson
Located near the midpoint of the 115-mile route between Arizona’s two largest cities, Phoenix and Tucson, the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument makes for a great day trip from either, or a stop on a road trip through southern Arizona. The drive from either city comes in at around an hour.
Pro Tip: A trip to the national monument requires driving a stretch of Interstate 10, known to be one of the most dangerous highway sections in Arizona. It is the main commuter route between the two major cities, and traffic is almost always heavy and fast. To avoid some of the traffic, visitors may want to avoid weekday rush-hour times of 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. And on weekends, it’s best to get an early-morning start. Statewide traffic information is available at www.az511.gov.
2. The Great House Rules
Stroll up to the Great House ruins, and the origin of the monument’s name becomes abundantly clear: This house is big. Portions stand three stories high, and the mid-section is four stories. The name is said to date back to the late 1600s, when Spanish missionaries arrived and dubbed the site Casa Grande (“Big House”in English). The native name for the structure is Sivan Vahkih.
Described by the National Parks Service as “a four-story tower of packed earth,” the Great House was constructed of a natural soil cement known as caliche. The building appears to have served as both a tower and a multi-family home, with 11 separate living spaces. For reasons that can only be speculated upon today, the native people left the village by about 1450.
Visitors are allowed to walk right up to the structure but cannot go inside. I suggest taking some time to wander around the Great House, read the informative signs, and gaze through the house’s doorways to see the sunlight streaming through the upper windows.
For decades, the crumbling Great House has been protected by a massive roof covering. The national monument also features a small visitor center and shop that currently allows a limited number of people.
3. Agriculture Is Central To The Story
The Great House gets most of the attention, but it is just one aspect of an intricate prehistoric infrastructure that also included a vast system of canals for irrigating crops. In fact, the entire ruins site serves as a testament to the ingenuity and longevity of the ancestral Sonoran Desert people, made up of cultures like the O’odham, Hopi, and Zuni people.
The monument’s website notes that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people discovered that as their villages grew, farmland along the rivers was becoming scarce. To bring water to land farther away, they created hundreds of miles of canals.
Cotton has been a crop in the area for centuries, and today, the monument is surrounded by modern-day cotton fields. Canals reportedly began fueling the region’s farming 3,500 years ago. “Today, the farm fields near Casa Grande Ruins are still one of the largest cotton-producing areas in the United States,” says a monument sign. “Irrigation still makes desert farming possible.”
Pro Tip: For those interested in seeing modern cotton farming up close, tours are available through Caywood Farms of Casa Grande.
4. Don’t Forget Charming Downtown Casa Grande
Although the names are the same, the Casa Grande Ruins and the town of Casa Grande are actually located about a half-hour drive apart. While the ruins are east of Interstate 10 near the town of Coolidge, the community of Casa Grande is on the west side of the interstate, about 23 miles to the southwest.
After taking in the ruins, Casa Grande is the perfect place to stop for lunch and a bit of sightseeing. Start with a drive down Florence Boulevard, where you will pass by a host of vintage storefronts and a variety of restaurants, many with outdoor patios. Or for a picnic, stop at the pretty Peart Park, where large trees and ramadas provide plenty of shade.
Pro Tip: The renovated Paramount Theatre Casa Grande offers performances and events in a classic setting in downtown Casa Grande.
5. Neon Signs Tell A Story Of Their Own
After being steeped in ancient history at the Casa Grande Ruins, the Casa Grande Neon Sign Park offers a fun peek into a more contemporary era.
The park, which is located right in the middle of the downtown, includes 14 restored neon signs that give insight into the region’s business development. The inventory represents everything from historic hotels to hometown cafes to vintage model ice cream cones from Dairy Queen.
6. Regional History Is On Display At The Museum Of Casa Grande
Just across the street from the neon park, visitors have an opportunity to see still another side of the region’s history. The Museum of Casa Grande is housed in Heritage Hall, a fieldstone structure that was built in 1927 and formerly served as a church.
A sign at the museum notes that rocks used in the construction were gathered from the desert and hauled to town.
Inside, the museum features artifacts, writings, documents, and photos that celebrate the genealogy and histories of local families. (Note that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum is subject to temporary closures. But even if it is closed, the museum is worth a stop for a closer look at the unique building and lovely grounds.)
7. Stunning Picacho Peak State Park Is Nearby
Desert hiking and camping at their best can be found by making the half-hour drive southeast of the ruins to Picacho Peak State Park.
Visible for miles around, the 1,500-foot-high Picacho Peak is an iconic sight along Interstate 10. Its distinctive jagged shape has been used as a landmark by travelers since prehistoric times.
The state park features a range of hiking trails, from the moderate 3.1-mile Sunset Vista Trail to the difficult 2-mile Barrett Loop that leads to the top of the peak. Camping spaces for RVs and tents are also available at the base of the peak.
Pro Tip: Along with its beautiful desert views, Picacho Peak is known as one of the best spots in Arizona to see wildflowers in the spring. Depending on the amount of precipitation in the winter, the slopes around the peak can erupt with golden poppies in March. Wildflower updates are available on the park’s website.
8. Hiking And Biking Opportunities Are All Around
The Sonoran Desert is at its best in the spring, and the Casa Grande area has plenty of opportunities to explore it -- either on foot, on a mountain bike, or on horseback.
About an hour to the northeast in the Queen Creek area, check out the rugged terrain of the San Tan Mountain Regional Park, which features a range of trails, from the easy 2.3-mile Stargazer Trail to the moderate 7.1-mile San Tan Loop Trail.
Or, just over an hour to the southeast, Catalina State Park offers a number of easy trails in the foothills of the beautiful Santa Catalina Mountains, such as the 0.75-mile Romero Ruins Interpretive Trail, the 1-mile Nature Trail, and the 1-mile Birding trail. More challenging options can be found on the 9.1-mile one-way Sutherland Trail and the 8.6-mile one-way 50-Year Trail.
9. Mexican Cuisine Is The Go-To Choice
As with many of the towns in southern Arizona, Casa Grande’s cuisine scene is abundant with choices of Mexican and Southwestern fare.
For a tasty take on Mexican seafood, check out Anaya’s Fresh Mexican Restaurant, a cheery strip mall restaurant where the standouts are the traditional Mexican shrimp cocktail served with tangy sauce and chopped onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, and avocado, or the sopa de mariscos (seafood soup) with shrimp, chunks of fish, and scallops.
Downtown Casa Grande also has a number of Southwestern/Mexican spots worth checking out, such as Big House Cafe with its tasty breakfast burritos and eggs with a Southwestern flair, and Little Sombrero, a drive-in located right next to Peart Park that specializes in tacos, tamales, and green and red chile.
It is probably best to avoid visiting the Casa Grande area in the summer, when the average high temperatures approach or above the 100-degree F mark from about May through September. Late fall through early spring, when average high temperatures are in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, are the best seasons to visit.