A Quick Stop at Montezuma Castle in Arizona

If you’ve ever heard of Montezuma, you’re wondering what in the world I am talking about.  Wasn’t he the legendary Aztec king? Didn’t the Aztecs live in today’s Mexico? You are right, Montezuma has never set foot in the land that is now Arizona.
 
Yet, there is a National Monument not far from Phoenix, Arizona, named after him.  Back in the 1860s its first visitors were miners and soldiers. Coming upon the “castle, they thought that Montezuma’s people built it, so they named it after him. People make mistakes. The name stuck, and now we have Montezuma Castle National Monument in the high deserts of Arizona.
Who Built Montezuma’s Castle?
Well, if it wasn’t Montezuma or his people, who built it? Long before the known Aztec king was born, indigenous people of the desert built this place in the surrounding rocks. In this particular spot, they built a five-story dwelling. The Spanish called these people Sinagua, meaning “without water”. They lived in a harsh environment that seemed to have no water.
 
Although the structure is not a castle in the traditional sense of the world, it is spectacular in its own right.  It housed most likely an entire village, between 600 and 1100 people.

Take a Walk in the Park

The walk in this particular National Park is short and paved all the way around. It takes you on a winding path in the shadows of sycamore threes.

A Glimpse of the Montezuma's Castle Wall through the Sycamore Trees on the Path - photo by Győző Egyed
A Glimpse of the Montezuma’s Castle Wall through the Sycamore Trees on the Path – photo by Győző Egyed
The cliff dwelling is its major attraction, but the walk itself is pleasant. In the winter months you can even enjoy the river that runs through the area, passed an ancient embankment.
 
Since it is off the highway I-17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff, the park is an easy stop. It offers a welcome rest on the way to the pine-filled mountains of northern Arizona.  
 
For us, it is one of the easiest and more spectacular place to bring our out-of-state visitors. Even before seeing the Grand Canyon, we impress them with our beautiful state.

 

11 Reasons to Visit a National Park

A National Park or Nature Preserve is one of the best places to visit, no matter where you live.

In the US, an area designated as National Park has either scenic, scientific, cultural or historical significance.  It is the same in other countries, though they may be called Nature Preserves instead of National Parks.

Crater Lake NP
Crater Lake National Park (c) Jeff Fromm

Designating an area as a National Park or Nature Preserve protects it from future development. We preserve some of the most beautiful, and most fragile ecosystems or historical sites for the enjoyment of future generations.  In this day in age when everywhere I look, I see unending development, I find hope when I step in a National Park.

Why should you visit national parks and preserves, you might ask.  I’m glad you asked. I’m dying to give you a list.

1. Animal Encounters in a National Park

Most of us live in cities, where we rarely see wild animals, or any kind of animals unless we have pets. But in a national park, no matter when you go, you will almost always see at least a few animals who share the park with you.

Elk on the side of the road in Grand Canyon NP
Elk on the side of the road in Grand Canyon NP

We see deer in most parks we visit, just about every time we go. During one of our visits to the Grand Canyon National Park, we saw an elk grazing by the road.

By far the most animals we encountered in one trip was in Banff National Park.  We even saw a grizzly bear, right by the road. According to the park ranger, who was on the premise, to make sure people leave the bear alone and no one gets hurt, it was a “teenage bear” wandering off away from his mother.

Grizzly Bear in Banff National Park, Canada
Grizzly Bear in Banff National Park, Canada. (c) Leanne Fromm

I got pretty close to a porcupine, following my youngest daughter, on the shore of Lake Louise.

Porcupine in Banff National Park, Canada
Porcupine in Banff National Park, Canada

During the week we spent there, we had daily encounters with bighorn sheep.

Bighorn Sheep in Banff National Park, Canada
Bighorn Sheep in Banff National Park, Canada
You Might Even See Endangered Species

As we were driving out of Sunset Crater Volcano National Park, my daughter Karen suddenly exclaimed:

“It’s a pronghorn sheep! Wow! I can’t believe I’m seeing it! It is an endangered species!”

I caught a glimpse when I looked over, but I couldn’t tell what it was.

“Maybe it is a deer.”

“No, Mom. I know what I saw. It was a pronghorn sheep. I know my animals.”

She does.  She plans to become a wildlife conservationist, she’s been studying wild animals in zoo camp ever summer, and that’s all she reads about. Yes, I did believe her.

Luckily, a few feet ahead we had an opportunity to stop at a pull-out.  The two animals were fairly far from us by then, but we got the binoculars out, and we worked the zoom on the camera.

Pronghorn sheep in the meadow
Pronghorn sheep in the meadow.

She was right, of course.  We saw a couple of pronghorn sheep grazing in the meadow just outside Sunset Crater.  The female was following the male, and they were moving in our direction.

We spent a good half hour watching them, as they made their way in our direction.  Eventually they walked farther into the distance in disappeared from our view in the tall grass.  Understanding that we were watching endangered animals made us enjoy the encounter even more.

2. Learn About Different Ecosystems

Each National park protects a different, most of the times, very fragile ecosystem.  The visitor centers are great places to stop and learn about them, then it is a treat to walk on the trails and experience what you have learned.

What is an ecosystem, you might ask. You’ll learn the answer and a lot more in any Visitor Center of a National Park.  A very short answer: an ecosystem is a community of all living things (plants, animals, organisms) and their environment (soil, rocks, sun, weather, atmosphere) in a given area, interacting with each other.

Each National Park protects an ecosystem, some of them very different from each other. You’ll find forest, desert, grasslands, aquatic (both freshwater and marine) ecosystems within the National Parks.

3. Understand Earth’s Formation and Geology

How do canyons, rock formations, mountains form? Instead of reading about it, you can see the answer for yourselves when you visit a National Park like the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Sunset Crater or Crater Lake.

