Arizona Vacation

Montezuma Castle Ancient Ruins

By Tony Subia

Photo of Montezuma CastleMontezuma Castle National Monument. © Mike Koopsen

Montezuma Castle, built by the Sinagua Indians during the 1100s is one of the most well preserved ancient cliff dwellings in America. Gazing through windows of the past, the set of 20 room high-rise apartments carved into towering limestone cliffs illustrates a story of an Indian Tribe with ingenuity, survival, and tenacity that turned an unforgiving desert landscape into convenient prosperity.

For mysterious and unknown reasons, the Sinagua abandoned its habitat in the 1400s. Maybe they had over extended agricultural pressure on the land. Perhaps there was an unbearable prolonged drought or most could have been eliminated through conflict with ancient Yavapai Indians. Most Sinaguans likely the were absorbed into other Tribes to the north. The Hopi Indians of today believe they are the descendants of the Sinagua.

More about the ancient Sinagua Indians.

Interestingly, the name Montezuma Castle was a mistaken name. Early settlers who discovered the cliff dwelling ruins erroneously assumed the ruins were connected to the Aztec Emperor Montezuma. But in-fact the Sinaqua abandoned the Castle dwellings a century before Montezuma was even born. And the dwellings are not a castle at all, but a multifamily prehistoric high-rise apartment complex.

The Sinaqua were daring builders who scaled the high cliffs to build the dwellings into cliff alcoves overlooking the Beaver Creek area a few miles from what is now Camp Verde, Arizona located about 26 miles southeast of Sedona.

The Sinagua used ladders to scale up the cliff walls and as they reached specific levels the ladders were pulled-up behind them until reaching the safety of community rooms. This helped prevent enemies from scaling straight-vertical barriers.

Photo of View From Top of Montezuma Castle

As agriculturists, the Sinagua had some existing benefits that enticed them to build Montezuma Castle. The prehistoric Hohokam People had been here hundreds of years previously and built irrigation systems to water farming crops along the banks of Beaver Creek.

Picture of the View From The Top of Montezuma Castle

The land was already fertile with an abundant variety of wildlife which providing good hunting, augmenting a primary diet of corn. There is also evidence that the Sinaqua mined salt in the area. Combined with the natural safety provided by the security of the cliffs, fertile farming grounds and hunting made this the ideal place to build their castle.

Montezuma Castle

Artifacts confirmed the Sinaqua were fine artisans. A variety of artifacts including stone tools, metates for grinding corn, needles carved from bone to weave garments have been discovered. They created artistic ornaments made of turquoise, shells and local gemstones. Pottery was not an ornate craft but simply plain, functional cooking ware.

Other groups of Sinagua Indians groups created separate villages in Northern Arizona areas including "Tuzigoot Ruins" about 23 miles from Montezuma Castle. The remnants of the village of Tuzigoot originally were two stories high with 77 ground floor rooms that were accessed via ladders through roof openings.

Another nearby Sinagua settlement was Montezuma Well, a limestone sink created by the collapse of a large underground cavern. The well is fed by a continuously running spring which the Sinaquas used to irrigate crops. The ruins were a collection of large pueblos and scattered single one-room dwellings. Montezuma Well is only about 11 miles from Montezuma Castle.

Location, Fees, Amenities and Ranger Programs

Over a million visitors visit Montezuma Castle National Monument every year. There are no lodging or camping facilities at the park, but motels are located nearby in Camp Verde Arizona. Higher-end hotels and several resorts are about 30 miles away in Sedona. Phoenix is about 90 miles to the south and Flagstaff Arizona is about 50 miles north of the castle.

Montezuma Castle is open every day of the year except Christmas Day. Hours are from 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM during the summer months. During the winter months, the National Monument gates close at 5:00 PM. Nominal entrance fees apply. Children under 16 are admitted free. A free annual pass is available for active military personnel and their dependents.

The Montezuma Visitors Center features a small museum displaying ancient artifacts and the park includes paved, self-guided trails of which some portions are wheel chair assessable. Some trails are too steep for wheel chairs. Bring a lunch to enjoy a picnic area under the trees on the banks of Beaver Creek.

Ranger programs on various topics of interest are scheduled each morning at 10:30 and 11:30 subject to staffing. Occasionally there are special events. Dogs on leash are permitted on the trails. Check with the Montezuma National Monument Park for any changes to schedules, fees and guidelines.

Montezuma National Monument
PO Box 219

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