When we were at McDowell a year ago I found two
issues of RV Journal that described seven or eight ancient cliff
dwellings and other related sites north of Phoenix but we just didn't get up
there to visit any of them. I was intrigued by the stories I read about the
amazing people who lived in the area up to ten thousand years ago, then either
disappeared or merged into other tribes around 1400 AD (now called CE, Common
Era, by the Park Service).
The old sites are clustered in two general areas in central and
northern Arizona: the Verde River valley approximately between
Camp Verde and Cottonwood, and farther north near Flagstaff. We
thought we might get into too much snow at the higher elevations
near Flagstaff so today we did just a day trip to the Verde
Valley area to visit Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well, and Tuzigoot.
I'll talk about each site in a separate entry to keep them
Let's start with a bit of history about the area and its first
The Verde Valley has formed a natural corridor for big game and
early human migration for ten thousand years or more. It is a
transitional area between desert, grassland, and forest
vegetation zones, providing the food and water that all life
needs for survival.
Over the millenia the climate of this area became more warm and
dry. The vast grasslands disappeared, causing the extinction of
several types of big game animals like mammoths, camels (!), and
Early hunter-gatherers by relying more on agriculture
and commerce with other cultures to sustain their lives. They
traded minerals, textiles, jewelry, and other resources (by foot
-- early ultra walkers!) over a vast expanse of the West and
down into Mexico.
And they forever changed the way people interacted with the land
when they learned from the people who lived in what is now
Mexico to rely on agriculture to supply their main source of
food. Corn, beans, and squash were gradually hybridized to adapt
to the Arizona climate and the tribes learned how to store it to
last throughout the winter. Agriculture also transformed the way
human society was organized into communities to grow and share
the crops. They continued hunting available game and gathering
available natural foods, but the emphasis was more and more on
Around 600 AD the earliest dwellings in the Verde Valley were
excavated into the ground and had roofs made of timber, brush,
and clay. Small settlements have been found around the periphery
of the valley and along the waterways. One example, the Pithouse
Ruin (which we didn't see), is near Montezuma Well. It is
believed that these structures were built by Hohokum peoples
(Pima for "those who have gone") who
migrated north from southern and central Arizona. The Hohokum
are primarily known for building irrigation canals in the
Phoenix area. That's a pretty advanced
concept in that era.
The pueblos, masonry dwellings built on hilltops and in cliffs,
that we saw today were mostly constructed by Ancestral Pueblo
people referred to by modern-day archeologists as Sinagua
(Spanish for "without water")
between approximately 1100 AD and 1400 AD. The Sinagua
(pronounced seen-AH-wa) are one
of many different prehistoric Southwest Indian cultural groups
who interacted with extensive trade connections, practiced
similar lifestyles, engaged in agriculture, and shared religious
concepts and practices. They are believed to be descendants of
the modern Hopi, Yavapai, and Apache people of Arizona. For
unknown reasons they simply disappeared from the area around
The first Euro-American explorers to find these impressive cliff
dwellings and large pueblos with standing walls in the 1870s
couldn't believe they had been built by local indigenous people.
They attributed their design and construction to the Aztecs,
whose magnificent ruins they had seen during the
Mexican-American war. The explorers named two of the sites,
Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well, after the Aztec king. The
names stuck and have never been changed.
MONTEZUMA CASTLE: NEITHER CASTLE NOR AZTEC
Montezuma Castle is an impressive five-story, 20-room
prehistoric cliff dwelling that sits a hundred feet above the
ground. It is stunning but it's not a castle.
It's a wonder as much of it still exists intact, considering the
vandalism, unauthorized excavations, and authorized visitation
the monument has seen until recent years. Over 90% of the Castle
we see today is part of the original structure built
approximately nine centuries ago.
Although the ruin became a national monument in 1906 and was
partially restored and stabilized in the 1930s, visitors were
allowed to climb ladders into the structure until the early
1950s. Now only park personnel and archeologists are allowed to
go into it.
You can read a lot more about the Castle's construction in a
"virtual tour" at this
link. It's not a video
but a multi-page series of photos and text that is very
interesting to read.
