Cosnino Caves

Whipple’s camp at Cosnino Caves/Turkey Tanks

After leaving the Petrified Forest, the Railroad Survey followed the Puerco and Little Colorado Rivers to a campsite near today’s Navajo town of Leupp, Arizona. Whipple then took a small exploring party west to San Francisco Mountain, discovering some deep permanent water tanks (Turkey Tanks) along the trail, and nearby a large cluster of abandoned Indian dwelling caves. Whipple named these the “Cosnino Caves” after the local (Coconino) Indians.  The main party arrived here a few days later.

Christmas at Cosnino Caves

Whipple’s party stayed a couple of days at Turkey Tanks to let the men and animals rest up a bit. On Christmas Eve of 1853 they had an improvised back country celebration.

Whipple’s comment:

December 24–camp 89.–…Christmas Eve has been celebrated with considerable eclat. The fireworks were decidedly magnificent. Tall, isolated pines surrounding the camp were set on fire. The flames leaped to the treetops, and then, dying away, sent up a numerable brilliant sparks. An Indian dance, by some ci-devant Navajo prisoners, was succeeded by song from the teamsters, and a pastoral enacted by the Mexicans, after their usual custom at this festival. Leroux’s servant, a tamed Crow Indian, and a herder, then performed a duet improvisated, in which they took the liberty of saying what they pleased of the company present—an amusement common in New Mexico and California, where this troubadour singing is much in vogue at fandangoes.

 The Indian Caves

I was surprised to discover that the caves had been covered with a pile of large rocks from the construction of the Leupp Road (Indian Reservation Route 15), which runs immediately above the caves. The Cosnino Caves are located at Turkey Tanks, which is about 5 miles north of Winona on the Leupp Road. Here’s what the site looks like today:

Cosnino Caves

The small flat are in the foreground is where Whipple’s survey crew camped December 23-25, The rubble across the center of the photo, particularly at right, is highway construction debris that now buries most of the caves.

cosnino-colton-oldTo the left is Harold Colton’s plan of the “Turkey Tanks Caves” from his 1946 book The Sinagua. Colton counted 21 caves in the side of the lava wall. John Sherburne of the Railroad Survey says there were 30 or more. May Humphreys Stacy claims (erroneously, I think) that Whipple reported there were around a thousand caves here.

In the photo below right, the roof of the upper tier of caves can be seen as a dark horizontal rent near the top of the pile of rocks. You can look into some of the upper caves but the lower tier is completely buried. Below left is a picture of a nearby cave that was not covered by debris. You can see the plastered walls inside and the rock wall across the front. There are also small cubby-holes in the wall for storage. I wonder if they might have laid poles from the top of the lava to the rock wall to make a roof (that’s what I would do). By the way, no pottery remains in the area.


Turkey Tanks was an important stop on the Beale Wagon Road and even had a post office for a short time during the construction of the railroad in the early 1880s. After the railroad began operations, travel on the wagon road dropped sharply and, like many other important sites, this one has almost faded into oblivion.