Arizona is home to 22 national parks properties. Those include national parks like the Grand Canyon and small national monuments like the places I explored last Saturday, Montezuma Castle National Monument, Tuzigoot National Monument and Montezuma Well. These three sites hearken back 1,000 years to some of the ancient peoples who once populated Arizona.
The settlers of the 1800’s thought they were built by the ancient Aztecs from Mexico and circulated rumors that these may have been a home of the great king Montezuma. The myths make for great names and stories, but otherwise are inaccurate. These sites were home to groups of the Southern Sinagua people from around 900 A.D. till about 1400 A.D. After being in China where just about everything seems to have a recorded, continuous history of a couple thousand years, it is refreshing to visit the ancient past of my homeland. The three sites I visited were connected in a way, but they are all very different.
This cliff dwelling is similar to many others throughout the Southwest. It is one of a network of communities that once lived in the area. In fact, there were others right next door, but only this one is preserved so well. The real treat of this small park, after paying your fee in the visitor center that has a small exhibit about the people and the building, is the ruin itself perched high on a cliff overlooking the small, wooded valley below.
The whole trail is only one third mile and doesn’t have much by means of stuff to see and do, but it does provide a little peak into the ancient culture that made this their home. It reminded me of one of the many dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, even though the groups of people who built in the two locations allegedly aren’t related.
After my short excursion at the castle, I drove up the road to Montezuma Well, a fee-free area that is related to the Sinagua people who lived in the Verde Valley. This site was very interesting not just because of its connection to the ancient civilization but also because of the natural stuff going on and how those ancient people used it to their advantage.
Montezuma Well is essentially an oasis in the desert landscape formed by a limestone cave that collapsed millions of years ago. This cave acted as a water drum with a small lake inside fed by a natural spring. Of course any people who settled in a desert environment would find water and use it, so you can imagine what they must of thought when they found this never-ending water source that also fed into the neighboring stream. It was probably like their water cooler too, with people coming and catching up on what’s going on in the area.
From the parking lot there is a short trail that leads up to the rim of the spring’s crater. From here you can see the life-giving resource below with lush greenery around and a few small cave dwellings on the cliffs above it. Not only would this be a great source of water, but a great source for food drawing wildlife to it for hunting. There’s trail that goes down to the lake and to the place where it empties through a 70-foot tunnel in the limestone walls. Here you can also find a few dwellings in a cave above the outlet.
On the way down the trail you pass ruins of small pueblo buildings and a short detour to where the water reappears and was diverted anciently into irrigation canals before it empties into Beaver Creek, the same river that runs by Montezuma Castle.
About 25 miles from the well are the ruins of a hill-top pueblo called Tuzigoot meaning crooked water in Apache. This ancient village reminds me of Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico, but once again it isn’t related to those ancient people, but instead to those that built Montezuma Castle. This I find interesting because the location is so antithetical to the cliff dwelling offering absolutely no protection from the elements or weather patterns. However, nearby are great locations for farming and a natural marsh for water and game.
Perhaps the most interesting part of my visits to these three locations is the lack of specific knowledge of the culture and customs. The information given was very general and could be applied to most of the ancient peoples of the Southwest. When I visited the sites in the Four Corners area, there was much more information about customs, beliefs and daily life.
The biggest question after visiting these or many other similar sites is why they were abandoned so abruptly after such a short period of time. Archeologists don’t know why, and with no written history, we’ll just have to guess.
These national monuments are less than a couple of hours from Phoenix and can easily be explored and appreciated on a half-day adventure. Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle have fees ($5 per person at each site), but there is a discount if you save the receipt from one and go to the other within one week ($8 per person for both sites). You can make a day of it by visiting some of the historic towns nearby like Cottonwood or Jerome near Tuzigoot.
Anyway, until my next adventure go have your own. Remember, adventure is out there!