The next photo of Jim and Cody near the cliff dwelling gives
you a sense of how high the cliff rises above the ground -- and
how high those folks had to climb up (or down) to get into their
That photo also shows how tall some of the "younger" Arizona
Sycamore trees are.
Another cliff dwelling around the corner, "Castle A," is more
deteriorated but you can get right up close to it.
At its peak in about
1300, Castle A was six stories high and held up to 50 rooms.
Here is one of the signs describing its history:
Montezuma Castle was part of a large community of people spread
up and down the waterways of the Verde Valley. According to Park
Service information, as many as 8,000 people may have lived
close together in the valley in small villages like the
This site along Beaver Creek was perfect for its Southern
The two "castles" probably housed over a hundred people.
Entrance to Montezuma Castle was gained by ladders. Historians and architects don't
know if the rooms were built deep into the cliff for protection
from enemies or more for environmental reasons. The rooms are
toasty warm in winter, cool in summer, and high enough for nice
views of the creek and protection from insects and flooding.
There are ruins on top of the cliff above the Castle which would
have been a logical place for sentries, although there is scant
evidence of conflicts during this period of time. Daily activities like
processing food were conducted up there. The land between the
cliff and creek was saved for growing crops.
TIPS ON VISITING MONTEZUMA CASTLE
Montezuma Castle is easy to reach on a rural paved road off I-17
at exit 283, about an hour's drive north of Phoenix or south of
Flagstaff. The three sites we visited today are open every day
except Christmas. Entry to the Castle is $5 per person or you
can purchase a combined pass for both Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot
for $8 per person. Entry is free to nearby Montezuma
Well. It's also free to all these sites for kids under age 16
and for folks with an annual, senior, or access pass for the
national park system.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Montezuma Castle. What an
impressive site on a bright, sunny day like today! Visitors must
remain on the flat, paved loop that meanders for about a third of a
mile below the cliff dwelling. There weren't very many visitors
while we were there on this Tuesday morning but this board shows
yesterday's total attendance was 577 people. Keep in mind that was a
Monday in January, not a time you'd expect that many
Here's my best tip: go see this stunning site but don't visit on a weekend in the spring or
fall!! Divide last year's attendance by the 364 days it was open
and you'll see why (an average of 1,642 people a day). You can bet
there are a lot more people there throughout the day on a spring
or fall Saturday or Sunday. It's a small park -- and parking
Because of Arizona's notorious heat, visitors are not only
allowed but strongly encouraged to take their pets with them
through these sites so they don't roast in vehicles in the
parking lots. Cody enjoyed his history lesson, too! The only
place he couldn't go today was into the nice visitor centers at
Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot (no visitor center at Montezuma
Well). Pets small enough to be carried can go inside, however.
The visitor's center at Montezuma Castle is very attractive
inside, a worthy tribute to the native cultures of this part of
Arizona. This is one of many historical displays inside:
There is also a wealth of information on the signs along the
I was impressed by these magnificent old Arizona Sycamore trees
near the visitor center at the Castle. The ranger indicated they
are hundreds of years old, but not as old as the cliff
dwellings. These ghostly white-trunked trees live near streams
in the Verde Valley and often reach heights of 80 feet or more.
The sycamore seedlings that are tough enough to mature into
these beautiful specimen host a wide variety of native Arizona
birds, insects, and burrowing critters. They provide shade when
their leaves are out and people in the valley have used the soft
wood for building homes for thousands of years. The support
beams in the rooms at Montezuma Castle are from the Arizona
Because of the fragility of the desert environment the Park
Service is as vigilant in protecting its natural resources as it
is the archeological wonders in this area. Visitors are not
allowed up in the cliff dwelling any more and they must stay on
the paved walkway. You can see a scale model of the dwelling in
the visitors' center. It also contains artifacts found in the
area and many exhibits featuring local flora and fauna.
You can also visit the monument's
website for photos and detailed
information. The site is worth the cost of admission and more!
Next entry: a visit to Montezuma Well -- equally
impressive but very different
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil