Montezuma Castle in Arizona is, like many of the buildings in the Mesa Verde complex in Colorado, one of the best-preserved ancient cliff dwellings in the United States. As part of the 1906 Antiquities Act, it was one of the first four sites named by Theodore Roosevelt as being “of the greatest ethnological value and scientific interest.” Thus, it became Montezuma Castle National Monument, along with Devils Tower in Wyoming, El Moro in New Mexico, and the Petrified Forest in Arizona. During his term as president, Roosevelt designated eighteen total sites as National Monuments. Some, like the Petrified Forest, are now part of national parks and others, like the Wheeler Geologic Area, are now part of national forests.
In essence, Montezuma Castle is a twenty-room high-rise apartment building inhabited 1,000 years ago by the Sinagua people, who were part of the Anasazi (or Ancient Pueblo Peoples) group. It isn’t really a castle and it has nothing to do with the great Aztec king Montezuma. These ruins were discovered by Europeans in the 1860s, and they chose the name in error, thinking the ruins had something to do with the Aztec Empire in Mexico.
Arizona Montezuma Castle
The most striking feature of Montezuma Castle National Monument is the five-story living quarters. It is built into the side of a cliff overlooking the Verde Valley and within the borders of the Colorado Plateau. At least 50 people lived here in a structure protected from the rain and other elements by a natural overhang of limestone. In the 1920s, America’s first motorized tourists began arriving in their own automobiles. They climbed up into the structure the same way the Sinagua did, using a system of ladders. These visits were banned in 1951 due to damage to the structure, but 90 percent of it is original. Safety was also a factor, which you will understand when you see vintage photos of entire families climbing up the cliff on simple wooden ladders, sometimes with father holding a toddler in one arm. If you don’t have a vehicle during your Arizona vacations, you get rental cars in Phoenix. The site is about a 90-minute drive north of the city off Interstate 17. The Montezuma Castle National Monument encompasses a large area. Within its boundaries, about ten miles away from the castle, is Montezuma Well, a natural sinkhole sacred to the Yavapai people.
Today, more than a quarter of a million people visit Montezuma Castle each year. There is an excellent museum where you can learn about the complex and view artifacts recovered from the site, including tools, grinding stones, and ornaments. There is also a bookstore and gift shop. Most visitors will take the self-guided loop tour that takes you past the base of the cliff where the ruins are located. There is a picnic area here and toilets, and the site is open year-round, with the exception of Christmas Day. You can bring your dog, though it must be leashed. You must clean up after your pet, and you may not leave it in your car during hot temperatures. Portions of the trails at the castle and the well are too steep for wheelchairs, but the museum, picnic area, and all other public areas are easily accessible.