Western Trips

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Montezuma Castle / Arizona

montezuma castle arizona
Montezuma Castle
Western Trips had the opportunity to explore one of the most fascinating cliff dwelling locations in the southwest. Montezuma Castle is a must stop when touring Arizona and is very easy to reach. Located about 95 miles north of Phoenix Arizona and about 56 miles south of Flagstaff and just a few miles east of Interstate 17, Montezuma Castle features a well preserved village carved into the rock about one hundred feet high. This site is considered one of the best preserved in all of North America. Bring your camera along during your visit and you'll be able to get some amazing photos.

The twenty room Montezuma Castle is considered the showpiece village although the National Park Service points out that at one time there were perhaps eighty-five additional rooms to the ones you see today. It's estimated that some 150 people inhabited the village at one time.

When you visit Montezuma Castle you are experiencing the world of the Pre-Columbian Southern Sinagua. This was a prehistoric culture who lived as hunters and gatherers in the Verde Valley for thousands of years. Advances in both agriculture and architecture in the valley are credited by the influence of the Hohokam tribe residing to the south and the the Northern Sinagua peoples to the north.

montezuma castle cliff dwellings
Cliff dwellings built under protruding rock
The Life of the Cliff Dwellers

There are no written accounts as to the daily life of the cliff dwelling people of this age however there is a lot of speculation as to what it would have been like. Residents may have entered through the door and then used ladders to go from room to room. A family may have resided in one room with little furnishings and mats to sit and sleep on.

Occupations that were prevalent were agriculture and weaving as well as hunting and gathering. The hunting and gathering supplemented the first two. Which tribe member was responsible for what task most likely depended on age and stature within the village. Inhabitants were known to have grown corn, beans, squash and cotton. The second occupation was weaving using the cotton grown in the valley. The cotton grown there turned out to being some of the finest cloth in all of the southwest. This cloth and salt which was excavated from nearby mines were traded among neighboring tribes. Many of these tribes traveled hundreds of miles along the river that led to the general site of Montezuma Castle.

montezuma castle national monument
Montezuma Castle paved hiking trail
It's thought that the women created pottery mostly for storing food. They may have also added plaster to the walls that kept insects out and protected the structure.

Families would grind corn, make baskets and pottery and dry skins. 

At night, the cliff dwellers lit fires within their rooms for heat and a glow was seen out side the windows and doors. 

The Cliff Structures

Montezuma Castle is noted for it's "T" shaped doors. Interestingly enough, the T shaped doors is common with the Puebloan people who occupied the Four Corners region but not so with those from central Arizona.  Archeologists are uncertain whether this was an original door or added on to later.

Cliff Dwellings were typically built under protruding portions of cliffs. At Montezuma Castle these are limestone cliffs. These cliff dwellings and the surrounding area of 826 acres were declared a U.S. National Monument in 1906.

beaver creek arizona
Beaver Creek flowing past cliff dwellings
Leaving the Ancient Cliff Dwellings

Some stories contend that the ancient people of the southwest vanished sometime around 1425 A.D. What is known is that during the late 1300's many societal changes took place and the native population decided to move. As to why the exodus took place is still not fully understood and archeologists continue to study the subject. The reasons could be one or a combination of several occurrences. Changing climate, depletion of water resources, religious differences, disease, could all be reasons to explain the exodus. The National Park Service however points out that, at least in the case of Montezuma Castle, inhabitants may have left the village in small groups over time. There is no single date known when everyone left at one time. It's thought that many joined together to become the modern day Hopi and Zuni tribes.

Interesting links to additional Western Trips photo articles relating to the southwest cliff dwelling peoples include the Puye Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, Bandelier National Monument just north of Santa Fe New Mexico and Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado. 

Visiting Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument is open seven days a week from 8A to 5P. The park is closed on Christmas Day.

montezuma castle cliff dwellings in arizona
Montezuma Castle Visitor Center
Start your exploration of Montezuma Castle in the park's Visitors Center. Entrance fees for Montezuma Castle are collected inside the park Visitor Center. Inside the visitor center of Montezuma Castle National Monument you will find a fully stocked bookstore operated by a private, non-profit organization called Western National Parks Association. All of the profit from those sales stays in the park to help support park operations. The Visitor Center museum includes exhibits and artifacts including tools that  depict the lifestyle, history and culture of the Sinaguan Indians who built Montezuma Castle.

Ranger programs are offered daily and a self-guided, 1/4-mile paved loop trail leads you past an incredible 5-story cliff dwelling, through a fascinating sycamore grove and along spring fed Beaver Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona.

Montezuma Castle is a great addition to your Arizona vacation planner and is a fun and educational visit for the entire family. As mentioned above, it's location just off Interstate 17 and between Phoenix and Flagstaff make visiting the monument easy.

(Photos are from author's private collection)

View Larger Map