5/28/2010 4:16:00 PM Montezuma Castle a national treasure among cliff dwellings
If You Go
What: Montezuma Castle National Monument
Where: Camp Verde, exit I-17 at exit 289
How Much: $5/adults; free/15 and under
Info: (928) 567-3322 or www.nps.gov/moca/
It is not a castle, at least not in the traditional sense, and Montezuma did not build it.
At nearly 900 years of age, Montezuma Castle is among the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the American Southwest. It is also a testament to the ingenuity of the Sinagua people, who populated the Verde Valley for over five centuries before they mysteriously disappeared.
The site, sitting on 826 acres, has been under federal protection since 1906.
Built to five stories into the limestone cliffs, the 20-room dwelling commands a panoramic view of Beaver Creek and the surrounding landscape. It is believed to have housed up to 50 people.
Another site around the corner, the so-called “Castle A,” contained more than 45 rooms and up to 100 people.
Montezuma Castle was inhabited for approximately 300 years. During that time, the Sinagua cultivated land along the creek. When they left, en masse, around 1400, they left behind a rich collection of pottery, weaponry, household items, jewelry and other indications of a thriving society.
Where they went and why they left are questions that remain unanswered in spite of over 100 years of study.
The first European encounter with the dwelling may have been as early as 1583 when the expedition of Antonio de Espejo came through the Verde Valley in search of rich mines reputed to be in the area.
In the 1866, Dr. Edward Palmer - post surgeon at Fort Verde - explored and excavated the ruins. He sent his findings to the Smithsonian, but apparently much of his work was lost in transit.
The soldiers and their family stationed at Fort Verde were clearly fascinated by the Castle, often enjoying outings there, crawling about the ruins and taking home any interesting artifacts they came across.
While Montezuma Castle had been well looted by the time President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it among the first designated national monuments in 1906, work had already begun to preserve it, including shoring up walls. The castle remains 90 percent original.
In 1916 it came under the protection of the newly created National Park Service.
For years, visitors were allowed to climb ladders into the structure and explore for themselves, but that ended in 1951.
Today, a visit to Montezuma Castle is an easy 3/4-mile hike, wheelchair accessible, on a paved path under the shade of tall sycamores. The Visitor Center contains a museum with exhibits and artifacts, as well as a bookstore. There are daily programs available and occasionally guided tours. The Castle also hosts special educational and cultural events.
The entry fee is $5 for adults and is good for seven days. Those age 16 and under get in free. Pets are allowed if kept on a six-foot leash, and owners must clean up after their pets.
To reach Montezuma Castle National Monument, take Interstate 17 north of Camp Verde to exit 289. Turn right on Middle Verde Road and drive through two roundabouts about a half-mile to a traffic light. Turn left on Montezuma Castle, which will wind down to the national monument.
Montezuma Castle is open every day except Christmas. From June through August, hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. From September to May, hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.