Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle

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Montezuma Castle in Arizona, USA is a well-preserved cliff dwelling built by the indigenous Sinagua people in around 1100 AD. Covering an area of around 4,000 square feet, Montezuma Castle is an eminently impressive limestone and mud structure of 20 rooms.

Unfortunately, because of safety and conservation reasons, the public cannot actually enter Montezuma Castle and have not been able to do so since 1951. Those interested in further exploring the castle’s history and excavation can do so via the onsite museum.

Montezuma Castle history

After 1125, the Sinagua people resettled in the Verde Valley after a volcanic eruption to the north. The fertile soil and reliable water supply allowed widespread farming, and it was during this time the castle was built, likely gradually building level upon level. Despite being called a ‘castle’, Montezuma Castle was instead the equivalent to a modern-day apartment complex.

The region’s population peaked around 1300 AD, at which point the 20 rooms of Montezuma Castle would have housed between 30 and 50 people. The castle is believed to have been occupied until around 1425 AD when the Sinagua people abandoned this permanent settlement to migrate. The reasons why could include drought or other loss of resources, or additionally clashes with their newly arrived Yavapai neighbours.

The castle’s name was also the result of historical ignorance. The European-Americans who found the ruins in the 1860s incorrectly assumed that all pre-Columbian archaeological sites in the Americas had been constructed by the Aztecs, whose ruler Montezuma was known for making first contact with the Spanish conquistadors, in particular Hernán Cortés.

Montezuma Castle was declared a US National Monument in 1906 and was one of 4 original sites given the title by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Montezuma Castle today

Today, you can follow a drive around the cliffside, looking up at the impressive dwelling ruins. The visitor centre compensates for not being able to enter the castle. Inside you can tour the museum which displays artefacts found on site including stone tools, bone needles and shell or gemstone ornaments.

The museum also explores Sinagua culture, demonstrating their fine craftsmanship and role as prolific traders, as many objects made by other communities were found among the ruins.

For those who do not get a chance to visit the museum, the National Parks Service has collaborated on a digitised virtual museum so that you can now view historic photos, maps and artefacts from Montezuma Castle online. Otherwise the park is open 8 – 5 each day except Christmas Day.

Getting to Montezuma Castle

Located just a short distance off Interstate 17 at exit 289, Montezuma Castle is an easy site to visit by car. There is a 1/3 mile paved trail from the visitor centre that traces the base of the cliff housing the ruins.

Discover The Majestic

Established December 8, 1906, Montezuma Castle is the third National Monument dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape.

Archaeology at Montezuma Castle

Explore artifacts from the Sinagua People

Montezuma Well

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Natural Resources at Montezuma Castle

Explore the wildlife and plants of Montezuma Castle.

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Montezuma Castle National Monument

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Montezuma Castle National Monument, archaeological site in central Arizona, U.S. The monument lies in the Verde River valley just northeast of Camp Verde and about 20 miles (32 km) southeast of Tuzigoot National Monument. Established in 1906, it has an area of 1.3 square miles (3.4 square km) and comprises one of the best-preserved pre-Columbian Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings in the United States.

The “castle” is a five-story, 20-room mud-and-stone structure, dating from about 1100 ce , built into a cavity in the limestone cliff face about 80 feet (24 metres) above the valley floor by the prehistoric Sinagua people. It is almost wholly intact. It has no connection with the Aztec emperor whose name it bears but was named by settlers who believed it had been built by Aztec refugees from Mexico. To the northeast is Montezuma Well, a large sinkhole rimmed with communal Sinagua dwellings dating from about 1125 to 1400.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy McKenna, Senior Editor.


Montezuma Castle is situated about 90 feet (27 m) up a sheer limestone cliff, facing the adjacent Beaver Creek, which drains into the perennial Verde River just north of Camp Verde. It is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, in part because of its ideal placement in a natural alcove that protects it from exposure to the elements. The precariousness of the dwelling's location and its immense scale of floor space across five stories suggest that the Sinagua were daring builders and skilled engineers. Access into the structure was most likely permitted by a series of portable ladders, which made it difficult for enemy tribes to penetrate the natural defense of the vertical barrier. [7]

Perhaps the main reason the Sinagua chose to build the Castle so far above the ground, however, was to escape the threat of natural disaster in the form of the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. During the summer monsoon season, the creek frequently breached its banks, inundating the floodplain with water. The Sinagua recognized the importance of these floods to their agriculture, but likely also the potential destruction they presented to any structures built in the floodplain. Their solution was to build a permanent structure in the high recess afforded by the limestone cliff.

The walls of Montezuma Castle are examples of early stone-and-mortar masonry, constructed almost entirely from chunks of limestone found at the base of the cliff, as well as mud and/or clay from the creek bottom. The ceilings of the rooms also incorporated sectioned timbers as a kind of roof thatching, obtained primarily from the Arizona sycamore, a large hardwood tree native to the Verde Valley.

Evidence of permanent dwellings like those at Montezuma Castle begins to appear in the archaeological record of Arizona's Verde Valley about 1050 AD. The first distinctly Sinagua culture may have occupied the region as early as 700 AD. The area was briefly abandoned due to the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano, about 60 miles (97 km) to the north, in the mid-11th century. Although the short-term impact may have been destructive, nutrient-rich sediment deposited by the volcano may have aided more expansive agriculture in later decades. During the interim, the Sinagua lived in the surrounding highlands and sustained themselves on small-scale agriculture dependent on rain. After 1125, the Sinagua resettled the Verde Valley, using the reliable watershed of the Verde River alongside irrigation systems left by previous inhabitants, perhaps including Hohokam peoples, to support more widespread farming. [7]

Construction of the Castle itself is thought to have begun around this time, though the building probably was gradual, level-by-level, over many generations. The region's population likely peaked around 1300 AD, with the Castle housing between 30 and 50 people in at least 20 rooms. [8] A neighboring segment of the same cliff wall suggests there was an even larger dwelling ("Castle A") around the same time, of which only the stone foundations have survived. Its discovery in 1933 revealed many Sinagua artifacts and greatly increased understanding of their way of life.

The latest estimated date of occupation for any Sinagua site comes from Montezuma Castle, around 1425 AD. After this, the Sinagua people apparently abandoned their permanent settlements and migrated elsewhere, as did other cultural groups in the southwestern United States around that time. The reasons for abandonment are unclear, but possibilities include drought, resource depletion, and clashes with the newly arrived Yavapai people. Due to the very little human contact since abandonment, Montezuma Castle was well preserved. [5] It was heavily looted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though other Sinagua sites have remained more or less intact. Because of the rise in settlers, tourists and industries in or surrounding Montezuma Castle, the monument and even Verde Valley have been threats to the preservation of Montezuma Castle. [5]

Due to the lack of basic knowledge on the natural resources of the national parks, the National Park Service created a program in order to record and identify any changes in the environment and its inhabitants. [9] An inventory of plants and animals at Montezuma Castle was taken between 1991 and 1994 by researchers from Northern Arizona University and the United States Geological Survey. According to the United States Geological Survey, about 784 species were recorded at Montezuma Castle National Monument, including plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Only 11% of the species were non-native. Common species include bats, snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, foxes, owls and mice. [9]

The monument itself encloses 860 acres near the geographic center of Arizona and the intersection of the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range physiographic provinces.

The dwellings and the surrounding area were declared a U.S. National Monument on December 8, 1906 as a result of the American Antiquities Act, signed [1] earlier that year. It is one of the four original sites designated National Monuments by President Theodore Roosevelt. Montezuma Castle was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. [10]

It is an easy monument to visit, just a short distance off Interstate 17, at exit 289. There is a 1 ⁄ 3 mile (0.54 km) paved trail starting at the visitor center that follows the base of the cliff containing the ruins. Access to the interior of the ruins has not been allowed since 1951 due to concerns about visitor safety and damage to the dwelling. About 400,000 tourists visit the site each year. The park is open from 8am to 5pm every day of the year, except for Christmas Day.

The visitor center includes a museum about the Sinagua culture and the tools they used to build the dwellings. The museum houses many artifacts, such as stone tools, metates used for grinding corn, bone needles, and ornaments of shell and gemstone, which prove that the Sinagua were fine artisans as well as prolific traders. [11] There is also a Park Store operated by Western National Parks Association.

Montezuma Castle plays a key role in the climax of the Western Flaming Feather (1952), which was shot on location at the site.

Montezuma Well, a natural limestone sinkhole, measuring approximately 100 by 120 yards, also containing Sinagua dwellings, was purchased by the federal government in 1947 and is considered a detached unit of Montezuma Castle National Monument. It is located about 5 miles north of the Castle near the town of Rimrock, Arizona, accessible from exits 293 and 298 off Interstate 17. [8]

Montezuma Castle

building material made of sun-dried clay, sand, and straw and usually shaped into bricks.

steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

fragile or easily damaged.

channel dug between a source of water and crops. Also called an irrigation canal.

geographic area protected by the national government of a country.

people and culture native to the southwestern U.S. who flourished between the 1100s-1400s.

hole formed in a rock or other solid material by the weight or movement of water.

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The Montezuma Castle

The story of the Montezuma Castle is one of glory, despair, and glory once again. The tale is fraught with fires, financial instability, neglect—and ultimately, revival.

In its early days, the Castle served as a glorious resort for thousands of well-heeled visitors who sought out the healing waters of the nearby hot springs and the fresh mountain air. By the early 1900s, however, the era of the grand American resort hotel had waned. The hotel closed, and passed through a series of owners before the property was purchased in 1981 by philanthropist Armand Hammer, who transformed the grounds into what is now UWC-USA.

UWC-USA is an international boarding school that serves nearly 240 students ages 16-19 from more than 90 different countries they come to Montezuma to learn to become tomorrow’s change-agents and peacemakers. The campus is one of 17 United World Colleges around the globe, and the only UWC in the United States.

Here’s a glimpse back at the history of the Montezuma Castle.

1841: Mr. Donaldson becomes the first known owner of the campus area who is granted the rights to the land by the Mexican government. The area is popular because of the hot springs.

1846: The land is purchased by the U.S. Army. The Army builds a military hospital near the hot springs to serve soldiers injured in the Mexican-American War.

1862: The hospital is sold to O.H. Woodworth who converts it into a hotel called Adobe Hotel. The hotel later burns down and closes in the early 1890s.

1879: The property adjacent to the Adobe Hotel is purchased by a group of investors with the hope of developing the hot springs into a tourist attraction. They build a new hotel named the Hot Springs Hotel, which is today’s Old Stone Hotel. It is used by UWC-USA for classrooms, the library, and offices.

1880: The Las Vegas Hot Springs Co. buys the hot springs and the surrounding property, including the Hot Springs Hotel.

1881: A new luxury hotel and the first building in the Southwest to have electric lighting and an elevator is constructed by the Fred Harvey Co. and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Named the Montezuma Hotel, it opens to the public in 1882. A landscaped park with shops, a water fountain, and even a zoo is created behind the building. The $200,000 structure is “larger, more opulent, and more up-to-date than any like building in the state. Boasting three stories and 270 rooms, it featured every modern convenience, and posh appointments from New York, Boston, and Kansas City made urbanites feel right at home.” (New Mexico Magazine, October 2001)

1884: The Montezuma Hotel burns down because of a clogged gas line.

1885: The second Montezuma Hotel, designed by Chicago architects Birmingham and Root, is built on the site of the current Castle but burns down four months after it opens.

1886: The hotel is rebuilt on the same site under the new name Phoenix Hotel, but it closes in 1903 due to bankruptcy. 1903: The hotel is sold to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) for $1.

1922: The Castle serves as the site for the Southern Baptist College until 1931.

1937: The Southern Baptist Church sells the building to the Catholic Church. It serves as a seminary for Mexican Jesuits until 1972.

1978: The Jesuits make a little money by renting the Castle out as the set for the low-budget horror flick The Evil. In the years that follow, several other films also feature campus grounds, including Fanboys and Georgia O’Keeffe.

1981: The Castle is bought by industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of the new campus of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West, now known as UWC‑USA.

1997: The Castle becomes the first historic property west of the Mississippi to be placed on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Historic places on previous lists included Ellis Island, Gettysburg, and Independence Hall.

1998: The Castle is designated one of America’s Treasures by the White House Millennium Council.

2001: UWC‑USA restores the Castle with the help of philanthropist Shelby Davis. It now houses the school’s dining room, student center, two dormitories, classrooms, and some administrative offices.

"Now each conflict or piece of news from other parts of the world has a face and a story attached to it. The relationships I have formed on this campus are deeper than any I have had in my life. There is not only a closeness to individuals but a closeness to their culture and a greater understanding of the ideas and traditions in their home country."

— Andrea Parry '19 – USA


A path lined with creosote bushes leads to this Arizona wonder.

Montezuma Castle looms some 27 meters up a sheer limestone cliff, built high possibly to escape the annual flooding of nearby Beaver Creek.

The castle has some 370 square meters of floor space across five stories built over generations by skilled and courageous engineers. A series of ladders once accessed the dwellings.

The castle perches precariously but is defiantly stable.

It was abandoned for unknown reasons – perhaps during a drought, or amid clashes with the Yavapai.

It has borne centuries of Arizona sun and now looks as solid as the cliff it sits on. The castle blends into the landscape and distinguishes itself as man-made only with its straight lines and square windows.

There are snaking trails at the base of the monument and signs that give the Latin names, histories and uses of various bushes and trees.

Many are so familiar they blend into the landscape. But they’re fascinating when studied closer.

There is the creosote bush whose resinous scent fills the Arizona air especially after summer rains. It’s one of the oldest plants on earth – and a wonder that cures anything from dandruff to infections.

The pale green velvet mesquite has seeds that can be ground and then baked for protein. While the oneseed juniper provides fuel and light. The Hopi use it for stomach ailments.

There’s a well and the remnant of a Sinagua village nearby, also part of the national monument.

Read about the first part of this road trip (the Grand Canyon).

8. These smaller alcoves, too small for habitation, were probably used to store maize.

A few dozen yards to the west of Montezuma Castle is a second ruin. Dubbed "Site A" or "Castle A" by archeologists, this ruin was once even larger than the Castle itself, consisting of 40 to 45 rooms. Constructed in a series of terraces up against the face of the cliff, it was not as well protected from the elements as the Castle. There is also evidence that the structure was razed by fire sometime near the end of its occupation. All that is left now are the outlines of the ground-level foundations, and some walled-off alcoves further up the cliff face (Photo 8).

The walls of Montezuma Castle are built of fieldstones held together with a mortar of mud and clay. "Fieldstones" are rocks that have not been worked, or that have been worked only to the extent that they may have been broken from larger pieces, or had some inconvenient nubs lopped off to make them fit more closely. Interior and exterior walls are covered with a layer of mud "plaster" about an inch thick, to produce a relatively smooth surface and protect the load-bearing components from weathering.

Internal floors are supported by large logs up to a foot in diameter and spaced three to four feet apart. A layer of smaller logs, four to six inches in diameter and separated by eight to twelve inches, is laid crosswise over the main beams and then a solid layer of branches of one to two inch thickness is laid crosswise on top of that. This is covered by a mat consisting of grasses, bark and very small branches, and finally the entire arrangement is covered over with three or four inches of mud and clay. This technique produces very solid floors that have stood for the better part of a thousand years.

Several architectural details of Montezuma Castle have raised questions about the extent of trade routes and cultural influence in the southwest. For example, the T-shaped doors found in some parts of the ruin are characteristic of the Anasazi Great Houses in the Four-Corners area to the northeast. Trade goods found at the site, including pottery, feathers from exotic birds, and seashells, also indicate extensive trade and communications with neighboring cultures.

Montezuma Castle is located in the Verde Valley of central Arizona, along a tributary of the Verde River called Beaver Creek. The Verde Valley provides a natural corridor and trade route between the southern desert and the northern plateau, and has been inhabited at different times by several different cultures.

There is evidence of Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers in some parts of Arizona that date as far back as ten thousand years. In the Verde Valley, there is direct archeological evidence of human habitation dating back only about two thousand years, although it is almost certain that people were there long before that.

From about 600 to 1100 AD the region was occupied by a people with ties to the Hohokam, a major culture centered around present-day Phoenix. The remains of pithouses&mdashone-room structures built of rock, mud, poles and sticks characteristic of the Hohokam culture&mdashcan still be found in the area. One such pithouse is on display at Montezuma Well, five miles to the northeast of Montezuma Castle along Beaver Creek.

Around 1100 AD the region began to see an influx of Sinagua from the north. All of the large, multi-roomed complexes in the Verde Valley, including Motezuma Castle, Montezuma Well, Tuzigoot, the cliff dwellings around Sedona, and Walnut Canyon near Flagstaff date from about that time. Montezuma Castle itself was constructed and occupied during the period 1200 to 1450.

Most of these sites were continuously inhabited by the Sinagua for approximately three hundred years. They were all abandoned between 1400 and 1450 AD, a period that marks the collapse of all the major civilizations in the southwest, including the Sinagua, Hohokam, Salado, Mogollon, and Anasazi. The reasons for this regional collapse have never been fully understood. Possible explanations include an extended period of drought, disease, the exhaustion of farmlands due to non-sustainable agricultural techniques, and war.

The name "Montezuma Castle" was coined by early white settlers in the mistaken belief that the ruins were associated with Montezuma. (Montezuma was the ruler of the Aztec empire from 1502 to 1520, the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.)

Although known to locals for many years, the site was not investigated in a scientific manner until the late 1800s, at which time certain sections were already in danger of collapse. The Arizona Antiquarian Association undertook some emergency repairs between 1896 and 1900, but little other official attention was paid until Theodore Roosevelt declared both Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well a national monument in 1906. In 1927 the National Park Service undertook a major stabilization project, in an attempt to repair damage done by almost a century of uncontrolled looting and digging by treasure hunters. Tourists were allowed to enter the ruin via a series of wooden ladders up until 1951. Today access is allowed only for official reasons.

Although the Castle has undergone several rounds of reconstruction and stabilization over the last hundred years, over ninety percent of the structure is original.

Map showing the locations of Montezuma Castle, Montezuma's Well, and Tuzigoot, all operated by the National Park Service and open to the public.

The Halls of Montezuma: Marines at Chapultepec

In 1846, the United States of America went to war with the United Mexican States. Political maneuvering by President James K. Polk and a vested interest in the Republic of Texas ensured the US would throw everything they could into the conflict. Despite a small peace-time army dependent on volunteers, the self-righteous might of the Republic ground away at the Mexican forces.

In less than two years, the Mexican Navy lay in sunken graves, their Army reduced to its final holdout of Mexico City. It was there that the most underfunded, underappreciated branch of the US military at the time once more made a name for themselves. Along with nearly 7,000 soldiers, General Winfield Scott also marched on Mexico City with 400 members of the United States Marine Corps. They had marched to the shores of Tripoli now they would march to the Halls of Montezuma.

Daguerreotype of Polk attributed to Mathew Brady, 1849

Having encircled the Mexican Army from the north, west, and south, all that remained to secure victory was to take the capital, and bring the war to an end. The remaining Mexican forces prepared as best they could, numbering twice over the American forces arrayed against them. General Scott, aware of the assembled numbers and the city’s formidable layout, knew that to take the city, first he needed to overrun the stronghold of Chapultepec.

Battle of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War, painting by Carl Nebel.

