montezuma castle
Penelope Wilson
Penelope Wilson
March 22, 2024 ·  4 min read

The Montezuma Castle – The Incredible Stone Dwelling Built Almost a Millennium Ago Is Still Intact

Located in Camp Verde about 20 miles southeast of the Tuzigoot, is the Montezuma Castle National Monument, one of the many delights of the State of Arizona. This castle is believed to have been built between 1100 and 1425 AD, and it was used by the ancient people on Sinagua, a pre-Columbine culture that inhabited a large area of what is now central Arizona. They were concentrated mostly in the Verde Valley where the Montezuma Castle is situated, rising as high as 90 feet above the valley floor. The five-story, 20-room building spans an area of 1.3 square miles and is one of the best-preserved ancient cliff dwellings in the United States [1].

The Montezuma Castle still stands intact today, thanks to the efforts of former President, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who designated the castle a national monument in December 1906 [2]. This came after the US Congress passed the Antiquities Act of 1906 which permits Presidents to create national monuments. Roosevelt designated four locations in total, and while this executive power has been transformed over time, the Montezuma is well-preserved today because it became federally protected over a hundred years ago.

The site attracted thousands of tourists every year until 1951 [3]. The dwelling was built with mud and limestone almost a thousand years ago, and there were concerns about how much longer the building could stand with thousands of visitors stomping across the floors every day. To ensure visitors’ safety, people are now only allowed to watch from the ground. While it’s not as cool as being inside, it’s still an amazing spectacle to behold. 

A stunning edifice

The castle was wrongly named “Montezuma” after the ninth Aztec emperor of Mexico by some dwellers who were unsure of its origins. These people came centuries after the Sinagua and assumed that such a high-rising stone castle could have only been built by the Aztec. For some reason, the name was never changed to depict its real origins, but thankfully, history recognizes the true owners.

During the time of the Sinagua and subsequent occupants, the castle could only be accessed by a ladder that was removed once friendlies got to the top. This was intended to prevent any intruders from accessing their home. At 90 feet from the valley floor, enemies would most likely be eliminated before they made it halfway to the top. The castle is said to have housed about 50 people when it was first built.

Dotted with ancient irrigation ditches and what is left of underground “pitch houses”, the Montezuma site also houses the Montezuma Well, a huge natural limestone sinkhole supplied by an underground lake [4]. The well is a detached unit from the castle and is another beloved site for tourism. The well is a flooded sinkhole from which 1,500,000 gallons of water emerge from the underground lake every day. 

It measures 368 feet in diameter from rim to rim and has been used as a steady and reliable source of irrigation since the early 8th century. While you’ll find many species of aquatic organisms thriving inside it, the well’s high concentration of carbon dioxide makes it impossible for fish populations to survive in it. For the Yavapai people, a Native American tribe of Arizona, the well is a deeply sacred site and is considered their point of origin into the world.

Visiting the Montezuma Castle

All it costs is $10 to visit the monument and you don’t have to pay anything else for a tour of the well. Since it’s only 20 miles (32km) from Montezuma, the $10 fee also covers a visit to the Tuzigoot National Monument. The Montezuma Castle is located on Camp Verde Rd. off I-17, about 50 miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona. You’ll find a small information center at the entrance that’s open every day of the year from 8 am to 5 pm. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water, some snacks, and a great camera. You’d want to get the best pictures.

Remember, you won’t be allowed to tour the interior of the castle, but it would be worth the trip to stand outside and stare at a thousand-year-old monument, evidence of an era when people worked with their bare hands to bring the most incredible imaginations to life.

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  1. Montezuma Castle. National Geographic.  Retrieved 25-08-2020
  2. Montezuma Castle. Atlas Obscura.  Retrieved 25-08-2020
  3. Montezuma Castle. NPS.  Retrieved 25-08-2020
  4. Exploring Montezuma Well. NPS.  Retrieved 25-08-2020
  5. Montezuma Castle. Britannica.  Retrieved 25-08-2020