located a little farther north of Montezuma Castle, is full of surprises and we missed one of the best
parts! Most of the information in this entry is from the National Park Service
guide (above), their brochures, website, and signs along the paths that guide visitors
through the site.
About 12 million years ago this part of the Verde Valley
was covered by a large shallow lake.
Thick layers of limestone rock gradually built up at the bottom from
plants floating in the water. Caverns were formed as the lake waters began
disappearing approximately two million years ago. Montezuma Well is a deep sinkhole formed about 11,000 years ago by
the collapse of one of those enormous
underground caverns. The water is 55 feet deep and the well is 368 feet
across. Thick masses of algae float on the surface, providing food for many
The well is fed continuously by springs at a rate of almost 1½
million gallons a day. It is a constant 74-76 F.
degrees, year round. What's even more interesting is that scientists have no idea
where that water comes from! As it passes through the limestone
it collects high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide that make it
completely inhospitable to fish.
A unique community of aquatic
life has evolved here; four species are found nowhere
else on earth. Amphipods, leeches, water scorpions, and other
creatures who have adapted to the harsh environment come out at
night in a feeding frenzy, then return to the bottom of the deep
well during the day. Many species of birds and mammals also feed
on the surface algae in the morning and afternoon.
The whole place is unique.
Sign showing the well and loop path around
the site. Beaver Creek is in the lower right, below a cliff.
After stopping to talk briefly with park personnel in the little
hut at the trailhead (no visitor center here) we were directed
up a moderately steep paved path to the top of the well. The
well rim is high desert terrain. In contrast, the bottom of the
well and the riparian area along Beaver Creek, the same
stream that flows past nearby Montezuma Castle, have fairly lush
After taking in the great views from the rim we found steps and
a path leading down into the well. In the next picture you can
barely see Jim (and not Cody) as he nears descends to lake level
on the east side of the well:
There are great views of the cliff walls, cliff dwellings, cave
homes, and water at lake level.
Lots of ducks were plying the waters for food:
IN ONE SIDE, OUT THE OTHER . . .
Remember the inlet I mentioned that brings 1½
million gallons of warm spring water into the well every
day? By now inquiring minds probably should wonder where that goes . . .
. . . out the swallet,
of course! That's one of several new words I learned today. The outlet is on the opposite
side of the pond from the inlet. I didn't get a picture of the
drain but I photographed the sign explaining how it works:
Imagine how happy the first human inhabitants of this site were
to find a source of continually flowing, warm water! That's
nearly unheard of in a desert ecosystem. No wonder about 200
people lived here for over 300 years -- and others continue to
either live nearby this oasis or visit it in the modern era.
What Jim and I failed to realize when we were nearing the end of
our visit to this site is that a second set of steps lead down
to Montezuma Well's Outlet, another magnificent oasis
along the creek and irrigation canal. The canal is three feet wide and stretches over
five miles long in some places. This 1,000-year-old Sinaguan
legacy is still being used by residents of nearby Rimrock, AZ.
This photo taken near the Outlet is from the monument's
After leaving the site I read an article by a young park guide,
Penny Wagner, who grew up near the Well. She lovingly describes
the cool, tranquil path to the Well Outlet through a lush refuge
along Beaver Creek. A huge Arizona Sycamore stands in the
peaceful sanctuary where the crystal clear water flows out of
the limestone cliff and into the irrigation canal. The tree
appears now as it did in photographs from the 1870s so it is
"Visitors often tell me that the Outlet is the highlight of
their trip," Penny wrote.
I'm sorry we didn't go down to it.
We saw the sign for it along the path back to the parking lot
and we had plenty of time to go.
We simply didn't know until too late just what a treat was down
the steps. But that gives us something to explore on our next
trip! Entry is free at this site and there's another nearby site
that was closed today that we want to see on our next trip:
the V-Bar-V, which has one of the largest and best preserved
collections of Sinaguan petroglyphs in the area.
MORE CLIFF DWELLINGS
Dwellings at this site include a Hohokum pithouse built after
600 1100 AD. It is located along the entrance road to the well
and we neglected to walk over to it both coming and going. Next
Some of the cliff dwellings from the Sinagua era (about 900 to
1400 AD) can be seen under the lip of the sinkhole. They face
southeast for solar warmth in the winter. Two are located just
below the first viewing point from the rim but you can't see
them from that vantage point. You can see the railing in the
The cliff dwellings are best
viewed from the steps that go down to the water level.
Cave homes were also constructed near lake level:
You can see the ruins of old walls in that area:
There's even some graffiti from a visitor over a hundred years
Multi-roomed pueblos were also built near the well on the ridges
overlooking the irrigated farmlands. Now mostly
piles of rubble, the masonry ruins still fascinate visitors who are amazed by
the resourcefulness of the Sinagua people.
Pueblo walls were built of limestone and sandstone; juniper, sycamore,
and cotton trees were used for support posts and their branches
helped form roofs. Mud from the creek bottom was used as
TIPS FOR VISITING MONTEZUMA WELL
Entrance to this detached portion of the Montezuma Castle-Tuzigoot
National Monument is free for everyone. I don't know how they
can do that. It is located on a paved road about four miles off
I-17 at exit 283. It's not far, as the crow flies, from
Montezuma Castle but it's about an eleven-mile drive away. There
is plenty of time to see both sites in one day -- and Tuzigoot,
too (love that name!).
Although there is a half-mile self-guiding trail on a paved loop
at this site, it is not as accessible as Montezuma Castle. The
path up to the Well is fairly steep and to get down into the
well itself and/or the outlet path requires climbing a lot of
The easy part of the trail is up on top the
cliff. Getting there is more difficult.
I don't know how many people visit this site each day. We saw
about the same number we saw earlier in the morning at Montezuma
Castle -- maybe fifteen, and they were spread out. Again, it is
probably very busy on spring and fall weekend days when the
weather is nice like today. Although the rim of the well is
about 3,000 feet in elevation it would be quite hot in the
summer. Pets are allowed to stroll through the site here, too,
so they don't fry in their owners' vehicles.
My #1 tip for this site is to go down to the Well Outlet. Don't
just look at another set of steps and groan that you're too
tired or don't have enough time. Apparently it's the best part
of this site. We'll be sure to see it next time.
For more information about Montezuma Well, check the National
Next entry: the remains of a large pueblo at Tuzigoot
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil