Carving out their place in the Verde Valley’s history, the Sinagua, Hohokam, Yavapai, and Apache have left behind legacies in well-preserved cliff dwellings and ancient canals that still operate. Home to humans for nearly 10,000 years, including the residing Yavapai-Apache Nation, Camp Verde has some seriously deep roots.

Although located at different sites, two of these unique wonders were designated as one National Monument: Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well. European-Americans mistakenly named these spectacular sites for the Aztec emperor Montezuma, but they were built and inhabited by the ancient Sinagua. And while Sinagua means “without water”, this definition seems far from the truth.

Montezuma Well National Monument

Experience a peaceful place with stunning geology and ancient history at Montezuma’s Well, just 11 miles northeast of the more popular Montezuma’s Castle. Like cenotes in Mexico, the collapsed limestone cave exposes a subterranean water source. Over a million gallons of 74-degree water emerge each day from an underground spring.

After gazing at the water-filled sinkhole, take the left fork in the trail. Descend a steep, twisting staircase to ruins and a spring, then trek back up to the second fork for a hike beside Beaver Creek and flowing canals, flanked by a canyon wall. Giant Arizona sycamore trees defy gravity, reaching from the shade of the cliff to find the sun. Near the outlet of the well temperatures are often 20 degrees cooler than much of the sunny trail. It’s easy to imagine indigenous families escaping hot summer days in this very spot.

Beginning in the eight century, the Sinagua, Hohokam, and other early residents constructed canals to irrigate their crops with the artesian well water. An ancient pit house, cliff dwellings perched along the rim, and even ruins protruding from caves provide a glimpse back in time. Sections of the canal still supply water to many neighboring farmers and ranchers to this day.

On the Swallet Ruin trail, a spring enters an opening and disappears underground into the Well, flowing through over 150 feet of limestone before emerging into an irrigation ditch on the Well Outlet trail. At least five aquatic species live exclusively in these waters and are found nowhere else on Earth, including a water scorpion, springsnail, microalga, and Hyalella Montezuma amphipod.
Explore Montezuma Well from 8am-5pm at Forest Service Road 618 in Rimrock. Bring your picnic basket to the serene picnic area, where you can relax to leaves rustling overhead with ancient canals still flowing. Visit Montezuma Well for a more private experience with free admission!

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Sheltered by and carved 100 feet up into a limestone cliff face, Montezuma’s Castle is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America. The five-story structure with dozens of rooms can no longer be accessed by the public, but this magnificent Sinagua building nestled in the side of Beaver Creek Canyon is a sight to behold.

Montezuma Castle is one of the earliest National Monuments in the United States. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared four sites as our nation’s first National Monuments to celebrate the Antiquities Act. Roosevelt deemed Montezuma Castle a place “of the greatest ethnological value and scientific interest”.
The Sinagua lived here for over 400 years between 1100 and 1425 AD. Now, 600 years after their departure, about 350,000 people from around the world visit every year. As I hear a flute serenade my entrance to the short, wheelchair accessible trail, I can see why.

Gazing at the impressive, cliffside structure, I wonder what type of construction can withstand so many years, so amazingly well. Its placement high in a natural alcove protects the castle from the elements, including flooding from Beaver Creek. Using stone-and-mortar masonry, the walls consist of limestone pieces found at the base of the cliff, along with mud and clay from the bed of Beaver Creek. Arizona Sycamore trees—possibly my favorite species of tree—are also incorporated into the structure. Sycamores are scattered around the canyon floor and their white-gray, multi-colored bark looks like designer camouflage. These magnificent trees use as much water as the weight of the leaves every hour of the day.

See these beauties first-hand, 8am-5pm at Montezuma Castle Road in Camp Verde. Be sure to prepare for a picnic next to Beaver Creek. Admission to Montezuma Castle National Monument for adults 16 and over is $10 per person. Children 16 and under get in free. Bring your annual park pass or purchase one for unlimited admission.

Tips

Have fun time-traveling to these ancient wonders of our world! Grab your binoculars to take advantage of some of the best birding in the country. Go on a cool day or in the morning and bring plenty of water, especially for Montezuma Well. Throw on sunscreen and a hat for good measure. Sections of Montezuma Well may be difficult for young children and others. And while both locations allow dogs on leashes, some of the Well trails are too steep for older dogs. If you skip the picnic and leave the dogs at home, stop by Robbie’s in Rimrock or Sutler’s Steakhouse in Camp Verde after your adventure.

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