Montezuma Castle - photo by Győző Egyed

11 Interesting Facts About Montezuma Castle And How To Visit It

With a name like Montezuma Castle, you naturally would expect to learn about an Aztec archaeological site in Mexico. After all, Montezuma was the last king of the Aztec Empire. But you would be far from the truth.

1. Montezuma Castle Is In Arizona, USA

The ancient structure that gave Montezuma Castle National Monumentits name is in the US state of Arizona, far away from the legendary Aztec Empire.

The archaeological site featuring the “castle” is in Verde Valley, in Arizona. It lays in a convenient location just off I-17, the main highway through the state, between Phoenix and Flagstaff. One of the most popular National Park unit in Arizona, the monument is close enough to Phoenix for a perfect day trip destination.

2. The Site Is A Misnomer

Although it would have been geographically possible for the Aztecs to reach this area, Montezuma could never have set foot in the land that is now Arizona. This is due to the timeline, as well as geography, since he was born centuries after the people who built Montezuma Castle lived here.

Yet, one of the most visited National Monument in Arizona is named after the Aztec king. When I first visited the site, shortly after moving to Arizona, I assumed the Aztecs at least had an outlier all the way up here. When I found out they never did, I was curious about the misnomer.

How did Montezuma Castle get its name?

As it turns out, it was simply a matter of the wrong people naming the monument, who knew nothing about it.

Back in the 1860s, the cliff dwelling’s first visitors were miners and soldiers. They most likely heard about Montezuma, the last king of the legendary Aztec Empire. Coming upon the elaborate, four-story building, carved right into the rocks, they thought it must have been his castle.

Obviously, they have never seen the real “castles” built by Montezuma’s people. And never came across ancient dwellings of the people of the Southwest. Their geography and timeline was way off, too.

But people make mistakes. The name stuck, and now we have Montezuma Castle National Monument in the high deserts of Arizona.

3. The Indigenous People Of The Desert Built Montezuma Castle

A few centuries before the last Aztec king was born, indigenous people of the desert built this five-story cliff dwelling into the surrounding rocks.

Since no one knows what they called themselves, we call the people who built Montezuma Castle Sinagua, the Spanish expression meaning “without water.”

The name originated in 1916 from Dr. Harold Colton, founder of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. He named the ancient people of Verde Valley and the vicinity of Flagstaff after what the Spanish called the San Francisco Peaks, “la sierra sin agua” the mountain without water. The name stuck, and we use it ever since. It seems fitting for people who lived in an arid environment.

We might not know what the Sinagua called themselves, but now, thanks to the present-day Indigenous people of Arizona, we know who they were. They were the ancestors of the Hopi and other contemporary tribes of the Southwest.

The Hopi call them Hisatsimom, people of the past.

Besides Montezuma Castle, they built other structures in the area, some preserved atMontezuma Well, Tuzigoot, and in Walnut Canyon.

4. Montezuma Castle Is A Cliff Dwelling

Carved into the rock wall, Montezuma “Castle”, one of the most popular ancient sites in Arizona, is a cliff dwelling, common in the Southwest.

Cliff dwellings are built into limestone cliffs, using natural recesses in the rock, and digging out more to build rooms.

The five-stories-high cliff dwelling we call Montezuma Castle is one of the best-preserved in the country. Its rooms sit on ledges of natural caves on a 150-foot-high limestone cliff. Featuring about 20 rooms, it housed most likely an entire village, between 600 and 1100 people.

5. The Sinagua Were Gifted Craftsmen, Good Traders, and Canal Builders

The artifacts recovered at Montezuma Castle include practical tools and ornamental items, clothing with intricate designs made from cotton they grew in the area, proving that the Sinagua had great craft skills.

Other artifacts were not originally from the area, but brought from far away, through trade in ancient time.

But no matter how gifted they were, they would not have survived in the harsh environment without any water. Though called Sinagua, they were not entirely without water. They built a canal and they brought water to the site. Visiting in the winter, we sometimes see water flowing through it.

View of Montezuma Castle from the path through the park - photo by Győző Egyed
Montezuma Castle – photo by Győző Egyed

6. The Sinagua Built Montezuma Castle Around 1100-3500 AD And Deserted It By 1425

Though archaeologists don’t have a definitive answer to why the Sinagua deserted their village about a century after they built it, they have a few theories.

