Central Arizona packs a punch for tourists who know about the hidden gems in the area. And it holds a one-two punch for astrotourists and archaeoastronomers. The Dark Sky Community of Camp Verde and the ancient petroglyphs at the V Bar V Heritage Site are just the beginning of an extraordinary adventure in the heart of Arizona.


© 2019, Vicky Derksen, all rights reserved

I felt stunned the first time I caught sight of the giant slab of petroglyphs at V Bar V Heritage Site. Even though I spent weeks reading about it and viewing photos and diagrams of the rock carvings, I did not expect them to be so large and visually beautiful.


Over a thousand years ago, the ancient Sinagua carved symbols into a flat rock outcropping to create a one-of-a-kind astronomical calendar.

© 2019, Vicky Derksen, all rights reserved

Two rocks that jut outward from the cliff face at the upper right cast two long shafts of shadow across the petroglyphs. As the months go by, the shadows gradually shift position, emphasizing a different symbol at various times of the year.

Demonstration of how shadow shafts work on petroglyph calendar. ©2019, Vicky Derksen, all rights reserved

Through careful observation and study, archaeoastronomers discovered that this calendar marks the beginning and end of the corn planting and harvesting seasons. It emphasizes the solstices and equinoxes. It highlights the times for Sinaguan ceremonial rituals. It even tracks months, which is uncommon in ancient calendars of this kind.

Central Arizona is arid. Crops must be timed carefully to take advantage of seasonal rains and to avoid ruin from the scorching heat. Archaeoastronomers estimate that it may have taken up to 200 years to complete this calendar. Season after season, year after year, the Sinagua would have carefully tracked the shadows cast by the sun while simultaneously observing weather patterns and crop behavior.

There are other fascinating petroglyphs outside of the calendar area that show women giving birth, a man traveling with a bag full of clams, and a map of the nearby Verde River. I enjoyed the symbolism of their religious beliefs that may have been the foundation for the later Hopi Kachina religion.


The Hopi believe the kachinas are spirits or personifications of things in the real world. According to their lore, the kachinas visit during the first half of each year to help their people with everyday life, acting as a link between god and mortals. They bring rain for the crops and everything necessary for survival if the people show them respect for their presence. They represent the life-force in all things and humans must interact with them if they hope to survive.

Chiseled silhouette of San Francisco Peaks in upper center. © 2019, Vicky Derksen, all rights reserved

According to their religion, the kachinas live in the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. There is a segment of rock that juts out of the cliff face at V Bar V Heritage Site that has been chiseled with human tools to mimic the silhouette of the peaks and valleys of the San Francisco Mountains. At the far south end of the cliff is a wide crack that is thought to be a portal for the kachina to travel from their home near Flagstaff in the north to this ancient site.

The Hopi believe this was a kachina portal for them to travel from the San Francisco Peaks. © 2019, Vicky Derksen, all rights reserved

Having an astronomical calendar helped the ancient Sinagua time the expected visits of the kachinas and the planting seasons which fed their clans and provided offerings to the kachinas.


The site is less than 3 miles east of I-17. The road is accessible by all vehicles and crosses through the Beaver Creek area where you can find beautiful picnic areas (free and paid). The site is only open Friday through Monday from 9:30 AM to 3:00 PM. 

A Red Rock Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required to park at the site. Red Rock Passes can be purchased from a vending machine in the parking area. CLICK HERE for pricing information.

Visitor’s Center. © 2019, Vicky Derksen, all rights reserved

From the unpaved parking lot, visitors walk a well-maintained gravel path with a slight incline down to the Visitor’s Center. Here you will find gifts, souvenirs, bottled water, and interpretive information as well as restrooms. It is a half-mile walk on a flat, well-maintained gravel path to the petroglyphs. There are vault-type toilets nearby.

Leave your pets at home and don’t smoke. Fire danger is always high in this area of dry vegetation.

For more information about the V Bar V Heritage site, visit the Coconino National Forest website or the Archaeology Southwest website.


Photo courtesy of VisitCampVerde.com

Camp Verde is the nearest community to V Bar V Heritage Site just 15 miles to the south. The small town of 11,000 is located in the Verde Valley with 18 miles of the Verde River running through the middle of it. 

Camp Verde earned International Dark Sky Community designation in March 2018 after a long process of convincing the residents of the benefits and importance of preserving their night sky. They have hosted two Dark Sky Festivals since then, bringing in visitors from around the region.

Clayton Corey, board member of Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association attends Camp Verde Dark Sky Festival. © Clayton Corey, all rights reserved

Astronomers of Verde Valley is the local astronomy club and hosts a variety of local events and club meetings.

I can’t mention a great astrotourist location without mentioning local breweries where they exist. Verde Brewing Company calls themselves a “farm to mug brewery”. Enjoy craft beer on tap, a menu of delicious meals, and an indoor or outdoor dining area complete with cornhole and foosball. 


The Verde Valley is filled with beautiful ruins that are worth visiting. To see everything, I recommend that you stay for more than a day and that you bring good walking shoes and a water bottle.

Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Montezuma’s Castle is a 20 room high-rise “apartment” cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua over 800 years ago. It is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America. Plan to stay for an hour to visit the museum, roam the trails through the sycamore grove at the base of the ruins, and picnic along Beaver Creek.

Montezuma’s Well is a sacred site for many tribes today just as it was for the ancient Sinagua. Explore the trails, see the cliff dwellings, and peer into the well that is fed with 74-degree water year-round.

Tuzigoot is a Sinagua pueblo ruin on a hilltop. The people who once lived there were farmers and artists, trading with other tribes hundreds of miles away. Visit the museum, then walk through the ruins.

Out of Africa Wildlife Park allows visitors to experience African wildlife. Enjoy the popular Tiger Splash show or go on a safari to see giraffes, zebras, antelope, and other exotic free-roaming animals. 

If casinos beckon you during your travels, you’ll want to make time to visit Cliff Castle Casino. It boasts the largest non-smoking slot area of all Arizona casinos. Enjoy bowling, an arcade, live entertainment, and a supervised child care center. It also has a 122-room hotel.

Fossil Springs. © 2019, Vicky Derksen, all rights reserved

If rugged hiking is more your speed and you have a vehicle that can handle rough, unpaved roads, check out the trails at West Clear Creek or Fossil Springs. Permits are required for Fossil Springs from April through October.


Sinagua Sunwatchers: An Archaeoastronomy Survey of the V Bar V Heritage Site and the Sacred Mountain Basin by Kenneth J. Zoll