Most archaeologists believe that Montezuma’s Castle National Monument, Montezuma’s Well, and the nearby site of Tuzigoot were constructed between 1100 AD and 1425 AD by the Sinagua. The impressive limestone ruins of Montezuma’s Castle are still 150 feet above Valley Verde, tucked in a natural rock alcove.
Despite it’s name, Montezuma’s castle has no relation to the Aztec’s or any of their rulers. When the Spanish Conquistadors rediscovered the ruins of the Sinagua in the 1850’s, they mistakenly believed that the structures had been created by the Aztecs due to their similarities in design and use of stone.
If you’re planning to travel along the I-17 to Flagstaff from Phoenix, or vice versa, we recommend taking a short pit-stop to check out this spectacular Pre-Colombian site. Montezuma’s Castle National Monument has a small indoor museum of Native American artifacts and it’s only two miles off the highway.
Quick Article Guide:
1. Driving to Montezuma’s Castle National Monument
2. Why Should I Visit Montezuma’s Castle?
3. Who Are the Sinagua and Where Did they Go?
4. Can You Climb Montezuma’s Castle?
5. When is the Best Time of Year to Visit the Castle?
6. What to Wear to Montezuma’s National Monuments
7. What Should I Pack for Montezuma’s Castle?
Every year, my best friend and I drive to Flagstaff from Phoenix to attend the annual Gala at the Museum of Northern Arizona. The drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff is over two hours and there’s not much along the way. If you’re not in a hurry, stopping at these ruins is a perfect way to break up the drive and stretch your legs.
Montezuma’s Castle is located two and a half miles off exit 293 on I-17 North. The exit is easy to miss, but when you see the Cliff Castle Casino, you’ll know you’re close. After driving for more than an hour without seeing signs of significant development, a giant brick building with flashing lights is hard to miss.
The exit for the National Monument is roughly four miles north of the casino. Entry into Montezuma’s Castle will set you back $10 per adult, but it also includes entry to nearby Tuzigoot. If you are under the age of 15, or an active member of the US Military, there is no cost to enter the park.
Montezuma’s Castle was built by the Sinagua women over the course of three centuries and it was only accessible by ladder. It’s primary, five-story building contains twenty rooms and sits 150 feet above Verde Valley. The ruins are remarkably well-preserved thanks to extensive restoration efforts and the alcove they are nested in.
Adjacent to the main castle are forty-five additional rooms that watch over the valley and Beaver Creek below. The Sinagua we’re primarily hunter gatherers, but they also practiced some agriculture. Initially only growing corn, beans and squash we’re introduced into their diet as a result of trading seeds with the Hohokam.
In fact, the Sinagua are primary known for their trading routes which could have stretched as far south as Central America during their peak. A variety of natural items, not local to the area, have been found among the ruins at Montezuma’s Castle. Some of these items include; seashells, copper, and tropical birds.
When the ruins of Montezuma’s Castle, Montezuma’s Well, and Tuzigoot, where rediscovered by the Spanish, they named the civilization Sinagua. Translated to English, Sinagua literally means “without water,” but when the Native Americans lived in the Verde Valley and thrived, water was anything but scarce.
When you look at the rock cliffs high above the valley you can still see the black lines that run across the face of the limestone. These lines are actually stains from once flowing waterfalls that provided the Sinagua people with the fresh water they needed to survive.
However, after years of droughts, unpredictable weather patterns, and conflicts with the Apache Nation, the Sinagua began relocating around 1300AD. The main water source for the Sinagua in the area, Montezuma’s Well, contains arsenic which makes it undrinkable. This also could have contributed to the soil’s depletion overtime.
Unfortunately, you cannot climb the ruins at Montezuma’s Castle National Monument because they are difficult to access and there is no trail to them. The valley below the Castle has a paved road that will take you around the site and to some of the other ruins that are easier to access.
You may see someone climbing the ruins to restore them while you are visiting, but these areas are completely off-limits to tourists like you and I. The picture below will give you a better idea of just how far above the valley these ancient limestone ruins are located.
The walk around the monument took us about forty-five minutes. We also spent another hour in the museum looking at artifacts and reading about the history of the area. If you’re looking for more exercise and ruins, hop back on the I-17 and drive four miles to north to Montezuma’s Well. There are more ancient ruins, and a great view of the sinkhole.
Montezuma’s Castle National Monument is located at an elevation of approximately 3500 feet. From June to August, monsoons and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees are common, so we recommend you avoid these months. The winter months are ideal because rain is uncommon and the temperature rarely drops below 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
We visited the site in June, and although the temperature was in the 90s, me managed to find some shade when we needed it. As a disclaimer, the friends who joined me are locals of Arizona, and used to the summer heat. I also lived in Arizona for seven years, so I have more tolerance for the heat than most people do.
The weather at Montezuma’s National Monuments and Tuzigoot is generally dry with low humidity. During the summer months, however, a monsoon or rainstorm can appear on the horizon with little warning. If you plan to visit the site between June to August, and you’re sensitive to the rain, bring an umbrella to be safe.
In the summer it’s too hot to wear heavy clothing in case of rain, so we took our chances and wore gym clothing. You’re never more than a five minute run to the parking lot if you see the weather changing. We also recommend comfortable shoes because you’ll need to walk more than a mile if you want to see the entire site.
As we mentioned earlier, the weather in northern Arizona is warm and sunny year-round, but there is a chance of heavy rain during the summer months. We always bring a fanny pack or a small backpack when we’re hiking or taking a tour, but this one location where it really wasn’t needed.
Here are some items we recommend bringing on your visit to Montezuma’s Castle:
– Sunscreen (The sun is extremely unforgiving in Arizona, especially at altitude)
– Mosquito Repellent (We didn’t see any mosquitoes during the day, but better safe than sorry)
– A wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses (Expect lots of sun, even in the winter)
– Comfortable trail shoes or hiking shoes (You should expect to walk at least at mile at these ruins)
– Plenty of Drinking water (Bring at least one bottle of water to stay hydrated)
– Money (There is a $10 entry fee per adult, children and military are free)
– Camera (A cell phone will do)
Items to Leave at Home or at Your Hotel:
– Pets (The National Monuments have a strict rule about pets)
– Loud Music (Please leave your stereo or cell phone speaker at home)
– Drones (Most of the Native American sites do not allow drones)
Do you have questions about visiting the Montezuma’s Castle National Monument? Leave us a comment below, and if we can’t answer your question, we’ll point you to someone who can.