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Montezuma Castle Arizona's Largest Cliff Dwelling Built in 1150 Truly Amazing

Updated on February 23, 2015
mactavers profile image

I've lived in Arizona for 69 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Montezuma Castle Cliff Dwelling

Arizona's largest cliff dwelling over 100 ft above ground.
Arizona's largest cliff dwelling over 100 ft above ground. | Source

Montezuma Never Lived There

One of Arizona's most interesting and largest cliff dwellings is Montezuma Castle near Camp Verde and Sedona Arizona in the beautiful Verde Valley. The Castle was built sometime between 1100 AD and 1400 AD by Native Americans. For many years, visitors were told it was built by the Sinauguas but now archaeologists are not certain. What is certain, is that the impressive dwelling was built before America was was discovered and it is still an amazing structure. Another guess is about the name, Montezuma's Castle which was thought to be an Aztec dwelling by early visitors. Montezuma who was a native emperor of Mexico, never came close to the region but the name remained.

The large overhang of the a limestone cliff, protected the mud plastered stone walls and timber roofs, and the position of the dwelling, 100 feet above the ground offered protection from animals and enemies. The land along Beaver Creek was perfect for growing corn, squash, beans and cotton. Montezuma Well which is about 11 miles north of the Castle, is a natural limestone sink fed by underground springs. The well probably produced 1,100 gallons per day which allowed enough water to sustain life and to irrigate about 60 acres. The dwellers cut an irrigation system into the rocks which can still be seen today.

The bottom of the dwelling rests upon rock ledges and the upper rooms were built on top of the timber roofs below them. It took expert construction planning to fit the Castle so neatly inside the cliff opening. The builders formed tools from stones, wood and bone. Imagine trying to haul construction materials of stones, mud and timbers using ladders and primitive ropes. Timber from Arizona Sycamore trees formed the main beams, while sticks from Water Willow and Desert Willow, grasses and mud formed the ceilings. Small window openings allowed ventilation and a way to keep watch.

Another Viewpoint of the Cliff Dwelling

A good view to tell the height of the dwelling above Beaver Creek
A good view to tell the height of the dwelling above Beaver Creek | Source

Castle "A" Ruin

"A" Castle may have been used as a storage area or for burials.
"A" Castle may have been used as a storage area or for burials. | Source

Where Did the Cliff Dwellers Go?

Some estimate that 35 to 50 people occupied the dwelling, others are convinced there were more. The tiny rooms had a stone lined fire pit for heating and for days when it was not practical to cook outdoors. The dwellers spent their days gathering and hunting and farming. A cave and smaller rooms located near the main dwelling was named Castle "A" and could have been used for storage or burials, but because the area was vandalized by treasure hunters, the exact purpose is unknown.

There are a number of theories on why the dwellers left and where they went. Some possible reasons include disease or overcrowding or a lack of sufficient game. Some believe that they chose to join the band of Yavapai Apache, while others believe they went north to join the Hopi.

In 1583, the Spanish explorer Antonio Espejo was led to the deserted Castle by Hopi guides. Between the "discovery" by Espejo and 1884, vandals continued to dig looking for pots and other items and they destroyed the clues to the ruins. In 1884, Edgar Mearns, who was a doctor, living at Fort Verde surveyed the ruins and drew maps of his findings. Following Mearns maps, men from the Smithsonian came and performed studies on the dwellings and the area. President "Teddy" Roosevelt declared Montezuma Castle a National Monument in 1906. Later Grace Sparks, a resident of Prescott Arizona, campaigned to add more of the surrounding land and by 1942, the area included 840 acres.

Today Montezuma Castle has a visitors center, and trails that allow a view of the dwelling from several angles. Interpretive plaques explain the construction process. No hiking on or inside the ruins is allowed. Information for planning a visit can be found on the National Monuments website. A visit to the Castle would not be complete without visiting Montezuma's Well. It is also an amazing place. Food and Lodging can be found in Camp Verde or Sedona.

Montezuma Well

Located 11 miles north of Montezuma Castle, the natural limestone sink fed by underground streams provided water and the means for crop irrigation
Located 11 miles north of Montezuma Castle, the natural limestone sink fed by underground streams provided water and the means for crop irrigation | Source

Montezuma Castle Map

Montezuma Castle:
Montezuma Castle National Monument, Camp Verde, AZ, USA

get directions


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    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      We have visited BC several times, and it is an amazing place to visit too.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This sounds like a wonderful place to visit. Thank you for sharing an interesting and informative hub. I love the vintage postcards!

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      7 years ago from The High Seas

      I've been here! I used to live in Arizona and my wife and I visited here years ago. Very interesting place that everyone should visit if they are in that area. Interesting, useful and voted up!

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks DDE. It's amazing how sophisticated the dwellings are, how far up the cliff they are located and how long (with minor restoration) that they have lasted. They really are amazing.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      7 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Beautiful and so interestingly written. I like the photos and had learned so much here on Arizona's Largest Cliff

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks so much Suzanne. We loved the gardens in Victoria, and so many other things in your beautiful city.

    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 

      7 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      These cliff houses are reminiscent of other cliff houses from around the world - I have read about a few in Asia that were similar to this, with a community of people who hollowed out the rock to live together. Some of them even had pens for animals on the outer part. Well written and well done! Voted useful.

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Old Arizona, old shoes, old friends old jeans... All good.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      7 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Friend, Arizona has the oldest exposed rock in the world. Billions of years old. I guess somewhere back when. I became much more interested in ancient nature than silly old ancient man. hihihi.

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thank you for your insights and comments on this Arizona treasure. I once had a snooty relative tell me that Arizona didn't really have anything old. Her statement lit a fire under this old AZ gal. I asked her if she had every heard of Orabi in Hopi or Tubac or San Xavier or..... She had not, and probably would not have had an appreciation if she had know those sites. I'm going to check on that spelling with a gal that is a docent with Ft. Verde and likes research.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      7 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I think that the lady that babysat me in Flagstaff was Mildred (Milly) Sparks from the Prescott Sparks family. She was probably in her 90's in the early 60's.

      In the 60's you could, and we did, camp right along the Beaver Creek just across from the Castle.

      Seems to me that back in that time we spelled it Moctezuma. And very close by is Tuzigoot and over Sycamore canyon way was where the trickster Geronimo hung out. Our family land is about 20 miles north and was in fact homesteaded with the Paiute.

      I suppose I just want to thank you. You brought me home for a bit and it is a home I love deeply. May mother earth give you fresh water this day.


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