Walking up the shady, creekside path to Montezuma Castle (I-17 Exit 289, 928/567-3322, www.nps.gov/moca , 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily Jun.–Aug., $5 adults, children under 16 free), you can’t help but imagine what it must have been like to live in the five-story pueblo, one of the best-preserved cliffside dwellings in North America.
From about 1250 to the 1400s, the 20-room village served as the home of the Sinagua people, who cultivated the land along Beaver Creek by day and scaled tiered ladders 75 feet above the ground every night. The Sinagua used the mud, stone, and wood-timbered rooms and balconies for sleeping, preparing food, weaving, and storing goods that they would trade to surrounding communities. The vertical limestone cliff wall also functioned as a natural defense against rival tribes.
As many as 35 people lived in the structure, with an additional 100 people living in the 45-room A Castle at the bottom of the cliff. Montezuma Castle—built into a deep, carved-out recess in the cliff and sheltered from the elements—is in much better shape than A Castle, as well as the hundreds of other Sinaguan sites throughout the Verde Valley .
A 1997 stabilization project by Native American workers added a fresh, chestnut-brown layer of mud to the facade. Incidentally, there is no connection to Montezuma. American explorers who discovered the site in the 1800s speculated that the Aztecs and their legendary emperor built the impressive structure. The small museum at the visitors center provides a nice overview of the site and the Sinagua people.
The Sinagua were experts at making the most of the Verde Valley’s natural landscape. Just 11 miles north of Montezuma Castle, you can witness their ingenuity at another of Arizona’s natural wonders, Montezuma Well (I-17 Exit 293, 928/567-4521, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily Jun.–Aug., $5 adults, free). Small cliffside ruins and canals are clustered around the site, which once provided a vital source of water to the agrarian community.
Underground springs still feed 1.5 million gallons of water every day into the well, which actually is a large sinkhole, 365 feet across and 55 feet deep. The constant supply of 74-degree water has created an ecosystem with several plants and animals not found anywhere else in the world. Unique species of crustaceans, water scorpions, and turtles thrive in the warm, carbon dioxide-rich water that is inhospitable to most fish and aquatic life.
Walk through the forested grounds to the water’s edge, where the temperature can be as much as 20 degrees cooler than in the surrounding grasslands. There are also ruins of small pit houses built by the Hohokam, who first constructed the still-running canals in the 8th century.
Feeling lucky? Scratch that gambling itch at Cliff Castle Casino (555 W. Middle Verde Rd., 928/567-7900, www.cliffcastlecasino.net ), at Exit 289 off of I-17. The gaming facility, owned by the Yavapai-Apache Nation, offers slots, poker, blackjack, and keno, as well as live entertainment at the outdoor Stargazer Pavilion and inside at its nightclub, Dragonfly Lounge. Next door, you can find a clean, quiet room at The Lodge at Cliff Castle ($80–90 d).
If you’re coming from Sedona , head south on Highway 179 to the I-17. Take Exit 289, and drive east through two roundabouts for less than a mile, where you turn left on Montezuma Castle Road. Plenty of signs will make navigating the narrow two-lane road quite easy.
From Phoenix , follow the I-17 north about an hour and turn right at Exit 289, where signs will direct you through two traffic circles to the monument’s entrance.
To reach Montezuma Well, drive the I-I7 to Exit 293, which is four miles north of the turnoff for Montezuma Castle. Follow the signs through the towns of McGuireville and Rimrock to the park’s entrance.