Walking the rim trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon gives you a glimpse of how the different layers of rocks formed the Earth’s surface.  The exposed rocks themselves are a visible geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on our Earth. For a great learning experience, stop at each level on the interpretive trail, and read about the layers at different levels.

Grand Canyon NP
Grand Canyon NP

In Bryce Canyon you understand a newer geology.  You see, how the soft rocks, like sandstone are eroded, forming exquisite natural sculptures, named hoodoos.  You also gain an understanding of how the same formations get eroded over time, forming a lower whole.

Bryce Canyon NP
Bryce Canyon NP

Visiting Sunset Crater, or Mt St. Helen’s gives you a glimpse of the volcanic activity that form mountains.

In Sunset Crater you have the opportunity to walk on lava rocks or sand, and marvel at the way that new vegetation grows, new forests form.

Sunset Crater National Monument
Sunset Crater

At Mt. St Helen we witnessed an eruption a few years ago.  As we entered the park’s Visitor Center, we noticed a note saying: “Contrary to general belief, Mt St Helen is erupting right now.”  As we watched in the distance, we could see smoke coming off the mountain top, and we watched the seismograph record small earthquakes.

4. Learn About and Understand Human History

The first National Park set aside to preserve “the works of men” was Mesa Verde.  Walking through the ruins of an ancient civilization gives you a better understanding of mankind, of the way our ancestors lived in different environments.

Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park

Chaco is another great example of this kind of park in the US, as well as Aztec, Wupatki and a lot of others scattered through the Southwest and beyond.

Chaco National Park
Chaco National Park

5. Unplug from Electronics

The lodges in the national parks don’t have televisions.  In most places within the parks you won’t have cell connection either, or it will be very poor.  The wi-fi works sometimes, but you can’t count on it either all the time in all of the parks.

This gives you a great opportunity to connect with your family or companions.  You might want to read a book, draw sketches or write in a journal.  Clear you mind from the constant buzz of electronics.

6. Teach the Next Generation About their Heritage and the Importance of Keeping Our Environment Clean and Protected

The Junior Ranger program for kids is a great way to get the younger generation involved in preserving the environment around them, and learning about it all, as well as about history. They enjoy getting a badge after completing the booklet and learning answers to questions they might not know they had.

As Junior Rangers, they lead the way in cleaning up the pristine forests.

Years ago I hiked up to a pristine lake in Washington (State) with my oldest two kids who were preschoolers at the time.  They were still new to the Junior Ranger program, just got their badge in Mount Rainier National Park. We took it slow and made it to the top of the mountain.  On the way, they picked up every single gum wrapper, plastic bag, tiny piece of paper, and anything human-made that did not belong in the forest.  Let me just say, my backpack became a garbage bag by the time we got back to the parking lot.

We felt good, they felt good, and knew that they made a difference, however small.  They must have saved at least one bird or animal that might have ingested some of the wrappers or plastic pieces.

7. Enjoy Nature Around You – Go camping in a National Park

You can camp in virtually every National Park, and enjoy the surroundings.

One of our favorite spots to camp is in Sunset Crater National Park, in the Lava Bonito Campground.  We use a tent, but the campground is designed to be both tent and winnebago-friendly with hookups.

No matter how you do it, camping in a National Park brings you closer to nature, giving you a better understanding of your surroundings.

The best part of camping in any National Park? The night sky.

8. Learn About Astronomy

Far from the light pollution of cities, the parks feature some of the best night sky views on the planet.  Many times we got up in the middle of the night to look at the Milky Way outside our tent.  We see it so clearly, I understand why my ancestors called it the Road of Warriors (Hadak Útja) or why the Ancient Maya called it the Celestial Monster.

It is hard to fathom our place in the Universe, but watching the clear skies in a National Park, we understand it all, we see it with our own eyes.

Chaco National Park, for example, has an observatory, to enjoy the night sky and understand its significance. The campground in Chaco is right by an alcove of ancient ruins.

In Bryce, one of the exhibits in the Visitor Center compares the night sky in cities, smaller towns and the park.  After understanding the difference, you’ll want to go outside in the middle of the night to see it all.

9. Improve your Health

In a National Park you will have to hike at least.  Even the shortest walks will improve your health, since you are outside, in nature, far from pollutants of the cities.

You will improve your mental health by doing the outdoors activities in the Parks. Researchers established a link between outdoor activities and decrease of depression, and stress-related illnesses.

10. Protect and Support Your National Parks

The National Park System celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2016.  But the first National Park was established well before that day.  Do you know which park was the first?

Yellowstone became a National Park on March 1st, 1872. By the time the Park Service was established in 1916, the “Organic Act” that President Woodrow Wilson signed was protecting 35 established National Parks.  Today, we have over 400 parks, protecting and preserving different landscapes.

They offer us a glimpse into the beauty of our environment, a place to see wildlife and experience nature first hand.  In our day-to-day stressful lives they offer an oasis of calm and relaxation, a way to unwind and remember what really matters.

Make it a point to visit a National Park next time you have a chance.  In addition to learning a lot, you’ll know that you are contributing to protecting the environment.

11. Find Your Own Reason

Every one of us has a personal reason above and beyond the obvious.  Find your own.

Many parks offer horseback rides on their trails, if it is something you like to do. You can even ride a mule to the bottom of the Grand Canyon if you’d like that experience.

If you are a rock climber, you’ll find opportunities to climb in some parks, Zion among them.

You can ride your bicycle in most parks.  At the Grand Canyon, and most other parks, you can rent a bike as well, if you didn’t want to cart around your own.

I’m sure you can come up with many more reasons to visit a National Park if you think about it.  No matter the reason you end up there, you’ll always have a great time in any of them.