Among the many historic places in Arizona is the ancient cliff dwelling known as Montezuma Castle National Monument, located about 50 miles south of Flagstaff, only two miles east of I-17. It protects a set of well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings near the town of Camp Verde, Arizona, United States. Other ancient dwellings in north central Arizona include the Wupatki, Tonto, Walnut Canyon, and Tuzigoot national monuments, but the Montezuma Castle is probably the most spectacular. An imposing 20 room-5-story structure built into a recess in a white limestone cliff about 70 feet above the ground.
Evidence of permanent dwellings like those at Montezuma Castle begins to appear in the archaeological record of Arizona’s Verde Valley about 1050 AD. Montezuma’s Castle is the name American explorers gave to this historic site, which was constructed by the southern Sin Agua people about 1,300 years ago (700 AD) – a pre-Columbian culture closely related to the Hohokam and other indigenous peoples of the southwestern United States.
The precariousness of the dwelling’s location and its immense scale – almost 4,000 square feet (370 m2) of floor space across five stories – suggest that the Sinagua were daring builders and skilled engineers. Access into the structure was most likely permitted by a series of portable ladders, which made it difficult for enemy tribes to penetrate the natural defense of the vertical barrier. Perhaps the main reason the Sinagua chose to build the Castle so far above the ground, however, was to escape the threat of natural disaster in the form of the annual flooding of Beaver Creek.
The walls of Montezuma Castle are excellent examples of early stone-and-mortar masonry, constructed almost entirely from chunks of limestone found at the base of the cliff, as well as mud and/or clay from the creek bottom. The ceilings of the rooms also incorporated sectioned timbers as a kind of roof thatching, obtained primarily from the Arizona sycamore, a large hardwood tree native to the Verde Valley.
For mysterious and unknown reasons, the Sinagua abandoned its habitat in the 1400s. After this date, like other contemporaneous cultural groups in the southwestern United States, the Sinagua people appear to have abandoned their permanent settlements and migrated elsewhere.
Since 1951, visitors have not been permitted to climb up to the ruins due to their unstable condition. To allow people to see what the interior of the Castle looks like, a diorama was constructed on the trail along the path below the Castle. The dwellings and the surrounding area were declared a National Monument on December 8, 1906. The National Monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966.
The Castle was described in the December 1906 establishment proclamation as “of the greatest ethnological and scientific interest.“ About 350,000 people from all over the world visit Montezuma Castle National Monument each year. The visitor center includes a museum about the Sinagua, the tools they used to build the dwellings and a gift shop.