If you’re ever in the town of Camp Verde, Arizona, take a quick drive over to Montezuma National Monument and look up at the massive cliffs that stand proudly and see one of the most remarkable sights you will ever see; the Montezuma Castle. There, carved in the middle of the rock, like the cliff dwellings of the Sinagua people. It seems an unreachable and unfathomable that such people could even get to or even were able to carve their home mid-cliff. The sight of the “castle,” as it became to be known as, is beautiful and leaves a shocking impression and many questions.
History of Montezuma Castle
The castle is an ancient and preserved Puebloan cliff dwelling that is now cared for by the National Park Service. The Sinagua people are indigenous peoples to the southwestern U.S., and they carved their homes that consist of five stories and twenty rooms, and that is only in the primary structure. The structure and its people were active and used the castle between 1100 and 1425 AD. The name of the monument is mistaken, but it still stands. People associated the discovery of the cliff dwellings along with Montezuma, the famous Aztec Emperor, thinking he had something to do with their creation when in reality he did not. The name remains the same, having never been changed.
What does Sinagua Mean?
The term “Sinagua” derives from two Spanish words “sin” and “agua.” The two words mean “without water.” They had lived in the Flagstaff area in northern Arizona where there is a lack of water. Archaeologists later realized that the people in the Verde Valley area, including Camp Verde, were also people of the Sinagua culture as well.
Why in a Cliff?
Why would the Sinagua build their home in a cliff? One of the main reasons is protection. The Sinagua were obviously skilled builders and engineers, and their castle was accessed by a series of ladders. The height and the accessibility made for the ultimate look-out position, in which they could see any enemies that were approaching or anyone at all for that matter. The second reason is water. The cliff is adjacent to Beaver Creek, which is known for its annual flooding. The Sinagua would, therefore, have a close water source to sustain life, and they built carved their home up on the cliff to protect them from the massive floods during the monsoon season. The dwellings are also in excellent condition, even today, partly due to restoration efforts, but mainly because the cliff protected the dwellings so efficiently.
Montezuma Well is considered to be related to the castle, as it has Sinagua dwellings. The well is a natural limestone sinkhole and is found a few miles north of the castle. The sinkhole also contains Sinagua dwellings, as it was assumed they covered and lived in a good portion of the surrounding areas of the castle.
Walk the Trail that Leads you to the Castle
Montezuma Castle National Monument has a beautiful hiking trail that leads you past the 5-story dwelling in the cliffs. The trail is approximately 1/3 of a mile and also takes you along Beaver Creek. There is also a trail at the well which is also 1/3 of a mile long, and it takes you by the well and its dwellings to see where the Sinagua lived over 600 years ago.
Check Out the Things to Do
Besides walking the beautiful trails that lead to the dwellings, Montezuma Castle has a great Visitors Center which has programs, talks, hikes, and exhibits to see. See some of the tools used by the Sinagua to build their dwelling and that they used in everyday work. The Visitors Center is located at the Montezuma Castle location, but it has information on Montezuma Well for you too.
Close by Attractions
Make a day of seeing the sights and head to the nearby V Bar V Heritage Site. Run by the Coconino National Forest, it has some of the most interesting petroglyphs you will ever see. Not only is there many of them, but they are extremely well preserved. This is close to Montezuma Well, so it’s easily accessible from that location. Try out Fort Verde State Historic Park where General Crook had his Army scouts and soldiers living in the late 1800s. The Verde Valley Archeology Center has impressive collections and sites it preserves. The center then makes them available for research and also for viewing. See the collections and learn about the Native Americans that inhabited the Verde Valley and surrounding areas.
The Castle Remains
The Sinagua saw the perfect opportunity by looking at his massive cliff. With the river nearby the people that whose name means “no water” found the perfect home, and right near the water. Little did they realize that the monsoons bring swift and heavy flooding and that their homes would be safer if they were up higher, not to mention being able to see any enemies that approached. These people carved over 4,000 square feet and five stories to dwell in for the remainder of their years. The cliff took care of them and their home, saving them from flooding and providing them with a sheltered home nestled and carved in this great rock. The archeology remnants of the dwellings are in excellent condition. Sheltered from the rain, sun, and water, the ruins aren’t ruins, but still whole, preserved dwellings created by the Sinagua in one of the best and most impressive places to ever build a home.