Montezuma Castle National Monument


Montezuma Castle National Monument protects a set of well-preserved dwellings located in Camp Verde, Arizona which were built and used by the Sinagua people, a pre-Columbian culture closely related to the Hohokam and other indigenous peoples of the southwestern United States, between approximately 1100 and 1425 AD.

The main structure comprises five stories and twenty rooms, and was built over the course of three centuries. Neither part of the monument’s name is correct. When European-Americans first observed the ruins in the 1860s, by then long-abandoned, they named them for the famous Aztec emperor Montezuma in the mistaken belief that he had been connected to their construction (see also Montezuma mythology). In fact, the dwelling was abandoned more than 40 years before Montezuma was born, and was not a “castle” in the traditional sense, but instead functioned more like a “prehistoric high rise apartment complex”, as many families lived there.

Several Hopi clans and Yavapai communities trace their ancestries to early immigrants from the Montezuma Castle/Beaver Creek area. Clan members periodically return to these ancestral homes for religious ceremonies.

Cliff dwelling : Montezuma Castle is situated about 90 feet (27 m) up a sheer limestone cliff, facing the adjacent Beaver Creek, which drains into the perennial Verde River just north of Camp Verde. It is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, in part because of its ideal placement in a natural alcove that protects it from exposure to the elements. The precariousness of the dwelling’s location and its immense scale – almost 4,000 square feet (370 m2) of floor space across five stories – suggest that the Sinagua were daring builders and skilled engineers. Access into the structure was most likely permitted by a series of portable ladders, which made it difficult for enemy tribes to penetrate the natural defense of the vertical barrier.

Perhaps the main reason the Sinagua chose to build the Castle so far above the ground, however, was to escape the threat of natural disaster in the form of the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. During the summer monsoon season, the creek frequently breached its banks, inundating the floodplain with water. The Sinagua recognized the importance of these floods to their agriculture, but likely also the potential destruction they presented to any structures built in the floodplain. Their solution was to build a permanent structure in the high recess afforded by the limestone cliff. The walls of Montezuma Castle are excellent examples of early stone-and-mortar masonry, constructed almost entirely from chunks of limestone found at the base of the cliff, as well as mud and/or clay from the creek bottom. The ceilings of the rooms also incorporated sectioned timbers as a kind of roof thatching, obtained primarily from the Arizona sycamore, a large hardwood tree native to the Verde Valley.

History : Montezuma’s Castle near Camp Verde, Arizona, ca.1893-1900
Evidence of permanent dwellings like those at Montezuma Castle begins to appear in the archaeological record of Arizona’s Verde Valley about 1050 AD, though the first distinctly Sinagua culture may have occupied the region as early as 700 AD. The area was briefly abandoned due to the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano, about 60 miles (97 km) to the north, in the mid-11th century. Though the short-term impact may have been destructive, it is possible that nutrient-rich sediment deposited by the volcano may have aided more expansive agricultural endeavors in the decades following the eruption. During the interim, the Sinagua lived in the surrounding highlands and sustained themselves on small-scale agriculture dependent on rain. After 1125, the Sinagua resettled the Verde Valley, utilizing the reliable watershed of the Verde River alongside irrigation systems left by previous inhabitants, perhaps including Hohokam peoples, to support more widespread farming.

Construction of the Castle itself is thought to have begun around this time, though the building efforts probably occurred gradually, level-by-level, over many generations. The region’s population likely peaked around 1300 AD, with the Castle housing between 30 and 50 people in at least 20 separate rooms. A neighboring segment of the same cliff wall suggests the existence of an even larger dwelling (referred to as “Castle A”) around the same time, of which only the stone foundations have survived. The discovery of Castle A in 1933 revealed many Sinagua artifacts and greatly increased understanding of their way of life. The latest estimated date of occupation for any Sinagua site comes from Montezuma Castle, around 1425 AD. After this date, like other contemporaneous cultural groups in the southwestern United States, the Sinagua people appear to have abandoned their permanent settlements and migrated elsewhere. The reasons for abandonment of these sites are unclear, but drought, resource depletion, and clashes with the newly arrived Yavapai people have been suggested. Due to heavy looting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, very few original artifacts survive from Montezuma Castle, though other Sinagua sites have remained more or less intact.

Federal protection : The monument itself encloses 860 acres near the geographic center of Arizona and the intersection of the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range physiographic provinces. The dwellings and the surrounding area were declared a U.S. National Monument on December 8, 1906 as a result of the American Antiquities Act, signed  earlier that year. It is one of the four original sites designated National Monuments by President Theodore Roosevelt. Montezuma Castle was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.

It is an easy monument to visit, just a short distance off Interstate 17, at exit 289. There is a 1/3 mile (0.54 km) paved trail starting at the visitor center that follows the base of the cliff containing the ruins. Access to the interior of the ruins has not been allowed since 1951 due to concerns about visitor safety and damage to the dwelling. About 400,000 tourists visit the site each year. The park is open from 8am to 5pm every day of the year, except for Christmas Day. The visitor center includes a museum about the Sinagua culture and the tools they used to build the dwellings. The museum houses many artifacts, such as stone tools, metates used for grinding corn, bone needles, and ornaments of shell and gemstone, which prove that the Sinagua were fine artisans as well as prolific traders.There is also a Park Store operated by Western National Parks Association. Montezuma Well : Montezuma Well, a natural limestone sinkhole also containing Sinagua dwellings, was purchased by the federal government in 1947 and is considered a detached unit of Montezuma Castle National Monument. It is located several miles north of the Castle near the town of Rimrock, Arizona, accessible from exits 293 and 298 off Interstate 17 ( There is no fee to enter Montezuma Well. )

Hours : Sun – Sat 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM / Location : 2800 Montezuma Castle Hwy, Camp Verde, AZ 86322 +1 928-567-3322 / Access : Coordinates: 34.611, -111.834 / Follow I-17 to exit 289 (90 minutes north of Phoenix, 45 minutes south of Flagstaff). Drive east (through two traffic circles) for approximately 1/2 mile to the blinking red light. Turn left onto Montezuma Castle Road. Montezuma Castle Entrance Fees : Adults (16 and over): $10.00  , Children (under 16): Free, Entrance fees can be purchased at the Visitor Center.


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