||0.5 miles roundtrip
||Spring, Fall, Winter
- Seeing the well-preserved cliff dwelling
- Learning about native culture and local plants
My mother told me we visited Montezuma Castle when I was a kid, but I was too young to remember it. As an adult, this place was fascinating: an outdoor museum exhibit that explained how the Sinagua people survived their entire lives in a desert while I could barely last 30 minutes outside in the heat to learn about them. Only a few minutes from Interstate 17, this is somewhere you shouldn't miss if you ever drive between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
Follow the sidewalk out the back end of the visitor center to start your walk. The path was strategically designed for the desert climate with ample shade from mature trees lining the trails and keeping the many benches cool, as pictured below.
Benches and shady trees line the pavement
Stay to the right at the fork, then on your right you'll soon have the closest view of Montezuma Castle. The cliff dwelling was built around 1100 A.D. and inhabited for about 300 years. Its hidden location protected it from the elements helped preserve it over time, and it is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in all of North America.
Montezuma Castle built directly into the cliff above
The dwelling has no connection to the Aztec emperor Montezuma, but rather it was settled by the Sinagua -- literally "without water" in Spanish -- a close relative of the Hohokam peoples who lived further south. The Sinagua lived in both the highlands around Flagstaff (you can visit many other ruins at Wupatki National Monument
) and here in the Verde Valley, subsisting by hunting and gathering in addition to agriculture. Signs along the trail, as pictured below, identify many of the native plants that the Sinagua used for food, medicine, clothing, and more.
Signs like this share information about local plants and how native peoples used them
Further down the trail, a spur takes you to more ruins at the base of the cliff, with bricks clearly visible in the bottom of the picture below. Unlike the adobe dwellings made of mud bricks found throughout the southwest, the Sinagua here carved stone bricks out of the limestone at the base of the cliff.
Remnants of stone and mortar walls at the base of the cliff
Return to the main trail, and continue for another view of Montezuma Castle above the trees. Some of these trees actually change color in the fall, including the Arizona sycamore that dominate the landscape.
Montezuma Castle in the distance above the trees
At the far southwest end of the loop, you'll have a view of Beaver Creek. Though building into a shady cliff helped keep the dwelling cool, the Sinagua built it up high mainly because the creek would flood after summer monsoons. The Sinagua understood that the annual flooding was good for agriculture, so rather than moving elsewhere, they carved their village into the cliff. The stone levees pictured in the bottom left corner now protect the trail from summer floods.
A view of Beaver Creek
The loop spits you back at the visitor center, where you can enjoy some air conditioning before hitting the road again. This hike is a great example of how national park sites can act as outdoor museums, showcasing natural beauty and cultural heritage. Plan your trip soon! Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter
Unlike many national park sites, dogs are allowed on leash on the trail, but not inside the visitor center. This trail was designed with families in mind! The paved trail is wheelchair accessible (which also makes it great for strollers) and shaded with easy-to-read signage along the way. While the park is open all year, summer afternoons should be avoided due to the oppressive heat. No matter when you go, bring water and wear sunscreen! This is a prime stop along Interstate 17, so expect to see people when you visit -- on peak weekends you may have trouble finding a parking space.
From Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north towards Flagstaff. In Camp Verde, take the exit for Middle Verde Road, then turn right. Continue straight through the traffic circles, then turn left onto Montezuma Castle Road. The road ends at the parking lot in front of the visitor center.
Google Maps Directions
Parking, Fees, and Facilities
Rather than charging per vehicle like most national park sites, you must pay per person: $10 for adults (age 16 and older) and free for children under 16. The entrance fee is good for 7 days and also provides entry to nearby Tuzigoot National Monument. The visitor center has restrooms, water, exhibits, and a gift shop.