Landmark History: Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle
Montezuma Castle, high up on its cliff.

The Landmark

Montezuma Castle is a great place for us to start our new recurring Landmark History series – this cliff-side dwelling has a long history spanning centuries and even an air of mystery about it.

Located in the Verde Valley in Arizona, Montezuma Castle is a permanent stone dwelling built nearly 100 feet up a cliff face. The dwelling is five stories tall and contains approximately 50 rooms. Other smaller more makeshift dwellings dot the cliff and the overall park contains other dwellings should you care to visit them; however, Montezuma Castle is definitely the main attraction. The cliff on which the castle is situated faces a stream known as Beaver Creek, which creates a bit of an oasis-like environment to the park.

This is an easy National Monument to visit – there’s very little walking and the short trail in the area is very accessible. The area also includes more preserved dwellings, but they are separated from the castle. If you are just looking for a quick stop on your way to Sedona from Phoenix (as we were) this is a perfect place to stop as it’s only a couple of miles off of the highway and only takes 30 minutes to an hour to enjoy your visit.

The History

While the structure itself is impressive – the storied past of Montezuma Castle is what makes it so fascinating. The Sinagua people began inhabiting the area, known as the Verde Valley, sometime around the 8th century. Evidence of permanent dwellings date back to around 1050 AD, though it was around this time that the eruption of a nearby volcano caused a brief period of abandonment of the Verde Valley.

Long term, this eruption likely had a positive impact on the valley: nutrient-rich soil deposits. The Sinagua people returned to the Verde Valley in the early to mid 1100s. The Sinagua culture was built on agriculture and the combination of the fertile, volcanic soil with the reliable waters of Beaver Creek made the valley a perfect place to settle.

Construction of Montezuma Castle is thought to have began early in this resettlement period. The positioning of the structure may seem inherently defensive; however, it’s more likely that the dwelling was built into the cliff to solve a much  more practical problem: yearly flooding of Beaver Creek during the summer monsoon season. Elevating the structure above the floodplain ensured that the dwelling was never washed away.

The dwelling was probably built overtime, added on to by subsequent generations, eventually growing in to the structure that we can view today. Eventually, Montezuma Castle would house up to 50 people. Verde Valley’s population would begin to decline sometime around 1300, falling gradually until the dwelling was abandoned early in the 1400s. This is where the mystery comes from for the Montezuma Castle.

The Sinagua are known to have migrated to other areas, though the reasoning behind it remains unclear. There are a number of likely causes for the migration: drought or other farming issues or tensions with the Yavapai people who had begun to inhabit the area may have driven them away.

Montezuma Castle would be rediscovered by various groups of settlers making their way west. In 1864, it would receive its present day name from King Woolsey in 1864 when he mistook the nearby pueblos at Montezuma Well for Aztec ruins, naming the site after several Aztec Emperors. This provides a perfect example of how historical gaffs can stick with a place forever.

The first dig at the Montezuma Castle site would be done in 1884. Unfortunately, early settlers known as “thieves of time” from around 1870 into the early 1900s would loot and ransack the sites, removing most of the historical artifacts from the area.

Still, the remarkable engineering of the Sinagua people has stood the test of time and the site is impressive to see today. This was recognized by Teddy Roosevelt who designated it as one of the original four National Monuments on December 8, 1906 under the American Antiquities Act. The castle would be later added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Sadly, structural concerns have closed off access to the interior of the ruins, which were open to visitors until 1951.

If you’re looking for glimpses into the history of the American West, Montezuma Castle stands as an example of the storied past of the United States and its original, native groups. Still today, Yavapai and Hopi people who trace their roots to this area after the Sinagua people left return to the site for various ceremonies. The area surrounding the monument is beautiful and perfect for those looking for an easy place to stretch their legs as they make their way across the great state of Arizona.

What to know if you go

Google Navigation only takes you to the front sign of the park area for Montezuma Castle, so don’t panic when your GPS tells you that you have arrived and all you see is a sign on the side of the road. Keep going – it’s not that much further.

Entry costs $5 per person. Having a pass for Tuzigoot saves you $2 per person (the same applies for having a pass for Montezuma Castle and going to Tuzigoot).


Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ, United States
(928) 567-3322

Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ, United States
(928) 567-3322

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