Cliff dwellings on the sides of Montezuma Well

Montezuma Well, A Natural Sinkhole in the Arizona Desert

Part of the Montezuma Castle National Monument, one of the most popular National Parks in Arizona, Montezuma Well is a desert oasis surrounding a natural lake. Although they don’t call it a cenote, the lake is similar to the sinkholes on the Yucatan peninsula and Florida, a collapsed limestone cave.

A Cenote in the Desert

Everyone knows about the cenotes or sinkholes in the Yucatan, we’ve also visited quite a few over the years. A cenote is a collapsed limestone cave sitting above a water source. But it is hard to imagine one in the deserts of Arizona. After all, the desert has no water, right?

Well, on very rare occasions, it does. Arizona is home to the Verde Limestone Formation, a layer of travertine limestone deposited above shallow lakes that covered Verde Valley a few million years ago. Some areas still sit above a water source, which is the case with Montezuma Well.

Ancient cliff dwellings and a sinkhole filled with water in the high deserts of Arizona.
Ancient cliff dwellings are perched on the walls of Montezuma Well.

Underground springs feed this natural round limestone sinkhole with a diameter of 386 feet and a depth of fifty-five feet. The water enters a swallet, an underground stream, and flows through 150 feet of limestone before it re-emerges by an irrigation ditch.

Sections of this irrigation ditch date back about 1000 years. Ancient people recognized the value of the constant supply of warm, 74-degree water and used it to make a living in the area.

The Southern Sinagua

The Southern Sinagua settled in the area around 900 AD most likely because of the availability of water. Though the Spanish called them Sinagua, meaning “without water”, this was far from the truth. Out of all ancient people of the desert, they had the easiest access to a constant flow of water.

Much like the Hohokam at S’edav Va’aki, they built canals or irrigation ditches, to divert the water and grow crops like corn, beans, and squash.

When visiting, you can still see traces of lime-coated irrigation ditches in a few places, like in the picnic area. As these canals prove, the Sinagua were farmers, living in open areas.

Besides farming, they supplemented their diet by hunting and gathering. This area proved to be perfect for it, with plenty of game including duck, deer, rabbit, turtle, and antelope.

But it is the ancient homes they built, from cliff dwellings to pueblo ruins and an ancient pit house, that tell their story in more depth.

Cliff dwelling on the wall of Montezuma's Well.
Cliff dwelling on the wall of Montezuma’s Well.

Visiting Montezuma Well

Since the site is close enough to Phoenix for a day trip destination, we recently revisited it on a sunny autumn day. It’s been a long time since our last visit and I had almost forgotten how beautiful, and lush the surroundings were, so unlike its desert surroundings.

The short walk uphill on the paved trail took us to the edge of the sinkhole. A few rangers had set up binoculars to help us see the ducks and turtles on the water. After spending a few minutes watching it all from the top, we took the trail to the water’s edge.

Descending to the water’s edge – the Swallet Ruin Trail

From the rim, a short trail leads down to the water’s edge and the Swallet Ruins. Walking on rocks, the trail is an easy descend, even for young children and older travelers. Along the trail, you’ll see the cliff dwellings on the sides of the well, from different angles, and waterfowl in the well.

At the bottom, in the shade of vegetation, the temperature is much cooler. Though it didn’t make much of a difference for us this time of the year, it was easy to imagine the respite from the sun in the hot summer months. During those times, the temperature at the bottom may be about twenty degrees cooler than at the rim.

At the end of the trail, we reached the water’s entrance to the underground stream, also called swallet. Standing by it, we enjoyed listening to the flowing water, like a little brook, as it entered the limestone underneath.

21B8943C 17AF 47CC B802 4A8EB2B3A27B scaled
At the end of the trail – by the water’s edge.

The ruins sit at the end of the trail, by the swallet. Similar to other Pueblo ruins in Arizona, it was still interesting to spend time there, at the water’s edge.

95ED39B6 B7D9 4639 968F ECC19DB1CE3C scaled
Ruins at the water’s edge at Montezuma Well.
24DC171C 3615 4453 994F F7761BA2C12F scaled
The ruins at the water’s edge.

The Trail along Beaver Creek

An even more pleasant trail leads down into the outlet where the water leaves the swallet. Walking in the shade of giant sycamore trees, this trail was the most pleasant part of our trip. The fresh flowing water by the stone wall and the lush vegetation made me feel miles away from the desert. It was hard to think that we were still in dry, arid Arizona.

B12E4EF8 A312 4ABD A89E B4EA5C6FFF4A scaled

On our way out we met a ranger who showed us leaf fossils in the limestone by the trail.

A leaf fossil in the limestone at the Montezuma Well
A leaf fossil in the limestone by the trail.

Continuing on the Loop Trail

After ascending from the cool, shaded area, we continued on the Loop Trail that led back to the parking lot. We were back in the natural high deserts of Arizona environment we were used to.

The area around Montezuma Well, in the high desert of Arizona
A few feet from the water’s edge.

The Ecology of Montezuma Well Area

The area in and around Montezuma Well is a unique ecosystem, with a few species of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. Some of these endemic species include the Montezuma Well springsnail (a type of mud snail), a water scorpion, the Motobdella Montezuma leech and its only food, the Hyallela Montezuma amphipod.

D2169058 30BF 4112 842C 6D6912E69B63 scaled

Different bird species, ducks and turtles live in the area and feed on these water creatures. However, there is no fish in the well because of the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the water.

Vegetation around the rim includes juniper, acacia, creosote, brittlebush, Arizona Sycamore, Arizona Walnut, velvet mesquite, velvet ash, desert broom, Mormon tea, among a few prickly pear cactus varieties.

The trunk of a giant Arizona sycamore tree
The trunk of a giant Arizona sycamore tree

In the spring you’ll find lots of wildflowers while in the winter months waterfowls are more prevalent. A few species of ducks, mallard ducks among them, were on the lake the time we visited, in early November.

A Sacred Site

Modern Native tribes still consider Montezuma Well a sacred site. The Yavapai people, still living in the area, believe that the well is the place they emerged into this world.

Quick Facts – Things to Know About Montezuma Well

What is Montezuma Well?

Part of the Montezuma Castle National Monument, the Well sits 11 miles from the main site. It is a limestone sinkhole creating a lush oasis in the desert of Arizona.

Where is Montezuma Well?

Montezuma Well is in Arizona, in the Verde Valley, just off I-17. To get there, you can follow a GPS or the well-marked signs on the road.

Entrance fee:

There is no separate entrance fee for the site.

Opening times:

The Well is open usually between 8 am and 4:45 pm.


With less than half miles of trails, there is no strenuous hiking involved at the site. The main loop trail is paved all around, and wheelchair accessible. Two shorter trails leading down by the pond and the swallet respectively are a bit steeper, packed dirt, but still easy both ways.

Montezuma Well, Arizona
Montezuma Well in Arizona

Scroll to Top