Exploring Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot in Arizona

Montezuma Castle in Arizona
Mateo Miller / EyeEm / Getty Images 

About one and a half hours north of Phoenix are two national monuments that are well worth a day trip from the Phoenix area: Montezuma Castle National Monument and Tuzigoot National Monument. Both monuments feature the ancient dwellings of the Sinagua people, the native Americans who resided in Arizona centuries prior the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas.

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma Castle National Monument stands in a sheer limestone cliff recess about 100 feet above the Verde Valley in Camp Verde, Arizona. The dwellings were built and used by the Sinagua people, indigenous people that are related to the Hohokam and other indigenous peoples of the southwestern United States, between approximately 1100 AD and 1425 AD. The main structure comprises five stories and 20 rooms—about 4,000 square feet of living space—built over the course of three centuries.

Montezuma Castle faces the adjacent Beaver Creek, which drains into the perennial Verde River. This area overlooked fertile fields where the Sinagua farmers grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton. The nearby creek provided them with a reliable source of water. This construction of this dwelling up high suggests the people wanted to avoid the annual flooding of Beaver Creek during the summer monsoon season, which inundated the floodplain with water. This recessed location on high also provided protection against invaders and erosion by Mother Nature.

Montezuma Castle was so securely built that it is now one of the best preserved ancient structures in North America. About 50 feet west of the main ruin is a much less well preserved complex named Castle B, consisting of a few rudimentary rooms also on several levels. Since 1951, visitors have not been permitted to climb up to the ruins due to their unstable condition, so expect to walk the 1/3-mile loop trail and take a few photographs. 

About 11 miles away (about a 20-minute drive) is Montezuma Well, another part of the Montezuma Castle monument. Montezuma Well is a flooded limestone sinkhole about 55 feet deep formed by the collapse of a large underground cavern. Along the 1/3-mile path to the well, you can see some well-preserved stone cliff dwelling ruins and the remains of a pithouse. The local inhabitants of the era used the waters from the well to irrigate their crops.

Montezuma Misnomer

Neither part of the monument's name, "Montezuma Castle," is correct. When European-Americans first came upon the ruins in the 1860s, by then long-abandoned, they named them for the famous Aztec ruler Montezuma in the mistaken belief that he had been connected to their construction. In fact, the dwelling was abandoned more than 40 years before Montezuma was born, and was not a "castle" for royals, but instead functioned more like a high-rise apartment dwelling for many residents.

Tuzigoot

Tuzigoot National Monument is a remnant of a Sinaguan village built above the Verde Valley about 1,000 years ago. Tuzigoot, an Apache word meaning "crooked water," is a two- to three-story pueblo ruin on the summit of a limestone and sandstone ridge just east of Clarkdale, Arizona, 120 feet above the Verde River floodplain. The Tuzigoot monument comprises 110 stone masonry rooms.

It is thought that the population here, and the building of additional rooms as a consequence, was comprised of farmers leaving the drought in outlying areas. Visitors are invited to walk in and around Tuzigoot to try to imagine the daily life of the Sinagua who farmed, hunted, and created pottery and artwork in this area hundreds of years ago.

Tips for Visitors

Both Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot are managed by the National Park Service. The museum at Montezuma Castle provides good information but needs a bit of refurbishment. The Visitor Center at Tuzigoot, however, is very well done.

Both monuments are very interesting, but for the younger crowd, Tuzigoot will be the more popular of the two since you can actually walk up, in, and around the structure. Set aside a few hours to explore the museum, which was reopened in June 2011 at the Tuzigoot Visitor Center. Then roam the trail through the Tuzigoot pueblo and Tavasci Marsh. The walking trail is about 1/3-mile in length. Spend time with a ranger and learn about the Sinagua and the lives they led in the Verde Valley.

Food is not available at any of these locations, so bring some food and drink. There is a picnic area at Montezuma Castle.

If visiting in the spring and summer, make sure to bring a hat and sunscreen, since there is little protection from the sun.

Admission

There is an entrance fee for both Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot. Check online for discount opportunities for military and seniors. On certain days of the year, everyone is admitted free to many of Arizona's national parks and monuments.