Established December 8, 1906, Montezuma Castle is the third National Monument dedicated to preserving Native American culture. We visited on a weekday and it’s a quick trip through the park to view the ruins.
Neither part of this monument’s name is correct. When European-Americans first saw 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. Having no connections to the Aztecs, the Montezuma Castle was given that name due to the fact that the public had this image of the Aztecs creating it. In fact, the dwelling was abandoned more than 40 years before Montezuma was born! Also, this isn’t a “castle” in the traditional sense, but instead functioned more like a “prehistoric high rise apartment complex.
This 20 room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff is situated about 90 feet up a sheer limestone cliff, facing the adjacent Beaver Creek, which drains into the perennial Verde River just north of Camp Verde. A short path out of the visitor center takes you to the base. Early visitors to the monument were allowed access to the structure by climbing a series of ladders up the side of the limestone cliffs. However, due to extensive damage to this valuable cultural landmark, public access of the ruins was discontinued in 1951.
So who did build this? The Sinagua were the group of people who lived in the dwellings at Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot. The Sinagua were living in the Verde Valley as early as 650 CE, or maybe even earlier. The earliest houses they built were called pithouses, made by digging partially into the ground, inserting log posts, and covering the structure with plant material. The Sinagua began building permanent living structures like those at this monument around 1050 CE.
After visiting here, we made the short drive over to Montezuma Well. Montezuma Well, a natural limestone sinkhole, measuring approximately 100 by 120 yards, also containing Sinagua dwellings, was purchased by the federal government in 1947 and is considered a detached unit of Montezuma Castle National Monument. A paved path takes you up stairs onto a plateau to see a surprise “lake”.
Water rises from deep underground and flows constantly. High levels of carbon dioxide make life in the lake impossible for fish, amphibians, and some aquatic insects. Though, it is the world’s ONLY home for five species including a mini shrimp, a leech, a tiny snail, a water scorpion, and a one celled plant called a diatom. The lake is full of leeches!!!!!
After viewing from above, we climbed down the cement stairs to look at some ruins, and also to see how the water drains into the creek below. When the water level in the lake rises above a certain spot, it siphons through an underground passageway and seven minutes later, merges into Wet Beaver Creek. I want to know how the leeches don’t get out. We hiked back up to the top and continued around with a side trip down to the creek to see where the water gets channeled to. Very interesting.