Photos and text
On their dash to the big rut, vacationers often bypass Arizona's other marvels. At Camp Verde is one such amazing sight: Montezuma Castle. Although the Grand Canyon is a natural wonder of the world, Montezuma Castle is a prehistoric wonder of our continent.
Settled about the time that William conquered England, this Sinagua community flourished in the desert southwest when Vikings arrived on our northeast coast.
Eight hundred years before pioneers developed Jamestown in Virginia, the Sinagua culture prospered in the Verde Valley of Arizona. For more than 9000 years, the area had been a resting spot for travelers, but no permanent dwellings existed until humankind developed agriculture.
Montezuma sprang up around 1000, one in a series of hamlets spanning three hundred thousand square miles of the southwest.
At its peak, 4000 to 8000 people lived here. They farmed the land and grew crops of squash and corn and beans. They dug a ditch from Montezuma Well to irrigate their crops 1000 years ago.
Montezuma Well is a sinkhole formed millions of years ago when Lake Verde ruptured. Today, 1.5 million gallons of warm water gushes to the surface every day and flows to that irrigation ditch, which is still in use.
According to a park ranger with whom I spoke, we one time sent divers down to find the source of the water, to no avail. He enlightened me about rectangular objects in the water. Some time ago, an errant individual released a turtle into the well; now the turtle's many off-spring threaten the delicate ecosystem. The objects in the water are turtle traps. (No word on the destiny of the turtles.)
One-room pit houses were the abodes for the earliest Sinagua settlers. These homes were constructed below grade, partially dug into the earth.
The castle is five levels, built into a natural cave on the lime-stone cliff. With twenty rooms, it is believed that up to 35 people lived together here. They scaled the rock to ledges in the cliff with ladders. 200 others lived nearby.
There is much evidence to believe that the Sinagua traded consumer products with people of what is now Mexico, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.
These were people who hunted deer and javelina, bore children, taught the kids how to fish, chatted with their neighbors, and traded goods on market days.
Beaver Creek flows past the well and the castle and into the Verde River nearby.
By the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Montezuma was deserted. In the early 1400s, about the time Joan of Arc made her appearance in Europe, the Sinagua vacated Montezuma for reasons that are lost to history.
Although Montezuma Castle was vacated, the Verde Valley has been continuously occupied since the time of the Sinagua.
A recent walk through these parks put perspective on my own brief timeline.
For more information about these and other amazing parks of the west, see the website of Western National Parks Association:
For a good history lesson of more recent decades, see the website:
Montezuma Well. Square shape in foreground is a turtle trap.
Park ranger and avid historian
I went out on a ledge for this one.
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