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Cliff dwellings and irrigation systems – a demonstration of the sophistication of Western tribal Indian nations

We had risen early planing to visit Montezuma Castle an ancient cliff dwelling south of Sedona. The road took us through a scenic drive among the red rocks that are synonymous with the area and then down to a dirt track (we seemed to be traveling on a lot of those at the time) when we come across another National Monument called Montezuma Well. This is a sinkhole; a collapsed underground limestone cavern filled with water. More than a million gallons of water a day flow continuously in the Well, creating a lush, verdant oasis in the midst of the surrounding desert grassland. Montezuma Well is 368 feet across and 55 feet deep. There is a short trail that took us down to the well floor and we were amazed to see the ancient dwellings on the sidewalls and along the edge of the well. Climbing back up to the top of the well rim we follow another trail to where the spring water from the Well had cut through the limestone to form a stream. This stream had been diverted by the ancient locals to act as irrigation to their fields where they grown their crops. Although this was not a planned trip we had a really enjoyable time here.

From Montezuma Well we went further south to the country’s first National Monument; Montezuma Castle. This  five storey cliff dwelling was built by the Sinaquas, an Ancient Indian Tribe about 700 years ago, which they later abandoned in around 1400. Interestingly, the name Montezuma Castle was a mistaken name. Early settlers who discovered the cliff dwelling ruins erroneously connected them to the Aztec emperor Montezuma, but in-fact the Sinaqua ruins had been abandoned a hundred years before Montezuma was even born. The dwellings weren’t a castle at all, but a multi-family “prehistoric high rise apartment complex”. It took ladders to climb to Montezuma Castle and as the Sinaqua reached each level, the ladders made their way to the cliff community making it difficult for enemy tribes to penetrate the natural defense of straight-vertical barriers.

This was another chance for Jack and Emily to do a field trip, so we got them to do the Junior Ranger program in the visitors center. It was only a short walk to the ruins from the visitor’s center and it was such a glorious day.

As we traveled along the trail we could not but help notice a couple of concerning signs. On warned of rattle snakes, the second was somewhat more curious, saying not to approach the squirrels as they may carry the bubonic plague infection. Black Death in the National Parks! Karen didn’t believe this could happen in such a litigious society! We later expected to hear of the mysterious disappearance of all the park’s squirrels. The trail we followed took us Beaver Creek, which was a life line to the Sinaqua Indians. Today it is just a glorious backdrop, sparkling in the early afternoon sun to the cliff ruins. We reached the ruins which were quite spectacular, particularly when you consider that these people did not have metal tools to help in the construction of these dwellings.

Location: Hours: Admission:
Follow I-17 to exit 289 (90 minutes north of Phoenix, 45 minutes south of Flagstaff).

Drive east (through two traffic circles) for approximately 1/2 mile to the blinking red light. Turn left onto Montezuma Castle Road.

Open Daily: 8 am – 5 pm  Adults (16 and over): $10.00 
Children (under 16): FREE



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