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5 Surprising Facts About the Montezuma Castle in Arizona

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Montezuma Castle National Park is an extraordinary ruins site in Arizona. It was inhabited by the Sinagua tribe over 400 years ago. Check out these other 5 amazing facts about the remarkable Montezuma Castle.

1) The Montezuma Castle Name Can be a Little Misleading

Flickr User Gr8ful Ted
Flickr User Gr8ful Ted

In fact, this ancient ruin near Campe Verde, Arizona doesn’t match up to any part of its name. European-Americans were the first to come across the ruins of this old settlement in the 1860s. Like many structures they discovered, they readily credited it to the famous Aztec emperor, Montezuma. It wasn’t uncommon that he was given undue credit for having built structures that he had had nothing to do with.

What the European-Americans didn’t know at the time was that this structure had actually already existed, at least in part, for centuries before Montezuma was even born. Despite the current knowledge that the name of this ruin misattributes credit to Montezuma, it has stuck. Not only this but the other part of the name, the “castle” description, hardly seems accurate either. The structure in no way resembles a castle. For whatever reason, the National Park Service chose to stick with the name Montezuma Castle, rather than change it.

2) Who Built the Montezuma Castle?

Flickr User Jeremy Tilston
Flickr User Jeremy Tilston

Today we know that the Montezuma Castle ruins were built and used by the Sinagua people. The Sinagua people were a Pre-Columbian culture that was related to many other indigenous peoples of the southwest. Their name, from the Spanish “without water” reflects the incredible ability of these people to exist in a region with such little water. Archaeologists estimate that the Sinagua people built these structures between 1100 and 1425 A.D.

No one knows why the Sinagua abandoned Montezuma Castle, but it’s speculated that it was either due to the depletion of resources or overpopulation – or perhaps the combination of the two.

3) Montezuma Castle is One of the Best-Preserved Cliff-Dwellings in North America

Flickr User Jeremy Tolston
Flickr User Jeremy Tolston

These ruins are protected in part by the fact that their location naturally shields them from the elements. Not only are these ruins well preserved, but they are also impressive. The ruins face Beaver Creek, but they do so at an astonishing ninety feet in the air on the side of a limestone cliff face.

The dwellings cover a massive amount of area — five stories with more than forty rooms and nearly 4,000 square feet of floor space spread across them. The walls demonstrate the use of stone and mortar masonry. They combined mud and clay from the nearby creek bottom. Then mixed them with stones that were clearly sourced from the base of the cliff.

Hardwood roof thatching made from the native Arizona Sycamore tree further proves that the Sinagua people were phenomenal builders and engineers. It is hypothesized that the settlement was built little by little over the course of three centuries.

4) Why Did the Sinagua People Build Their Settlement So High Up?

Flickr User goodhike
Flickr User goodhike

The short answer is, no one really knows. Surely the effort of creating their settlement ninety feet in the air must have posed even more difficult for these people than had they decided to build it at ground level, which leads experts to believe that there must have been a good reason for the placement of the dwellings. In fact, there are a number of theories that are very likely.

One theory suggests that, since the Sinagua people were agriculturalists, perhaps they simply didn’t want to take up any precious space that could be used for farming. Though nearby Beaver Creek was an integral factor in making farming a possibility for the Sinaguans, it also flooded quite often, especially during monsoon season. Though these floods were actually beneficial for agricultural purposes, they could have been quite damaging to a settlement, which is another possible reason that these dwellings might have been lofted into the cliffside.

Another hypothesis suggests that the height was a defense mechanism. Simply pull up the ladders used to get to the dwellings and wait. It has even been proposed that perhaps the Sinagua people were simply appreciative of a room with a view.

5) The Sinagua Abandoned Their Impressive Cliff Dwellings

Flickr User kirsten
Flickr User kirsten

After enjoying their high rise settlement for about 300 years, the Sinagua people vanished. Once again, experts aren’t quite sure where the Sinagua people went or why. Perhaps they had depleted their resources, or perhaps they were at odds with new settlers. But by 1450 they had disappeared. The settlement wasn’t rediscovered until over 400 years later. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Montezuma Castle a National Monument.

It used to be that you could climb a ladder and explore the levels, but as more and more tourists came to visit this historic place, the increasing traffic began to damage this scientifically and ethnologically important location. By 1952, the monument had ended their hands-on tours. Today, though, you can still visit Montezuma’s Castle and take in the impressive view of a community built way above you.

How Much Does it Cost to Visit Montezuma Castle?

  • $10 includes entrance to Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot National Monument valid for up to 7 days
  • $30 includes 12-month park pass for Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot National Monument

What You Should Know Before You Go

  • The paved trail is accessible for persons with disabilities. However, the spur leading up to Castle A viewing area may be too steep for some wheel-chairs.
  • You can bring your pets on the trail. But of course, you need to make sure they are on a 6-foot or shorter leash.
  • It’s better if you book your tour ahead of time to secure a spot.
  • Bring a hat, sunscreen, and water because the place is located at a high elevation in a dry climate.
  • The national monument is open daily throughout the year and closed during the Special Holidays of Christmas and New Year’s Day.
  • The Montezuma Castle visitor’s center museum allows you to view a plethora of artifacts. They will teach you everything you want to know about the Sinagua people and their culture as well as the history behind Montezuma Castle in general. This way you can truly appreciate everything the Montezuma Castle has to offer.

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