Less than a mile off Arizona’s I-17 Highway, a centuries-old high-rise dwelling sits carved into the side of a limestone cliff. Its smooth terracotta-colored walls contrast with the ragged edge of the surrounding rock, striated in hues of cream, sand, gray, and ocher. Montezuma Castle National Monument, located 95 miles north of Phoenix, is one of the best-preserved cliff-dwellings in North America.
The five-story structure appears terraced with rooms nestled into what looks like giant thumb indentations in the cliff. The 20 rooms of the castle sit on ledges of natural caves. A total of seventeen rooms make up the top four stories; the lowest level contains two store-rooms. It is believed that the Sinagua people, who began building Montezuma Castle in the 12th century, used ladders to get in and out and to move between floors, although no original ladders have been found at the site. Today National Park Service personnel access Montezuma Castle the same way, climbing ladders up from the base on the cliff below the dwelling.
Montezuma Castle is just one building of what was once a thriving community. Castle A, now a badly deteriorated ruin, sat a short distance to the west. Built at the base of the cliff, it had about 65 rooms. Together, the castles were likely home to 150 people. Montezuma Castle was abandoned shortly after 1400 when the Sinagua “disappeared” from the Verde Valley.
The Sinagua lived in the Verde Valley from about 600 to 1425, building more than 40 pueblos and hamlets throughout the region. They were peaceful village dwellers and farmers who fashioned tools out of stone, turned bone into awls and needles, wove garments of cotton, made sandals and mats from yucca fibers, and fashioned ornaments out of shell, turquoise, and local red stone.
Archaeologists are still trying to understand the details of their departure from the valley, but changes starting in the 1300s resulted in a shift of population centers. The Sinagua likely left in small groups at a time, not all going in the same direction. Many joined together to become the Hopi and Zuni tribes. Others stayed behind but turned to hunting and gathering instead of farming and became the ancestors of today’s Yavapai people.
In the 1860s, miners and soldiers visiting the area mistakenly assumed the dwelling had been built by Aztecs and named it after the Aztec emperor Montezuma. On December 8, 1906, Montezuma Castle and surrounding acres were designated a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt. It was one of the first four National Monuments declared in celebration of the passing of the Antiquities Act.
At first, tourists could tour the abode by climbing ladders up the side of the limestone cliffs. This direct contact led to damage, so public access ended in 1951. Today, you have an unobstructed view of the dwelling from below on a self-guided, paved 1/3-mile loop trail that takes you past the Castle. Exhibits along the way describe the cultural and natural history.
The trail also takes you along spring-fed Beaver-Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona, and through a sycamore grove. The trees, with white trunks and spreading, gnarled branches, can reach heights of 80 feet. Sycamore trees covered much of Arizona millions of years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the climate became drier, the trees retreated close to permanent sources of water. People in the Verde Valley used the soft wood for thousands of years. Many of the support beams in Montezuma Castle are made from sycamore.
Montezuma Well, a natural limestone sinkhole that is also part of the monument, is located 11 miles to the north. Every day over 1.5 million gallons of water flows into the well. The rate has not fluctuated measurably despite recent droughts. The water is saturated with carbon dioxide because of the limestone it flows through and fish cannot breathe. No fish live in there, but Montezuma Well is home to five species found nowhere else on earth: a water scorpion, an amphipod, a leech, a snail, and a diatom.
This tranquil oasis was important to the Sinagua, who diverted water to irrigate their crops. With a shaded forest along the trail near the well and cooler temperatures near the Well outlet, it is likely the area provided welcome relief from the summer heat.
Montezuma Castle National Monument is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm (last vehicle entry is at 4:45 pm), except for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve, when it closes at 2 pm, and Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, when it is closed all day. The Visitor Center at Montezuma Castle has information about both the Castle and the Well. There is an entrance fee for the Castle, but access to the Well is free. There are picnic tables along Beaver Creek near the Castle and at Montezuma Well.
We hope this piece inspired you to make the trek out to Montezuma National Monument!