by Barbara Ann Weibel at Hole In The Donut
Of the numerous well-preserved Native American ruins found in north central Arizona, the ancient cliff dwelling found at Montezuma Castle National Monument is the most spectacular. Built into a recess in a white limestone cliff about 70 feet above the ground, this 20 room, 5-story structure was occupied as early as 1200 a.d., until the inhabitants mysteriously departed from the Verde Valley more than two hundred years later.
The 900 year old cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle National Monument
Believing the prehistoric cliff house to be Aztec in origin, the first settlers to the area – a ragged collection of miners and soldiers who arrived in the 1860′s – named it after the Aztec emperor, Montezuma. We now know that this unique dwelling was constructed by the Sinagua Indian peoples using locally available limestone rocks stacked and held together with clay, much like laying bricks on a modern house. Once the construction of the outer walls was completed, an adobe plaster was used to coat and seal the exterior. The Sinagua cultivated a variety of crops in the valley that spread out beneath their cliff house, using water that flowed year-round through Beaver Creek to irrigate the crops. No one knows for sure why the Sinagua abandoned their home, although some experts speculate that a severe drought dried up the creek, forcing the tribe to pack up and leave.
A close up look at the structure, courtesy of the National Park Service
After being abandoned, the dwelling survived for hundreds of years in the hot, dry climate found in this part of Arizona and only began to deteriorate when it became a popular tourist destination. Early visitors were allowed to climb a series of ladders up the side of the limestone cliffs and access the interior of the structure, resulting in extensive damage. Thankfully, the park service stopped allowing access in 1951. Visitors are now limited to viewing the ruins from the valley floor, where a self-guided, 1/3-mile loop trail leads past the cliff dwelling, through a grove of old-growth sycamores, and along Beaver Creek, one of only a few perennial streams in Arizona.
Montezuma Castle National Monument is open 364 days a year (closed Christmas Day), from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. June through August and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during other months. In addition to the self-guiding trail, an on-site museum includes exhibits and artifacts depicting the lifestyle, history and culture of the Sinaguan Indians who built Montezuma Castle. Adults pay a $5 entrance fee and children under 16 are free. Although no accommodations are available at the site, hotels and motels are located in nearby Camp Verde (5 miles), and in Cottonwood (19 miles).
Photos not otherwise credited courtesy of Barbara Weibel
Article by Barbara Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels