Montezuma Castle National Monument

March 14 & 15, 2022 – Near Camp Verde, Arizona

Having nothing at all to do with Montezuma, the early 16th-century emperor of the Aztecs (known now as Moctezuma II), nor a castle in any sense of the word, Montezuma Castle National Monument is still a very rewarding site to visit.

It was very convenient to visit Montezuma Castle in the late afternoons after the workday ended, but the shadows weren’t conducive to good photos. However, we really appreciated our two visits to the monument.

Because access to enter the actual structures is limited to those who really need to go in them, the park also focuses a lot on native species of flora found in the region and provides a lot of interpretive signage next to examples of plants to explain how the plants were used by the occupants of the dwellings. As an (extremely) amateur botanist, this was fine by me.

This pretty shrub is four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), named for the four-winged bracts on its berries. Everything on the plant – the leaves, fruits, seeds, and young shoots – is edible. The ashes from burned saltbush leaves make a type of baking soda which fortifies baked goods; the leaves can also be used to relieve pain from insect stings.

We were able to make a couple of late weekday visits to fully explore this monument, which is located just a few miles north of our campground in Camp Verde, Arizona. It was also the first opportunity for Gunther to earn a B.A.R.K. Ranger certification (more on that later).

Montezuma Castle includes a 20-room structure, as well as several smaller dwellings on the same cliff face. The area was established as a national monument on Dec. 8, 1906.

The structures in the monument were built by the Sinagua, Native Americans who migrated to this area about 1,400 years ago and began building the cliff dwellings about a thousand years ago – hundreds of years before Moctezuma II was born. The current name of the monument, Montezuma Castle, comes from European Americans who in the mid-1800s were extremely interested in the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan cultures of present-day Central America and wanted to bestow exotic names on nearly everything they found.

Creosote bush (Larrea tridendata) is one of the oldest species of plants on the planet. Some stands of the bush grow in the same location for thousands of years. Its leaves definitely have an earthy smell like you’d experience after a rainshower. Native Americans used parts of the plant to treat a variety of ailments ranging from infections and toothaches to nausea and sprains.

The cliff dwellings are built in Verde Formation limestone, a relatively soft sedimentary rock. Over millions of years, the erosional forces of water and wind have had their way with the limestone to carve many holes into the rock. The erosional holes that are enlarged by humans into structures are called cavates by archeologists. At Montezuma Castle, most cavates extend about 10 feet into the cliff. By closing up naturally open spaces, and building exterior and interior walls with masonry, the Sinagua were able to construct secure housing for their culture.

This collection of 20 rooms belonged to multiple Sinagua families, very similar to today’s apartment buildings.

The Sinagua built and occupied the dwellings between the years 1100 and 1425, leaving the residences about 70 years before Columbus set sail. Montezuma Castle was at the crossroads of a Native American trading network that stretched from the coast of present-day California to eastern New Mexico, and from Utah into Mexico. That central location provided the Sinagua with many resources that weren’t available in the Verde Valley:

  • Obsidian, used for projectile points, came from the San Francisco Mountains north of the castle
  • Wild game and plants were taken from the Mogollon Rim, located east of the structure
  • Strong trading relationships with the Hohokam culture, in present-day southern Arizona, provided much more than was available in the Verde Valley

Contrary, perhaps, to popular opinion, because of that trading network the Sinagua had an awareness of their world that stretched for thousands of square miles.

Where the Sinagua went, and why, after about the year 1425 is still up for debate, but most researchers believe the exodus was due to at least one of three factors: drought, depletion of food resources, and threats from newly arrived cultures.

The Hopi culture, which may be descended partially from the Sinagua, believe this structure wasn’t meant to be the final home of their ancestors. When a culture stays too long in one place, the Hopi believe, environmental disasters and societal collapses remind them of their migratory nature – and they move on. The Zuni and other Puebloan groups are also said to be descended from the Sinagua.

The Apache name for catclaw acacia, ch’ill gohigise, means “a bush that scratches you.” The long and sharp thorns of catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii) are best avoided, but ancient peoples relies on many different parts of the bush for food and the branches are used to make furniture and drumsticks. The honey made from this tree’s blossoms is especially prized for its delicate nature. This specimen is growing directly in front of the dwellings; there’s an doorway visible behind the bush (and accessible only by ladder). We first saw catclaw acacia in late February 2022, when we visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site in southeast Arizona.

Between 1991 and 1994, an inventory of the plants and animals at this national monument was taken by a team of researchers from Northern Arizona University and the United States Geological Survey. That research resulted in the cataloging of 784 species of plants and animals in this 859-acre (less than 1.5 square miles) site; only 11 percent were non-native species.

A level and paved trail passes in front of the five-story castle, allowing visitors to see different perspectives especially as the sunlight changed. The Sinagua made improvements and additions to the castle over a 300-year period beginning around the year 1130.
In the American Southwest, plants with protective thorns – well beyond species of cacti – are very, very common. The catclaw mimosa (Mimosa aculeaticarpa) has the nickname “wait-a-minute bush” because it catches unwary hikers’ clothing. Catclaw mimosa is a genetic cousin of the catclaw acacia, and honeybees also seek out this acacia’s blossoms for their nectar.

Looters of the 19th century took many of the contents of the structures, and today the ruins are open only to scientists for research, inspection, and maintenance. This is in contrast to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico, in which visitors are allowed to enter the structures. Part of that policy us is perhaps due to proximity. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is one of those places you have to want to get to, since it’s nearly a two-hour drive from the closest large city; Montezuma Castle is just a couple of miles off Interstate 17 in central Arizona. About 350,000 people visit Montezuma Castle each year; Gila Cliff Dwellings gets about 42,000 visitors annually.

The modern structure at the bottom of the photograph is a kind of amphitheater in which U.S. national park rangers provide talks about the history and culture of Montezuma Castle. I wish we could have seen the castle with better lighting; as always, I blame the sun.
In autumn, the netleaf hackberry (Celtis laevigata) produces berries with high levels of calcium. The leaves are used to treat digestive disorders, and the bark of the tree can be woven into sandals.

Montezuma Castle National Monument was established by the administration of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. During his administration (1901-1909), five national parks, 18 national monuments, 150 national forests, and 51 bird sanctuaries. In all, Roosevelt authorized a total of 230 million acres (almost 360,000 square miles) for the enjoyment of future generations like ours.

Reaching up to 120 feet high, Arizona sycamores (Platanus wrightii) are some of the state’s largest trees. When seasoned properly, the logs stay structurally sound for hundreds of years: there are Arizona sycamore beams inside Montezuma Castle still supporting roofs, 700 years after they were first placed.

We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife while at the monument (Nancy and I were both surprised at the number of late-day visitors each day, but that was probably due to the monument’s easy access from the Interstate); however the habitat’s diversity (holes in cliffs to dry meadows to riparian areas) supports all kinds of bats, foxes, mice, owls, songbirds, snakes, lizards, and turtles.

These partially reconstructed ruins are just a few steps down the trail from the vantage point underneath the castle. Smaller cliff dwelling structures were located above these rooms.

Being open only to researchers is also due to the fact that ladders must be used to access the cliffside ruins: the buildings were definitely at least partially planned with defense in mind. Additionally most of the cliff faces south, which allows the dwellings to be warm in the winters and cool in the summers. The elevated location also protects the dwellings from occasional flooding of Beaver Creek, which flows beneath the cliffs.

Oneseed juniper (Juniperus monosperma — hey: I can figure out that Latin!) provided the Sinagua with wood for cooking, heat, and light, as well as shelter. The branches are also boiled for treating stomach disorders. When we’re hiking, Nancy and I really enjoy finding juniper berries — they smell really, really good. I love the character of this juniper’s trunk.
This is Beaver Creek, which flows a few hundred feet south of the main cliff dwellings at Montezuma Castle. Residents of the cliff dwellings dug ditches to transport water for irrigating corn, beans, squash, and cotton crops that were planted on land by the creek. The large tree on the far bank of Beaver Creek is an Arizona sycamore.
Providing food and shade, the Arizona walnut tree (Juglans major) was named ch’il nehe (“nuts you pound”) by the Apache. The thick husks of the walnuts were also ground to produce cloth, hair dye, and paint.
Here we see a monument visitor and her dog (it is Nancy with Gunther) passing underneath the branches of a western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria) tree. The tree produces small yellow berries, but the fruit is harmful when eaten. Despite their toxicity (and true to the tree’s name), the berries are used to make soap for laundry, shampoo, and general bathing. You can also see an interpretive sign next to the tree; that signage adjacent to the plants and trees is where I got most of the background information for this posting.
This is a view of Beaver Creek looking to the southwest. A few dwellings, much smaller than the main one we first encountered, were built in the cliffs on the right side of the photo. The creek was prone to flooding in spring, which was one reason the dwellings were built high on the cliffs.
Here’s a plant that should be familiar to many: the prickly pear cactus, in particular the Engelmann’s variety (Opuntia phaeacantha). This most common of Arizona’s prickly pears is still widely eaten throughout the southwest (after removing the spines). The pads, called nopalitos in Spanish, can be steamed, fried, pickled, or roasted. The fruits after flowering, too, are edible and are used to make jelly as well as to create red dye. This specimen was just outside the visitor center at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Un cactus más para ti: the desert Christmas cactus (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). In December of each year, this cactus produces a bright-red fruit which is crushed and made into jam. We saw some of these plants at Saguaro National Park near Tucson and would see additional specimens of desert Christmas cactus in a few days, at Tuzigoot National Monument.

The National Park Service has a pretty nifty program in which dogs can earn their B.A.R.K. Ranger certification in certain parks and monuments. Gunther knows, and you should too, that B.A.R.K. Rangers:

  • Bag your poop. Always have your humans bag and dispose of your waste properly.
  • Always wear a leash. When in the park, always wear a leash (6 feet or less) and don’t let your humans leave you unattended.
  • Respect wildlife. Don’t harass or harm wildlife by making noise or chasing them.
  • Know where you can go. B.A.R.K. rangers are permitted in parking lots, campgrounds, picnic areas, roads, and designated trails.
Park Ranger Stephanie greets the newest B.A.R.K. Ranger, Gunther, at the Montezuma Castle National Monument Visitor Center and congratulates him on his many achievements.
Here’s Gunther relaxing in the Goddard with his certification (the inside is signed by Ranger Stephanie). Good job, Gunther!

The B.A.R.K. Ranger program is really clever: it keeps dogs out of hot vehicles while their owners visit national parks and monuments, while encouraging those owners to be responsible for their pet. Since that great day at Montezuma Castle, Gunther has also earned B.A.R.K. Ranger certification at Petrified Forest National Park, also in Arizona, and Pecos National Historical Park in New Mexico. Look for future blog postings about those visits and more, and look for Gunther on the trails!

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