Montezuma Castle National Monument

     Just a 90 minute drive north on I-17 from Phoenix, 45 minutes south from Flagstaff, stands a very tangible link to the ancient past of Arizona that will inspire and amaze any traveler. Perched  100 feet above the ground within a massive recess in the face of a limestone cliff, the ruins of Montezuma Castle stand in silent witness to the passage of the centuries.

     Located within the Verde Valley, this apartment-like dwelling was constructed in the 12th century entirely by hand using primitive tools and materials.  The builders were the Sinagua Indians, so named by the Spanish, who mysteriously disappeared into the shadows of history around the 1400s.

It was, and is, a marvel of ancient construction skills, and in its heyday stood five levels tall with a total of twenty separate rooms of various sizes. Nearby, at the base of the cliff, once stood a six-story structure of forty-five rooms that has deteriorated to the point of being almost a pile of rubble. The cliff dwelling, with its protective stone overhang, has survived the last 600 years in much better condition. In fact, it is one of the best-preserved ancient native structures in the Southwest.

     The Sinagua were an agricultural people who had abandoned their hunter-gatherer life, although they did hunt to supplement their diet, but had long since deserted their homes by the time the Spanish arrived in the area in the late 1500s. If the Spanish explorers glimpsed the cliff dwelling they were not impressed enough to leave any record. It was the first Anglo settlers in the 1860s who gave the site the distinctive and erroneous name of Montezuma Castle, believing that the structure must be Aztec in origin.

      By 1897, members of the Arizona Antiquarian Association began restoration on the site and in 1906 it was named a National Monument by a presidential proclamation issued by Theodore Roosevelt. Since that time the federal government has managed the site, and has purchased adjacent private lands to expand and preserve the surrounding area in its original condition.

     Viewed now only from below, over thirty years ago the practice of allowing tourists to climb up to the structure via a series of installed ladders and wander through its rooms was ended, the Castle is still an impressive sight.

At the base of the cliff a series of paved trails wander 1/3 of a mile through stately sycamore trees and beside a meandering stream, providing views of the cliff dwelling from varied and interesting angles. Benches are provided to rest and relax while taking in the sights and sounds of the natural environment.

Inside the park visitor center there are exhibits of artifacts and a modest gift store that provide more information on the Sinagua people who built the Castle and the history of the site.

     The 102-year old park is open daily 8am to 6pm from June through August and 8am to 5pm from September through May. Admission price is a quite manageable $5.00 for adults 16 and over and free for children under 16. It is located just off exit 289 of I-17 on Montezuma Castle Road.

     For a tranquil, go-at-your-own-pace stroll through an ancient site without the hustle, bustle, and crowds associated with other Arizona attractions or similar areas, this trip is highly recommended.