Exploring Montezuma Castle National Monument

Heather Raulerson

Where can you find a multi-room high-rise apartment built directly in a limestone cliff? Only at the Montezuma Castle National Monument in Arizona. Montezuma Castle is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the southwest and North America. If you are in Arizona and Phoenix, you should take a quick road trip out to see Montezuma Castle.

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Montezuma Castle National MonumentHeather Raulerson

How to Get to Montezuma Castle

It only takes an hour and a half from Phoenix to get to this National Monument and is only 45 minutes south of Flagstaff. Once you get close, the Montezuma Castle road follows a 1,000-year-old irrigation ditch (Beaver Creek). Daily open hours are from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is $10/adult, and ages 15 and younger are free. Schedule at least an hour or more to explore and walk around the grounds. If you purchase an annual pass, it will cover the entrance fee at both Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot National Monuments.

Montezuma Castle History

Montezuma Castle isn’t a castle, and the Aztec emperor Montezuma was never part of this construction, making the name of this National Monument somewhat ironic. When the site was found in the 1860s, the ruins were already abandoned hundreds of years before.European-Americans gave Montezuma Castle that name because they believed that the Aztecs created any archaeological sites from that time. What is fascinating about this national monument is the engineering involved in creating this dwelling high above Beaver Creek. The Sinagua Indians planned this well to alleviate the potential threats of the monsoon season flooding of the creek and potential threats from enemy tribes. Ingenious!

The Dwelling

This stone dwelling is set into a limestone cliff 90 ft above Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley of Arizona.  It is one of the best-preserved cliff ruins in North America and one of the first U.S. national monuments designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. President Roosevelt said the place was considered "of the greatest ethnological value and scientific interest." The five-story, 45-60 room cliff dwelling served as a “high-rise apartment building” for prehistoric Sinagua Indians ( the tribal name means “without water”) over 600 years ago. This was fitting because, in the dry season, Beaver Creek was dry as a bone. And is probably why the Sinagua left the area and abandoned this site. This dwelling took over three centuries to finish being built. The only part that still exists is a 20-room section of the ‘castle’ where approximately 30-50 people resided in.

Visiting

When this national monument opened up all the way until 1951, you could actually climb up ladders and actually explore inside the dwelling. Over the years the damage to the structure stopped all that. Now you can only walk along the paths and view the monument from the ground looking up with the other 350,000 visitors a year.  It is still an impressive sight to see. When you enter the national park, there is an easy 1/3 mile walk to the castle. The trail is lined with white-barked Sycamores, limestone cliffs, and tons of lizards sunning themselves on the rocks. And don't forget to check out the diorama showing how the Sinagua Indians might have lived in the dwelling.

Summary

Can you imagine who the person that thought it would be a smart idea to build into the side of a cliff was?  That someone saw this limestone cliff and said, I want to live here! The first architects of America apparently. Montezuma Castle is an easy destination to stop at while driving from Phoenix to Sedona, and you can get another National Passport stamp if you collect them.

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Freelance travel writer and photographer who loves sharing her adventures from around the world. It is never too late to pursue your dream!

Rochester Hills, MI
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