Arizona Travels: Ancient Cliff Dwellings

Throughout the state of Arizona, there are several ancient Native American ruins built in the cliffs of the rocky mountains. They were constructed in the 12th century and made of limestone, mud, or other various materials found in the region. The cliffs offered protection from all the dangers surrounding the settlement. Many of the dwellings are remarkable well preserved and worth a visit.

 Tucked in the mountains and just outside Sedona in the Verde Valley is the site where cliff dwellers once lived. Since the building’s foundation resembled an Aztec lodging, it was therefore given the name Montezuma Castle. The remarkable structure was built by the southern Sinagua people in the 12th century. Sinagua is Spanish for “without water”. They used limestone to build their abode, which is a soft material causing varying breakage over a long period of time. Because Montezuma Castle is wedged tightly inside the rock cliffs, it has been protected by the elements and has remained intact for over 600 years. For that reason, this historic monument is one of the most successfully preserved early ruins in the southwest.
The five story dwelling with its 20 rooms is about 100 feet above Beaver Creek which was used as their water source. It was speculated that they built the structure high in the mountains because the spot offered protection from the desert elements and their enemies. Below the cliff lodgings and along the base of the rock face, sits Castle A. This structure was also constructed of limestone and is almost completely gone from being worn down by time and the difficult Arizona weather.

The Sinagua people were hunters, gatherers, and artisans. The area had an abundant supply of deer, antelope, rabbit, bear, muskrat, and duck. They gathered many of the local plants, vegetables, and cotton they grew using their skillfully constructed canals for irrigation. They made their own stone tools, fashioned rocks for grinding corn, wove clothes from cotton, and used the red rock materials for their pottery. The red rocks were abundant in the surrounding area.

 The Montezuma Castle Sinagua people lived in the high-rise rock apartments for over 400 years before vanishing mysteriously. By the early 1400’s, the cliff and Castle A homes were vacated and left abandoned by the Sinagua. One speculation for their unknown disappearance could be too many citizens living in the cramped settlement, and not enough space to move around or sleep. Some believe it was the severe weather changes causing the water to dry up which harmed their food supply. Without the water, the animals would leave, in addition the surrounding plants and all their crops would die. Another theory is that a plaque, diseases, or too many fights ending in death may have caused the Sinagua people’s extinction. Whatever the reason, they left us an outstanding place to look at and wonder about.

When the Montezuma Castle’s tours first began sometime in the 1930’s, people were able to get a close up look at the structure tucked in the cliff. You walked along a dirt path and climbed a succession of ladders up the side of the steep mountain. When you arrived at the dwelling, you are able to step inside the tiny room the Sinagua once lived in. In 1951, because of the deteriorating limestone walls, tours no longer consisted of admittance to the ruins. Now we have to admire it from afar.

Today, you walk through the visitor center to gain access to the site. Inside the visitor center you will find a museum, book store, and gift shop. After paying the fee, you walk out a set of doors to a line of pottery once used by the Sinagua people. A short distance to the right, up high and wedged into the mountain side, you will observe the incredible ruins. It is amazing how well preserved the structure looks. A short distance on the path is where you will see the site for Castle A. Not much left standing of the edifice, just partial walls. It is hard to imagine the structure as once being 6-stories high. Around the corner is Beaver Creek where you will notice the picnic area amongst the many trees. The last item on the path is a model of Montezuma castle without the front walls. This tiny recreation gives us an idea of what it was like to live in the high-rise rock apartments.

Montezuma Castle National Monument
P.O. Box 219
Camp Verde, AZ 86322
Phone: (928) 567-3322
Fees: Adults (16 & over) - $5.00
          Children (under 16) – Free
Hours: Open daily from 8am – 5pm
             Seven days a week (except Christmas day)
Directions: Follow I-17 to exit 289 (located 90 minutes north of Phoenix and 45 minutes south of Flagstaff).
*Dogs are allowed in the park but need to be on a leash no longer than 6 feet.

Tonto National Monument
There are a couple of ways to find this monument from the city of Phoenix. You take State Highway 60 (Superstition Freeway) east to Globe/Miami. From there you will turn left and travel northwest on State Highway 188. It is approximately 25 miles from the turnoff till you arrive at Tonto National Monument.
The other route is a bit rougher on your vehicle but will get you there much quicker. From Phoenix, you will take State Highway 88 (Apache Trail) and travel 47 miles to your destination. Half of the highway is asphalt but the other half is gravel. If you are planning to take the Upper Cliff Dwelling tour, this route is not an option.
Despite the fact they were constructed in the 13th to early 15th centuries, the cliff dwellings are in remarkable condition. The people who occupied the Lower and Upper rock habitats were farmers and hunters who feasted off the local animals and vegetation. They created colorful pottery and wove complex patterns on fabric which can be found around many places around the Southwest. You will also be treated with a Visitor Center museum on the premises with many of their items on display, models of the dwellings, and a history of the people who once called this place home.   
Hours: Daily, 8:00 am to 5:00 pm except Christmas Day
*Lower Cliff Dwelling trail closes to uphill travel at 4:00 pm.
Fees: $3.00 per adult (good for 7 days); children under 16 are free

