Less than five miles off Interstate 17, between Phoenix and Flagstaff, lies Montezuma Castle National Monument. It is called Montezuma Castle because a 19th-century writer wrongly assumed that such impressive architecture had to be the work of the Aztecs.
Built into the towering limestone cliffs above Beaver Creek, this five-story structure was constructed by the Sinagua in the 12th and 13th centuries. It is situated more than 100 feet above the valley floor so building materials had to be hauled up ladders or along a steep, narrow path. Once completed, it was accessible only by ladders. The 20 room dwelling is considered among the best preserved of its type.
Archaeologists believe that drought or other causes forced the Sinagua to desert their homes in Wupatki and Walnut Canyon to relocate here. But as with so many Southwestern Indian ruins, nothing but speculation remains on why they ended up leaving Montezuma Castle as well. It wasn’t for lack of water. Beaver Creek, which flows through the valley below, is one of the few year-round springs in Arizona.
Castle A is immediately adjacent. It is in much worse shape than the main ruin, and is a six-story dwelling with almost fifty rooms. Other smaller ruins, many of which were storage rooms, dot the cliffs and hilltops.
As a preventative measure, visitors are no longer permitted to enter the structure. But a very easy paved footpath leaves from the back of the visitor center. This self-guided, 1/3 mile loop trail leads close to the base of the cliff and most of it is accessible to wheelchairs.
Montezuma Castle is well worth a visit even though you can’t enter the ruins themselves. Keep an eye out for the well-built scale model of the interior, representing how the dwelling must have appeared when it was inhabited so many years ago.