A fort anchoring the city’s defenses, it also doubled as the Mexican Military Academy, its defenders including military cadets determined to fight to the last. Having prepared his forces, on the dawn of September 12, General Scott ordered an artillery bombardment against the fortress.

The General’s report on the battle noted

“Before nightfall, which necessarily stopped our batteries, we had perceived that a good impression had been made on the castle and its outworks, and that a large body of the enemy had remained outside, towards the city, from an early hour to avoid our fire, and to be at hand on its cessation, in order to reinforce the garrison against an assault. The same outside force was discovered the next morning, after our batteries had reopened upon the castle, by which we again reduced its garrison to the minimum needed for the guns.”

Scott in 1855, painted by Robert Walter Weir

The second bombardment ended at 8:00 AM, the signal for General Scott’s assault on the stronghold. The General’s assault plan, carefully formulated with his own resources, the enemy’s defenses, and the fort’s construction in mind, was based partly on the advice of a young Army engineer named Robert E. Lee.

The plan called for three assault columns and two advance storming parties. Colonel William Trousdale would lead the left flank, composed of the 11 th and 14 th infantry divisions. Colonel Timothy Patrick Andrews led four companies of skirmishers along the center, and on the right the remaining skirmishers marched under the direction of Colonel Joseph E. Johnston.

Reconstruction of an American and a Mexican Infantry soldier’s (from left to right) uniform during the Mexican–American War. Photo: DevonTT / Flicrk / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Along with the advancing infantry and reserves, two storming parties lay ready to hurl themselves into the breach and seize the fort. Major General Gideon Pillow, with an “assaulting party of some two hundred and fifty volunteer officers and men, under Captain McKenzie, of the 2d artillery” prepared along with a similar party readied by Major Levi Twiggs.

Both parties, totaling roughly five hundred men, were given scaling ladders and found themselves accompanied by a portion of the Marine Corps contingent. Forming the bulk of the right flank around the city defenses, the three columns advanced, the Mexican defenders firing the entire way.

“Military College of Chapultepec”, hand tinted lithograph published by Nathaniel Currier, c. 1847. The flagpole holds a United States flag.

Colonel Trousdale led his forces in a flanking maneuver around the fortress to cut off reinforcements and bottle in the determined defenders. Johnston’s forces, meanwhile, assaulted the south wall, driving the defenders back as they assaulted and scaled the redan and nearby redoubt, allowing them to fire on the fort’s southern parapet. Aided by mortar fire, the two other prongs charged forward through open terrain and swampland to finish the job started by Trousdale and the forlorn hopes.

“Storming of Chapultepec in Mexico”

With reinforcements nowhere in sight, Chapultepec’s defenders, consisting of deserting Irish soldiers from the US Army and Academy cadets, fought a gallant defense worthy of the location of their last stand. With the fort all but secured, the battle for the rest of Mexico City began.

The Marine contingent raised the American flag to signal the fort’s capture, guarding the streets when it came time for General Scott to make his appearance. The Marines sustained astounding losses ninety percent of those who participated in the fort’s capture were killed in combat. To commemorate their sacrifice, the Marine Corps added red “bloodstripes” to their dress blue uniform trousers. The Marine Corps had completed its hymnal journey, from one shore to the next.

Viewing the Interior of Montezuma Castle

Since it became a National Monument in 1906, Montezuma Castle has inspired increasing interest among both tourists and scientists.

Until 1951, the monument&aposs managers guided tourists who were willing to climb up the cliff on ladders around the alcove and through the interior of the castle.

However, with the opening of Interstate 17 in 1951, tourist visits to Montezuma Castle began to surge and officials became worried that the Castle could not withstand the pressure of thousands of people walking through it each year. Since 1951 access to the Castle itself has been limited to researchers.

To allow people to see what the interior of the Castle looks like, a diorama was constructed on the trail along the path below the Castle. Here visitors can view a replica, complete with furnishings and residents, in miniature.

Watch the video: 13 Things to do in Sedona, Arizona: A Travel Guide


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