The Vail area is rich in accessible pre Columbian history. If you are willing to take a few steps off the road, you can find yourself in a rich cultural history invisible to many.
The primary prehistoric people of the area were called the Hohokam, they disappeared around 500 years ago. They are likely the antecedents of the Tohono O’Odham and Akimel O’Odham. While they mostly lived in small single story homes built into the desert floor called pit houses, they also built the impressive ruin that gives Casa Grande its name. The next time you head up to phoenix make sure you stop in to see the ruins, they are remarkable and worth the trip.
They also produced thousands of miles of irrigation canals throughout the central and southern Arizona Deserts including large networks in Phoenix, Tucson and south to Nogales.
The Vail area is rich with traces of these ancient people. Within the Cienega creek and Rincon Valley area are more than 200 prehistoric sites spanning 4000 years of history.
Preserving these precious resources for future generations requires that we tread lightly. It is illegal to pick up any prehistoric (or many historic) artifacts on public property. Never walk on or touch fragile walls.
There are several local areas where you can see the work of these ancient people without signs, interpretive centers or walkways. You can take your time and reflect. You can sit in silence in the same desert where they sat and listen to the same birdcalls, and watch lizards scamper over the same rock.
One such place is located down in Davidson Canyon South of Old Benson Highway, mere feet from the Arizona Trail.
Park at the Gabe Zimmerman trailhead for the Arizona Trail. The parking lot is located on Old Benson Highway just west of the bridge where it crosses the Pantano wash. The trailhead is signed from the road and parking lot. From the parking lot take the trail north and east down into Davidson Canyon. This part of Davidson Canyon falls under the jurisdiction of the Cienega Creek Preserve, and they do require a permit (which is free) for anyone not using the Arizona Trail.
The trail down to the creek is short and pretty easy with a short rocky section. At the bottom you are standing in Davidson Canyon, south of it’s confluence with the Cienega (the two rivers form the Pantano River. After the trail descends into the canyon it veers north. On the left side of the wash you will find an outcropping of smooth worn rock. In this rock can be found ancient grinding holes used by Native Americans to grind mesquite flour.
This trail is usually quiet except the rustling of the leaves in the cottonwoods and the trickle of the creek. If you sit on the rocks you can almost imagine a time before the Spanish and the railroad, when people with simpler needs came down to this creek to gather mesquite pods, hunt for deer and listen to the same winds whistle through the cottonwoods.
If you wander around on the banks you may find a piece of pottery. The last hand that touched it was alive over 500 years ago, and after you place it back where you found it, the next hand may not touch it for another 500.
This is just a small piece of the rich history both historic and prehistoric that lies just outside of our tiny town between the tracks.