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"As seasons change, flocks of migratory green-winged teals and mallard ducks rest briefly on the
surface of Montezuma Well. Muskrats, pond sliders, and Sonoran mud turtles ply through the thick beds
of brown-green algae that flourish through the year. This unique refuge is like no other on earth . . . "
- Park News and Visitor Guide,  Montezuma Castle and
Tuzigoot National Monuments, National Park Service, 2008 Vol. 2, Number 1
Montezuma Well, 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 species.

The well is fed continuously by springs at a rate of almost 1 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 vegetation.

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:




Remember the inlet I mentioned that brings 1 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 website:

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 old, indeed.

"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.


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 time!

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 next photo.

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 ago:

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 plaster.




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 steps.

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 Park website.  

Next entry: the remains of a large pueblo at Tuzigoot

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil