Sears-Kay Ruins, AZ

A Short Day Trip from Phoenix: Hiking to the Sears-Kay Ruins

The Sears-Kay Ruins just off the road towards Seven Springs from Phoenix is not a site you normally set off to visit. Unless you are on a mission to see every ancient site you ever heard about – which we often are. Or, you are sitting in your Phoenix home, bored, and looking for something to do, some place – any place – to go. We visited the ruins, twice, for both reasons, and found that it is a great day trip destination from Phoenix.

When we first moved to Phoenix, about three decades ago, we set off to visit every single archaeological site we ever heard about. Near Phoenix, the Sears-Kay Ruins was one of them. We enjoyed the visit but haven’t returned since. Given that we have so many spectacular ancient sites in Arizona, I absolutely forgot about the small site on a hilltop.

But after sitting at home for months on end during COVID-19, with no place to go, we were going stir-crazy. We felt we had to leave the house. Even if we just drove down the street, anywhere. Preferably outdoors, and away from crowds.

So, as we were thinking of nearby places no one visits, we remembered the tiny site on the road towards Seven Springs. I could not recall its name, but we drove in that direction, anyway. Just to get out of town, to be outside, away from the house.

We enjoyed the scenic drive; it was worth getting out of the house just for the views. Though we didn’t remember their exact location, we had no trouble finding the ruins. As expected, we were the only car in the parking lot.

Hiking to the Ruins

We walked in the scorched desert. And I don’t mean scorched from the unbearable desert heat. Blackened saguaros and burned desert vegetation surrounded us. Though we all know about forest fires, we rarely hear about desert fires. Not because they don’t happen though. People just don’t seem to care as much. After all, the desert vegetation is never dense to begin with. But the sad part is, it is much harder for the desert environment to bounce back from a wildfire.

sears kay ruins 7

But other than the depressing view of charred saguaros, the view was beautiful. Part of the beauty of the desert is that you can see for miles and miles, especially if you are higher on a hilltop. We saw the surrounding mountains, valleys and peaks, miles away. The burned area was only on one side of the trail; on the other desert wildflowers added patches of bright yellow to the subdued greens of desert bushes among the bare rocks.

About half a mile long, the trail slowly gains elevation. As I walked higher, the views opened up on both sides of the trail, and a slight breeze made the hike more pleasant.

sears kay ruins 6

The Sears-Kay Ruins on Top of the Hill

The remains of the ancient Hohokam village sit on top of the hill. Standing there, enjoying the views and the breeze, I understood why they chose this location. Panoramic views stretch out into the distance, highlighting the surrounding desert and mountains, including Pinnacle Peak, Four Peaks, the Superstitions, and Weaver’s Needle. A constant breeze must have made the hot days more bearable. But if they needed to hide from enemies, this was also the perfect place, where they could see for miles in every direction, but no one could see their village from below.

Remains of a prehistoric hilltop village of the Ancestral Sonoran Desert People (also known as the Hohokam), the Sears-Kay ruins comprise 40 rooms in five separate compounds. The Hohokam, nicknamed the Canal Makers, built miles of canals throughout the area where Greater Phoenix is today. Besides the villages near their canals, they also built a few on the hilltops.

Dating from around 1050 to 1200, the compound structures and fortified villages on the hilltops served as defense during a time of turmoil.

I stepped into the remains of a compound, trying to imagine being back in time, in the ancient village. The compound had a few rooms surrounding a courtyard. It’s easier to imagine it if you visit the S’edav Va’aki Museum downtown Phoenix, where they have a replica of one.

sears kay ruins 5

The Prehistoric Village of the Sears-Kay Ruins

The Hohokam first settled here around 1050, though at the time they may have built pithouses, rounded, partially underground stand-alone homes. Though I didn’t see remains of them at the site, I read they existed. However, it didn’t take them long to replace these older style of homes with the above-ground compounds, comprising rectangular structures. The remains of these we can still see when visiting the site.

The largest, most complex structure was once a fortified hilltop compound, built on two levels. Built on the very top of the hill, it has the same type of rooms found in the smaller compounds I passed on the lower levels. A long row of residential and storage rooms shared a central courtyard.

This structure is not only the largest, but has the farthest view of the area, suggesting that the entire village used it in times of danger, when they might have been attacked.

By the end of the 12th century the Hohokam abandoned the village, moving down into the valleys, in less defensive locations.

sears kay ruins 9

Putting it in perspective – a bit of history

Sears-Kay Ruins in only one of the fortified villages built around 1100 AD in the foothills surrounding Carefree. Protected by stone walls, they stood on prominent hilltops in the surrounding desert, and seemed to be built for defense. Archaeologists think this pattern shows competition for resources, possibly land and water. The general thinking is that they were a local development meant to protect the foothills from outside attacks.

However, the Hohokam lived in the surrounding areas long before building these fortified villages. They had villages along the extensive canal system they built on the desert floor by about 800 AD. Some of these villages grew together into large towns. Pueblo Grande in present-day downtown Phoenix was one of them, used also as a gathering place for the surrounding villages for market days.

Over time, the Hohokam in the river valleys and those living in the desert foothills developed different traditions. During the 12th and 13th centuries the fortified villages like the Sears-Kay Ruins appeared on the hilltops.

The Surrounding Desert Environment

The desert foothills where the Sears-Kay Ruins are make up a transition zone dividing the Sonoran Desert in the south from the Colorado Plateau in the north. This means they have plants and animals from both areas, an excellent combination for small groups of people living from farming, hunting, and gathering.

The foothills are home to deer, rabbit, and mountain sheep they could hunt. Still in the desert environment, mesquite, and cacti like the saguaro, prickly pear and cholla grow here. They provided a large part of the Hohokam diet. Yucca and agave provided fiber for weaving clothing and sandals. The surrounding hills also provided plenty of rocks for building and tool making.

The Hohokam were also farmers, and they grew crops like corn, beans, and squash, called the three sisters, as part of their staple diet. Since they couldn’t build canals on the mountaintops, they planted crops on the floodplains surrounding the springs at lower elevations. Also, instead of canals, they built stone terraces and small drainages to capture rainwater.

sears kay ruins 2

Returning to the Modern World

Though I explored each structure, and read all the signs, it didn’t take long to visit the ancient Hohokam village. We returned the way we came and drove back into the modern metropolis of Phoenix. I sometimes wonder what the ancients would think if they saw the way we live today…

Scroll to Top