Walnut Canyon National Monument
The rock apartments located in the cliffs 7.5 miles east of Flagstaff were built as far back as the 1100s. Like many of the other Native American ancient sites, the Sinagua people originally lived in these dwellings. In typical Sinagua fashion, they mysteriously disappeared sometime in the middle 1200s, and left their homes abandoned. The monument has been maintained by the U.S. National Park Service and has a couple of trails which takes you to the ruins. The Island Trail is a one mile paved trail to several dwellings where you can walk through the tiny rooms. This trek will take you an hour to accomplish. The Rim Trail is half the time and presents you with breathtaking views of the canyon and an area to sit near the rim and enjoy the scenery. The ruins are merely only part of what you will see when you visit the park. Walnut Canyon National Monument has a picnic section, a visitor center with a bookstore and all kinds of artifacts on display which were found during excavation of the ruins. Tours are given all year long by Rangers who discuss the history of the ruins and field trips are offered for groups of school children.
*The location is around 7.5 miles east of Flagstaff.  From Flagstaff you will travel east on Interstate 40 and take the 204 exit and then head south.  Another 3 miles and you will arrive at the Walnut Canyon Visitor Center.
Open: All year (except Christmas Day), with extended hours from May to October.
Hours: November to April – 9:00 am to 5:00 pm MST
            May to October – 8:00 am to 5:00 pm MST
Fees: $5.00 (7 days); Free (children under 16)

Navajo National Monument
This Anasazi cliff dwelling has two sizeable rock living spaces known as Betatakin and Keet Seel. Maintained by the U.S. National Park Service and present you with three self-guided rim trails (Sandal, Aspen and Canyon View) that offer splendid views of the entire area. The Betatakin guided tour is free and is a 5 mile trek. On this 3 to 5 hour round trip excursion you will visit the 135 room rock face apartments wedge deep in the cliffs. The Keet Seel jaunt takes you to the 160 room dwelling and is a 4 to 6 hour trek each way. If you are interested in taking this tour, you must make reservations ahead of time, limit your group to 20 people, and have a permit to be in the area which you can purchase at the visitor center. This tour is also limited to the months of May to early September. The Navajo National Monument is open all year long and has longer hours in the summertime. Both Sunset View and Canyon View campgrounds are open all summer. Sunset View is also open in the winter and has water.
*The location is at the end of State Highway 564 off of US Highway 160.
Phone: (928) 672-2700
Hours: Summer – May to September, open 8 am to 5:30 pm, everyday
            Winter – September to May (following year), open 9 am to 5 pm, everyday
Fees: Call for information on guided tours. Free for all three of the self-guided trails on mesa top. The campgrounds are free.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Just about 210 miles northeast of Flagstaff sits another Anasazi cliff dwelling ruins. These were also constructed from 1100s and 1300s. These sacred lands are deep inside the Navajo Nation and maintained by the inhabitants.  The Navajo people are willing to allow guest to walk their lands, but not all places are accessible to the populace. Those who want to take a self-guided tour of the area have three choices to make. There are two paved picturesque roads to the south and north rims and a magnificent view of the canyon. The other trek is 2.5 miles on the White House Ruins Trail and slopes down 600 feet to the bottom of the canyon. If you are interested in seeing more of the canyon, you need to acquire a permit and be escorted by an official guide.
*The location from Flagstaff – you take 1-40 east and then Highway 191 north. The visitor center is 3 miles from route 191 in Chinle, AZ.
Hours: Open daily all year, 8 am to 5 pm, closed Christmas Day
Fee: NO ENTRANCE FEE – No fee to drive around the park or hike the White House Trail. (All donations are welcomed.)
NOTE: There are several businesses in the area who will offer Jeep tours and horseback riding or enlighten you with a journey inside the canyon by a certified private guide.


  1. Those dwellings are really something! I wonder what it was like living up that high? On the plus side, you would have had a great view. On the negative, you'd have to work to get up and down from your home!

    1. I bet they were in great shape. I also read where the living quarters were tiny. Hopefully there weren't many family squabbles.

  2. That's beautiful. We have some cliff dwellings here in Colorado, and they make for a great day of sight-seeing. They won't let you climb up any of the ladders to get to the higher levels, though.


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