If you live in or plan to visit Arizona, be sure to add Montezuma Castle to your sightseeing plans. Located off I-17 approximately fifty miles south of Flagstaff, and eighty miles north of Phoenix, Montezuma Castle is an amazing structure built 800 years ago!

What is Montezuma Castle?

According to the National Park Service brochure, Montezuma Castle is a five-story, 20 room dwelling built in the 1000s CE (Common Era) during the twelfth century. The amazing part of this building, erected by the pre-historic Southern Sinagua, is that it looms 100 feet above Verde Valley in a cliff recess. It is estimated that there were as many as 200 people who prospered in the area for more than three centuries, but that the community began to abandon the area around 1400 A.D, with the area completely deserted by 1450 A.D.

Who were the Sinagua?

Honanki Sinagua ruinHonanki Sinagua ruin – Image credits at the end of this article.

 

Sinagua means “without water” in Spanish. The Southern Sinagua community was a prehistoric culture which flourished in Arizona’s Verde Valley, alive with farmers, hunters and gatherers and their families.

The Sinagua lived off the land; the farmers growing crops such as corn, beans, squash and cotton; the gatherers picking Hackberry fruits and creekside plants; the hunters hunting the land, abundant with deer, antelope, rabbit, bear, muskrat and duck.

The Sinaguas crafted posts and beams from Arizona Sycamore trees, and made baskets and sandals from the Yucca plant. Being fine artisans, they created tools (axes, knives and hammers), created woven cotton garments, and ornaments made of shell, turquoise and argillite. Archeological site digs turned up plain, highly polished pottery, used for cooking, and manos and metates used for grinding corn.

Why is it Called Montezuma Castle?

Closeup of cliff dwelling structure at Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona.
Photo by Postdlf via Wikimedia Commons by CC

According to the Western National Parks Association publication, “Montezuma Castle National Monument” reprint 2006, the name came from early settlers in the area, who held an incorrect belief that the cliff dwelling was associated with the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma. However, in actuality, Montezuma wasn’t born until 100 years after the dwelling was abandoned by the Sinagua. Nevertheless, the name remains.

Why and How was the Montezuma Castle Built on the Side of this Arizona Cliff?

When looking up at Montezuma Castle, you can’t help but wonder why? Why would the Sinagua leaders decide to haul tools and timber up the side of this perilous-looking mountain to build their home cliffside? Conjecture is that first of all, the Sinaguas noticed the deep recess in the cliff and its limestone ledges and caves, and thought it to be a perfect starting point for construction. The other reason might have been location, location, location. Beaver Creek was nearby, it was protected from the elements, and had a great southern view and exposure. Additionally, the vantage point from the high cliffs may have given the Sinagua better defense against intruders.

Trying to imagine how the building was constructed is what visitors marvel at outloud as they stand at the base of the mountain. The theorized construction sequence is outlined in Jimhayes.com’s “Montezumas Castle Pictures”. Basically, several staggered handcrafted ladders took the workers to the base of the “castle”, where the first floor was built, consisting of six rooms. Additional rooms and floors were added above constructed rooms over a period of time, and living space was expanded into existing caves. The final cliffside structure looming majestically over the Verde Valley below it is an amazing site to see!

Montezuma Castle Visitor Information

 

Visitors to The Montezuma Castle enter through the Visitor Center. The fees are $5.00 for adults, children under 16 are free. If you visit Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot (the remnant of a Southern Sinagua Village) in the same week, there is a discount price for both. The visitor center has history regarding the Sinagua people, the Verde Valley area and archeological artifacts on display.

Annually, thousands of people walk the 1/3 mile long looped trail, which is a 20 minute, easy stroll on a level surface. Be sure to stop for the video presentation, which is in a shady area along the trail. It gives an imagined picture of life for the Montezuma Castle cliff dwellers. In the Arizona summer, weather is warm, so plan on lightweight clothing. Also, stay to the trails, take lots of pictures and be alert for snakes (this is the Arizona desert high country!)

During your next day trip in Arizona, be sure to add Montezuma Castle to your tour list. Your family will be amazed at this 800 year-old structure, and find it well worth the twenty minute trail walk to get a first-hand glimpse of pre-historic times in Arizona!

Image Credits

Honanki Sinagua ruin DescriptionHonanki Sinagua ruin.jpg English: Sinagua dwellings at Honanki, west of Sedona, Arizona Date 21 May 2010, 12:33 Source Sinagua dwellings at Honanki by CC via Wikimedia Commons