Being in the desert, it would have been fast to deplete natural resources, probably due to overpopulation. The water’s high arsenic content might have played another role.

But their descendants tell us a different story. According to them, the people who built the cliff dwellings were still on a migration journey. So why dit they build such an elaborate structure? According to the Hopi, when they stopped on the journey, be it for a few years, decades, or centuries, they would build a home. This was the best way they knew how to build a home for a village, no matter how long they would live in it.

7. Montezuma Castle Became A National Monument In 1906

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Montezuma Castle a National Monument, to protect it. It was one of the first in the country, and the third one set aside to protect man-made structures and preserve Native American culture.

At first, visitors could climb up the cliff dwelling and even enter it. But the direct contact started damaging the structure. So, in 1951 they restricted the access and now we can only walk close to it and admire it from the trail.

8. Bats Live Now In Montezuma Castle

Since visitors don’t enter the cliff dwelling, it makes a perfect home for bats. In fact, some of the largest bat colonies in Arizona live here.

Scientists found 14 different species of bats living in and around Montezuma Castle. That’s half of the 28 species living in Arizona.

Two of those species, the Western Red Bat and Townsend’s Big-eared Bat are listed as endangered species, in need of conservation, so it is great that they live here, in a protected area.

9. Hummingbirds Also Love The Park

As a visitor you might not see bats in Montezuma Castle National Monument, since you can’t enter when they are active at night, but you can see plenty of hummingbirds.

In fact, the park is one of the few sites where biologists study them. They participate in a study led by

Researchers at Montezuma Castle National Monument participate in an ongoing study trying to better understand the tiny birds and their migration patterns.

10. The Stunning Arizona Sycamore Lines The Path Through The Park

Though not the only one, the Arizona Sycamore is the most noticeable in the park. Native of the state, this unusual tree grows in and around Montezuma Castle, shading the pathway through the park. Its constantly shedding bark showcasing white, brown and green colors sets it apart from other trees.

Growing up to 80 feet tall, it also features extremely large leaves, especially for a desert area. Which means, it has deep roots that constantly reach water. That’w why it only grows in riparian areas, near streams and other waterways.

We know that also grew during the time Montezuma Castle was inhabited, since the builders used its thick branches to build the main beams of the the cliff dwelling.

11. Several Women Contributed To Preservation And Studies At Montezuma Castle National Monument

The National Park website highlights the work of several women in the history of conservation of Montezuma Castle and its surroundings.

Archaeologist Sallie Pierce-Harris, an archeologist classified artifacts at Montezuma Castle, starting in 1934. She also contributed to archaeological projects in the park, and eventually became an influential archaeologist for the National Park Service, contributing to projects to several other parks in the Southwest as well.

In the late 1930s Betty Jackson also lived at Montezuma Castle as the site’s custodian with her husband. As a former archaeologist and science teacher, she tracked and recorded bird migration routes while there.

In the 1950s, Grace Sparkes, who worked for the Yavapai County Chamber of Commerce, was an advocate of National Parks, and often pushed for the preservation of historic sites in Arizona. She campaigned and was successful, in helping to add more land to Montezuma Castle National Monument.

How To Visit Montezuma Castle National Monument

You can easily access Montezuma Castle from Highway I-17, 95 miles north of Phoenix and 55 miles south of Flagstaff. The monument is about 1.5 miles from the exit 289.

Though it can be a destination in itself, the park’s convenient location offers an easy stop between the low desert and the pine-filled mountains of northern Arizona.

Once in the park, you’ll find a Visitor Center, and past it a short (0.33 miles) and paved interpretive trail on a winding path in the shadows of Arizona sycamore trees, offering gorgeous views of the “castle”.

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 the major attraction in this National Park of Arizona, but the walk is pleasant in itself. In the winter months, you can even enjoy the river that runs through the area, passed an ancient embankment.

Virtual Tours

If you can’t visit Arizona and see this cliff dwelling in person, you can enjoy a virtual tour of Montezuma Castle. The National Park’s artist in residence created a virtual tour of the trail in the park in 2019.

Scroll to Top