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  • Writer's pictureMike Bechtol

Montezuma Castle, AZ - Life In a 5-Story Cliff Dwelling


Arizona's Montezuma Castle is not really a castle and the Aztec king was never even here. In fact, this fascinating structure was constructed over a century before Montezuma was born. Built by the Sinagua Indians over 600 years ago, Montezuma Castle is a five-story dwelling constructed in a hollow recess high upon a limestone cliff. It is one of the most well-preserved of Arizona's many native ruins, and certainly among the most unique. It was accessible only by a series of ladders (which are no longer there). The 20-room structure was home to about 25 people. Although Montezuma Castle is located in an arid region between Phoenix and Flagstaff, Beaver Creek and some other ephemeral streams flow through the area, creating a small oasis on a landscape that is otherwise dominated by rocks, dust and junipers. The small, but informative visitors center offers plenty of information on the history of the area, the structure and the Sinagua people. A nominal fee is required for access to the paved one-third mile loop trail which takes visitors past the castle and along Beaver Creek. The trail is loaded with signage about the castle and other ruins, history and the foliage along the trail. The trail also features a large diorama, illustrating what the castle may have looked like when it was inhabited and completely intact. This short, easy trail is paved, flat and entirely wheelchair-accessible. Visitors are not permitted to enter the castle. Even though the trail provides an outstanding panoramic view, it only comes to within a few hundred feet of the dwelling, so you'll need binoculars to take a close look. I spent about a half hour on the trail. It was about 60 degrees in early December, but the cool air was offset by the abundant sunshine. There weren't many people there (although I ran into some fellow Ohioans)... but judging from the size of the parking lot, I suspect this place is quite lively during the spring and summer months.

There's little more to do at Montezuma Castle than to look at the structure and read about its history. You'll only need between a half-hour and an hour to fully experience the site. There is a small picnic area, so Montezuma Castle would be perfect for a picnic or a quick pit-stop to break the monotony of a long drive.

Montezuma Castle is located about 100 miles north of Phoenix and about 50 miles south of Flagstaff. Take I-17 Exit 289 just north of the town of Camp Verde. The visitors center is an easy three-mile drive off the highway. The route is clearly marked.

Montezuma Castle National Monument has a second unit about 11 miles from the main unit called "Montezuma Well". Again, the name is misleading. Montezuma was never here and it is not a well. Montezuma Well is a collapsed sinkhole roughly 500 feet in diameter. The pond within the sinkhole is fed by a spring which keeps the water at a constant 78 degrees year round. Also, the water has an extremely high concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide gas. Because of the constant temperature and the CO2, Montezuma Well is home to plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world. Despite these geological and biological curiosities, Montezuma Well is not much to look at. It resembles a big scummy pond in an abandoned limestone quarry. Its steep cliffs extend from the rim of the sinkhole to the water below, so it is not possible for visitors to get near the water and study the biological anomalies. A short (1/3 mile), but moderately-strenuous rattlesnake-infested trail leads visitors to the sinkhole rim. Upon arrival, my reaction was, "Yup, that's a big hole in the ground." Even though it's just a few miles off the highway, Montezuma Well is much more difficult to get to than Montezuma Castle. From the south, you must drive 35 mph through the tiny town of Rimrock. From the north, you must drive on a rough gravel road. Information on Montezuma Well, its formation and the weird creepy-crawlies that live there is available at the Montezuma Castle visitors center. In fact, they even have some specimens of the sinkhole's unique life forms. So unless you are a hard-core biology or geology buff, you wont miss much if you skip Montezuma Well.


Montezuma Castle National Monument is a pleasant experience. It might not be the highlight of your trip, but it's quick and easy pit stop between Phoenix and Flagstaff/Sedona... and you're certain not to forget the image of the big rock cliffside house.

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