I’ve spent more time in Arizona this past year than any other state, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit in the United States. It’s not hard to figure out why — between the stunning views offered by Sedona’s hikes, the fascinating remains of petrified forests, giant meteor craters, and cursed ghost towns, Arizona is full of ways for me to geek out.
On my most recent trip, I towed my mom along and took her to all of my favorite stops. In addition to natural wonders like the Grand Canyon this also included visits of a more archaeological nature.
The southwestern United States is well known for its well-preserved remnants of Native American culture, and Arizona is no exception. Because of this, visiting Montezuma National Monument or, as it is known colloquially, Montezuma’s Castle, was a no-brainer.
Definitely worth geeking out over.
Neither Montezuma nor a Castle
The name “Monetezuma’s Castle” is, admittedly, misleading. Montezuma’s castle was not ever owned by anyone named Montezuma. It also is not a castle in any traditional sense.
So how’d it get the name? Bad guesswork.
The first Europeans to happen upon the site did so after it had been abandoned. With no residents to let them know how the impressive cliff-structures had come to be, they guessed that it was linked to the Aztec emperor Montezuma, giving birth to its name. This turned out to be totally incorrect — the site is actually the former home of a group of Sinagua Native Americans — but the name stuck nonetheless.
The description “castle” is also a bit misleading. There are no turrets or waving banners here, and visitors on the lookout for knights in shining armor will be sorely disappointed. Lack of drawbridge aside, the site is still impressive, representing one of the most well-preserved Native American cliff dwellings in the Southwestern United States.
Part of this is due to the location of the ruins, within the Arizona desert. The dry, warm climate is well-suited to preservation. Montezuma’s Castle is protected further by being situated 90 feet above the ground, settled back into the wall of a cliff.
Hope you’re not afraid of heights.
A Home Built to Last — and Protect
The Sinaguan people have been around for a long time — long enough that they witnessed the volcanic eruption of Sunset Peak way back in the 1060s (yes, the southwestern United States has volcanoes). Their name, which translates from Spanish as “without water” (sin agua) was given to them by archaeologist Harold Colton, and makes a lot of sense given their desert surroundings.
Montezuma’s Castle isn’t quite as old as the Sinaguan, being built around 1100. During its occupation it was the home to as many as 50 individuals at a time, all living within the vast complex of rooms that made up the 4,000 square foot structure.
In 1425 Montezuma’s Castle was abandoned, and all other Sinaguan sites show signs of abandonment around the
same time. There is no conclusive reason why these people up and left, though plenty of theories (including conflicts with other tribes) exist. These days, some of the modern Hopi people trace their ancestry to the vanished Sinagua.
At five stories tall, Montezuma’s Castle is set into a sheer limestone cliff. Anyone looking to enter the structure would need to access it via a series of ladders.
This may seem tedious, but the set-up had definite benefits.
Overlooking the river that sustained them, the Sinagua people were able to use their vantage point to see any coming threats, be they natural or not.
Despite its age, the vast majority of the ruins at Montezuma’s Castle are still original (about 80% according to the National Park Service). This is in large part due to its construction within the cliffside, protecting it from the elements. Even the wooden beams, created from the sycamore trees that grow nearby (pictured at right), are original, still providing essential support to the limestone-and-clay structure.
I know you want to know: No, you can’t go up into the structure itself. Once, visitors were allowed to climb into the rooms of Montezuma’s Castle.
Not unexpectedly, this was making it more difficult to keep the monument in the best condition possible. With the site’s preservation at risk, visiting the interior of the building was banned.
Instead, visitors take a leisurely stroll around the base of the cliff. Interpretive signs are placed periodically, and park rangers are available to help bring the story of Montezuma’s Castle to life.
It is not difficult to make a quick day trip to Montezuma’s Castle from Flagstaff (one hour away) or Sedona (half an hour away). Simply take I-17 south to exit 289 and follow the signs.
Entry to Montezuma’s Castle is $10 per person and also includes entry to the nearby Tuzigoot National Monument. If you want to see more ruins, Montezuma’s Well is just one exit away, and admission is free.
Have you been to any Native American ruins that were particularly striking?