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Montezuma Castle, A Major Attraction Near Sedona Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument near Sedona, Arizona.

It's not a castle... and Montezuma was never here!

Nestled into a limestone recess high above the flood plain of Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley stands one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in North America. This five-story, 20-room cliff dwelling served as a "high-rise apartment building" for prehistoric Sinagua Indians over 600 years ago. Early settlers to the area assumed that the imposing structure was associated with the Aztec emperor Montezuma, but the castle was abandoned almost a century before Montezuma was born.

With heightened concern over vandalism of fragile southwestern prehistoric sites, Montezuma Castle became a major factor in the nation's historic preservation movement with its proclamation as a national monument. The Castle was described in the December 1906 establishment proclamation as "of the greatest ethnological and scientific interest."

Montezuma Castle National Monument encompasses 826 acres and supports a highly diverse flora. In spite of the small sizes of the Castle and Well Units, together they support 379 species of plants and about 15 plant associations. This is an impressive amount for a semiarid upland area with less than 12 inches of precipitation per year. Yet the monument is highly disturbed because of prehistoric, historic and current human actions.

This five-story, 20-room cliff dwelling served as a "high-rise apartment building" for prehistoric Sinagua Indians over 600 years ago.

Human use of the Montezuma Castle region has been documented since prehistoric times. Ancient Hohokam and Sinagua people practiced extensive agriculture at both units beginning as early as 1200 years ago. They installed irrigation systems, harvested crops, and built communities.

With the decline of the Hohokam and the Sinagua, Native American use and disturbance of Montezuma Castle and its surroundings likewise diminished only to be intensified again with the arrival of European settlers in the mid-1800s. The resulting post-settlement conversion of the landscape to agriculture and urban use continues to the present day.

The physical imprint of post-settlement agrarian and pastoral practices on the landscape is still highly visible. The vegetation of Montezuma Castle remains in the process of recovery and in some instances may never recover to a state which is more or less "natural", that is, one which would greatly resemble central Arizona vegetation types (i.e., plant associations) which had developed largely in the absence of human disturbance. Montezuma Castle National Monument's bottomland vegetation is a prime example.

The mesquite stands located on the Beaver Creek floodplain are relatively young and represent only about 60 years of recovery, at a maximum, from abandoned agricultural fields and pastures. Although mesquite dominates the vegetation's tree layer, dense, self-sustaining and ecologically stable populations of Mediterranean annual grasses and weedy forbs dominate the understory vegetation. Recovery will likely proceed no further due to hydrological changes in Beaver Creek brought about by upstream water diversions and disturbance-induced water table lowering.

The high volume of fine fuels also creates an unnatural fire hazard. Plants typical of upland comminuties and responsive to disturbance, such as snakeweed, are invading and changing the vegetation characteristics of Montezuma Castle's bottomland plant associations. The unit's bottomlands, in essence have become "desertified." Views of the mineral-rich Black Hills to the south, or the red and white sandstone country of Sedona and the basalt-capped palisades of the Mogollon Rim to the north, to the limestone hills of the Verde Valley, the dynamic nature of the Earth's geologic processes is evident in the landforms surrounding the monument.

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