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Visiting Montezuma’s Castle and Well National Monument, Arizona

Visiting Montezuma’s Castle and Well National Monument, Arizona

America is a relatively young nation. So many of our oldest historical buildings are laughed at by the ones in Europe or Asia, being merely children in comparison. Of course, the Native Americans were here before the Pilgrims, but very few of their structures have survived through the centuries.

Arizona, however, is a treasure trove of National Monuments – many of them Native American dwellings. While the majority of Native American’s in this area lived in pueblos constructed on the ground, there were a few that lived in cliff dwellings. The cliff dwelling known as Montezuma’s Castle is one of the most significant.

montezuma's castle arizona cliff dwelling

The first high-rise apartment complex… pueblo style.

Like most Native American dwellings, Montezuma’s Castle was looted over the years. However, through President Teddy Roosevelt’s foresight, the area was deemed a National Monument in 1906 which ensured government protection of further desecration of the site.

Sunset Crater national monument arizona

The now dormant Sunset Crater.

This site was built around 700 before being abandoned briefly after Sunset Crater Volcano (which is now a nearby National Monument) erupted.  Then it was inhabited continuously from 1100 to 1425 by the Sinagua. It was named “Montezuma’s” because the Europeans that found it thought it had to be Aztec. Like so many things they assumed, they were wrong about that. Montezuma was born a good 100 years after the site was abandoned, and nothing had a connection to the Aztecs. It also isn’t a castle. It’s more like a “prehistoric high rise apartment complex”. The five-story stone and mortar dwellings contain 20 rooms and once housed about 50 people. You can no longer enter the site through ladders, so photography is only possible from below.

native american well arizona

Montezuma’s Well – a detached part of Montezuma’s Castle National Monument.

The National Monument also covers Montezuma’s Well, which you can more freely access and I am really glad we stopped to see it.  An oasis in the desert landscape, this natural limestone sinkhole is fed by two springs and over 1.5 million gallons of water flows through it daily. That number amazingly does not change much, even in drought years.

montezumas well camp verde arizona

Steam rising off the 74 degree water.

The water emerges at a warm (or in the summer, cool) 74 degrees and flows through the well into an underground cave.

underground cave montezuma's well arizona

The underground cave that the well water flows through before reaching the irrigation ditch.

It then leads this highly carbonated water into a irrigation ditch.  Despite the water’s high concentration of lead, this ditch was used for cultivated crops by the nearby tribes.  It still supplies nearby agricultural pursuits today.

irrigation ditch agriculture arizona

The irrigation ditch fed by Montezuma’s Well.

It also flows into Wet Beaver Creek at a rate of 1,100 gallons per minute, which served as an additional irrigation source to the Sinagua people and later inhabitants.

tributary of the verde river, arizona

Wet Beaver Creek is also fed by Montezuma’s Well.

This area truly was the lifeblood of Hohokam and later the Sinaguas. You can see ruins of multiple dwellings very close to the well. The Yavapai people, rivals of the Sinagua, believe they entered the world through this well and treat it as a sacred site.

cliff dwellings national monument camp verde arizona

Cliff dwellings along the rim of Montezuma’s Well.

pueblo ruins montezuma's well arizona

Pueblo ruins just steps from the top of the well.

One of the most striking things about the well were two giant Arizona Sycamore trees next to the irrigation ditch.  These trees have to have their roots in a constant water supply, which makes the areas it can survive in Arizona very small in number.  They can reach a height of 80 feet!   The builders of Montzuma’s Castle used these trees to make the main beams of the dwelling.

arizona sycamore montezuma's well

An Arizona Sycamore next to the irrigation ditch.

Both Montezuma’s Castle and Well are easily accessed from Highway 17 north of Camp Verde and south of Flagstaff.

Website : National Park Service – Montezuma’s Castle National Monument

  1. Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista 7 March, 2013

    Your pictures are really very nice! I especially like the creek picture. Thanks for this interesting and educational post.

  2. budget jan 7 March, 2013

    I think the rock high rise is very beautiful and amazing that it is still around today. It must have been built well. The photo of the cactus and well, together with the sycamore tree are amongst my favourites.

  3. Mary {The World Is A Book} 8 March, 2013

    Beautiful pictures! These ruins are amazing! We haven’t made it to this part of arizona yet but these are definitely worth a stop.

  4. Sophie 8 March, 2013

    Interesting bit of American history here, Amy. I haven’t seen nearly enough of the south-west.

  5. Terri @ Travel 50 States with Kids 8 March, 2013

    That looks amazing. We have other cliff dwellings on our itinerary for the southwest trip, but not that one. It’s too bad it’s not on my route!!! I would like to go there someday.

  6. Nancie 12 March, 2013

    How interesting! and your photos are gorgeous. What an adventure it would be to go inside!