Montezuma Castle, a five-level cliff dwelling nestled into a limestone alcove high above the flood plain of Beaver Creek, isn’t a castle and has nothing to do with Montezuma.
The misattribution is traced to the 1870s, when explorers, doubting that the area’s indigenous people could have built such elaborate structures 150 feet up a sheer cliff, deemed the dwellings as magnificent as the Aztec ruins in Mexico. Furthermore, the castle was abandoned almost a century before Montezuma was born.
On December 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Montezuma Castle one of the country’s first national monuments, maintaining and protecting the cultural resource.
The five-story, 20-room cliff dwelling dates back to approximately 1150 and served as a “high-rise apartment building” for prehistoric Sinagua Indians.
The Anasazi that lived and farmed in the Flagstaff area hundreds of years ago was named the “Sinagua” by archeologists because of the absence of water in that area. When archeologists began studying the culture that had lived in the Verde Valley they realized that these people were also members of the Sinagua culture.
Montezuma Castle was not an isolated structure where people lived generation after generation, having little contact with neighbors. The Castle instead was a small, but very dramatic, part of a larger community of people spread up and down the waterways of the Verde Valley. As many as 6,000 to 8,000 people may have lived in the valley in small villages no more than several miles apart.
Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top. Entrance to most areas was usually from a hole in the roof.
There is little evidence of conflict or warfare but perhaps people felt more secure living in the Castle. The series of ladders used to climb to the site could be pulled in for the night. A small ruin above the Castle, on the top of the cliff, provides views of the entire countryside—a sentry would have advance warning of anyone entering the area.
The white-barked Arizona Sycamore is one of the most distinctive sights at Montezuma Castle often reaching heights of 80 feet. This tree once blanketed Arizona 63 million years ago when the climate was cool and moist. As the weather became drier these deciduous trees thrived only in areas close to permanent water, such as the perennial streams and canyon bottoms.
Some amazing adaptations help the Arizona Sycamore survive from seedling to old age—at least 200 years. Each fruit pod contains an average of 667 seeds with a protective coating designed to withstand seasonal flooding.
A self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail leads past the cliff dwelling, through a beautiful grove of Arizona sycamores and along spring-fed Beaver Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona.
There is a small Visitors Center that contains a museum displaying artifacts. Here visitors can learn more about the pottery, textiles, and other aspects of the Sinagua. Southwest Parks and Monuments Association also runs a small bookstore in the Visitor Center.
Ranger programs are offered daily. Ask a ranger at the park visitor center for details on times and locations of these programs.
Visitors to Montezuma Castle will not want to miss Montezuma Well.
Did You Know?
The Sinagua, who inhabited the area in and around Montezuma Castle National Monument, created beautiful pottery and textiles. Many of the artifacts found here are on display in the museum.
Operating Hours: Open year-round, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., extended hours in summer
Admission: Adults $5.00 (valid for seven days), children (under 16) free; passes are available at a discounted rate of $8.00 for both Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle national monuments (If you are planning on visiting both parks, ask for this discounted pass when you purchase your entrance fee at either park); no entrance fee for visiting Montezuma Well
Climate: Summers in the Verde Valley are generally hot and dry, although, it often cools down considerably at night; winters can be snowy at times with temperatures ranging between 14-45 degrees
Location: Montezuma Castle is three miles east of I-17 via Exit 289
Directions: Drive east to Camp Verde to a flashing red light (Montezuma Castle Road) and turn left and follow the signs to the parking area
Camping: NO camping facilities
Address: P. O. Box 219, Camp Verde, Arizona 86322
Contact: (928) 567-3322
Alone in the open desert,
I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy.
The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.
I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, the sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night.
I have seemed to be at one with the world.