Mystery in the Desert: Montezuma Castle
Back in grade school, my social studies book had a chapter covering the Anasazi People. Fourth grade me made a vow that I would see these ruins for myself one day.
The mystery surrounding a civilization that had thrived for over a thousand years, only to disappear without a trace. This was on par with the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I was so fond of - only this was a real and unsolved mystery. I had to know more.
The Anasazi are best known for their sophisticated dwellings, built right onto the sides of cliffs. The name “Anasazi” is a Navajo term meaning “ancient enemy” and was first coined in 1927. Today the name is considered somewhat controversial.
The Word “Anasazi” May Be Considered Controversial
According to the National Park Service website, the people who settled in the area now known as Montezuma Castle were called the “Sinagua”, from the Spanish words “sin agua,” meaning “without water.” Despite the name, the Sinagua people actually had plenty of water.
The Sinagua were a thriving civilization who conquered harsh lands and lived in communities for over 1,000 years. Then inexplicably, the entire group of humans seemed to disappear without a trace, and within a single generation, they were gone. Between 1275 and 1300 A.D., the Sinagua stopped building entirely, and the land was left empty.
Did the Sinagua Disappear?
The mystery is what hooked me in fourth grade. There is evidence the Sinagua did not disappear, but instead moved away over time. There’s no way to know the real reasons they left, but scientists have speculation abounds. It could have been a changing environment, religious reasons, high population density, or some sort of outside conflict. They Sinagua didn’t have a written language, so there are no records to piece together the sudden exodus.
The oral histories of the Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblo tribes indicate the Sinagua peoples may have assimilated into their societies.
Fourth Grade Me Lives Her Dream
I finally got to visit Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well in 2014 and see the cliff dwellings for myself. I spent some time imagining what daily life must have been like for families living in the pueblos.
If You Go
Directions from Cochise County: Take the I-10 west to the I-17, then follow I-17 to exit 289 (90 minutes north of Phoenix, 45 minutes south of Flagstaff).
Drive east (through two traffic circles) for approximately 1/2 mile to the blinking red light. Turn left onto Montezuma Castle Road.
Montezuma Castle National Monument is located just outside Camp Verde, Arizona. Just under 5 hours from Cochise County, plan to stay overnight in the area. The park itself is well paved and easily accessible. Nearby hiking is also available for those wishing to adventure off the beaten path. For current information on park entry cost and when the park is open, please visit the National Park Service website.