Montezuma Castle National Monument: “It’s not a castle and Montezuma never lived there.”

“It’s not a castle and Montezuma never lived there,” declared the hilariously blunt opening line on the back of the magnet I bought at the gift shop. In fact, the “castle” was abandoned almost an entire century (some say 40 years) before the famous Aztec emperor was even born. It got its name when early European settlers in the 1860’s wrongly associated it with Montezuma because they assumed it “just had to be Aztec”. The name stuck and it became a National Monument in 1906. In fact, it’s one of the four original National Monuments designated by President Theodore Roosevelt (the other three are Devils Tower, Wyoming, El Morro, New Mexico, and the Petrified Forest, Arizona). According to the National Parks’ website, Montezuma Castle “quickly became a destination for America’s first car-bound tourists”.

***Fair warning: This blog will be a healthy mix of facts, history, and personal experience. We were only there for roughly an hour, as this is probably the smallest National Monument I’ve ever visited. It’s a small loop that takes just one hour to complete.***

It looks small in photos like this but it’s not.

While not an actual castle, it’s impressive, mainly because it’s mind-blowing to think about how people who lived over 600 years ago built it. Sitting 90 feet (27m) up a steep limestone cliff, it would have been prime real estate. It’s perfectly situated to protect against animal and human predators alike and is next to a medium-sized river called Beaver River, likely making it the ideal spot for people back then. According to the Park Ranger we spoke to, access to the dwelling was probably achieved by a set of 3 ladders, all strategically placed along the cliffside. The Sinagua people were masters at using the cliffside to their advantage, adapting natural ledges, alcoves, and caves for their personal use.

Please try to ignore the random people talking in the background.

According to the brochure, Montezuma Castle was a five-story, 20-room multifamily residence, built sometime between 1100 and 1300. It’s been described as one of the first, prehistoric apartment buildings. Experts theorize that while building it so high into the cliffside helped protect against predators and enemies, it may have also been a way to escape the annual flooding from the Beaver River. I find this part interesting, because right down the “road” is another multifamily dwelling called Castle A. It was occupied by the same people but think of it as a different apartment building. Castle A is much lower to the ground, with the first two floors being basically ground level, and it’s closer to the river as well. If the river flooded annually during the monsoon season, it’s safe to assume Castle A was prone to flooding. It makes you wonder who got the short end of the stick and was forced to live in Castle A, rather than in the much higher, and better protected, “castle”.

The first two floors of Castle A. You can see how close they are to the ground.
Castle A.

Speaking of Castle A, it’s fun because you can get a more up-close and personal view of the inside, as a fire destroyed the outside at some point in history. Experts believe it was once an imposing five-story, 45-room multifamily structure. Since Montezuma Castle was badly looted in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, much of what we know about the Sinagua people comes from Castle A. Unfortunately, one can only assume what the outside looked like based on the nearby Montezuma Castle and the rubble found at the base.

For both Montezuma Castle and Castle A, it’s estimated that construction began around 1125, after the Sinagua people resettled in the Verde Valley. It’s believed the building of both dwellings was gradual, level by level, and over multiple generations. Montezuma Castle housed around 30 to 50 people, while Castle A could have housed upwards of 100.

Here’s a bit of my personal experience: as mentioned, it’s much smaller than I expected. However, I’m not sure what I expected, as Montezuma Castle is the main draw and clearly not that large in pictures. However, I enjoyed it and it’s a wonderful day outing and especially good for families with children. The path is a short loop, probably only .5 or .6 miles in total, and completely flat. There are no stairs or climbing involved (except for a very slight ramp to the base of Castle A). Numerous informative signs placed throughout offer insight and perspective into both the dwellings and the Sinagua people. There are also informative signs about the vegetation in the area.

You cannot hike to the base of Montezuma Castle, and you cannot walk among Castle A. There is a Park Ranger parked out front of Montezuma Castle, giving out “information”, but my educated guess is his main job is to keep annoying, sneaky tourists from inching closer. It’s a bummer, but not unexpected. What’s even more wild is that early visitors to the monument were allowed to walk up to and among it, because frankly, they were dumber back then. Again, according to the National Park Service website, “Early visitors to the monument were allowed access to the structure by climbing a series of ladders up the side of the limestone cliffs. However, due to extensive damage to this valuable cultural landmark, public access of the ruins was discontinued in 1951.” As Bill Engvall would say, “Here’s your sign”.

The Beaver River.

Towards the end of the loop is a glass box with a small model of the inside of Montezuma Castle, with an audio box that sounds like it hasn’t been serviced or updated since 1951. We could barely hear what the recording said and eventually gave up. So, National Park Service, if you are somehow reading this –please fix the Montezuma Castle National Monument model audio box!!!!

The parking situation: it’s terrible. The parking lot is a small loop, totally insufficient for the number of daily visitors. This is not the first time I’ve attempted to visit this monument. I tried to visit three years ago, in early 2018, when I visited Sedona the first time. I pulled into this small, cramped parking lot and was immediately inundated with fighting cars all battling for a single spot, so I quickly left. It’s a bit annoying, since there is a lot of area around the parking lot that could be used for a bigger lot. So again, National Park Service, if you’re reading this – let’s get it done.

We ended up parking in one of the many (unnecessary) compact-car spots, and I just prayed I didn’t get a ticket. When we returned to the car an hour later (no ticket; woo hoo!), the parking lot was fully engaged in the Parking Lot Hunger Games and all the compact spots were snatched up by non-compact cars. This was around 1pm. I suggest getting there as early as possible!

The park is located at Montezuma Castle Rd, Camp Verde, AZ, and open daily from 8am to 5pm.

Overall, Montezuma Castle is a fun little outing, either for yourself, with friends, or family/kids. I’ve been to numerous National Parks and Monuments and this is by far the easiest, most accessible one I’ve ever visited (as well as the cheapest; $10 per person). There is literally no way you could spend a whole day here, or even several hours, which opens the day to visiting other beautiful, interesting, and or historic places nearby (Montezuma Well, Tuzigoot National Monument, Munds Park, Sedona, Jerome, Agua Fria National Monument, Fort Verde Historic State Park, Walnut Canyon National Monument, and so much more). So, if you’re ever in the Flagstaff or Phoenix areas (or anywhere in-between), take a day trip to this area, of this beautiful, remarkable state. I promise you won’t regret it!

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