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Explore Montezuma Castle on a day trip

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The Verde Valley, just 90 miles north of Phoenix via I-17, is a great day trip destination for those looking to explore regional history. Camp Verde, the main community in the area, even bills itself as being “The Center of it All!” In 2012, the claim was verified and Camp Verde was recognized for being the community closet to Arizona’s geographical center. From an archeological point of view, Camp Verde had one of the earliest communities in what would eventually become Arizona. At Montezuma Castle National Monument visitors can view an 800 year old cliff dwelling that was essentially the equivalent of an apartment complex.

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Operated by the National Park Service, Montezuma Castle is located just off I-17 exit 289. (The same exit for Cliff Castle Casino.) Great care has gone into preserving the site, which is tucked beneath a limestone cliff that is not visible from the interstate. As recently as 1951, visitors were allowed to explore inside the fragile rooms of the archeological site, which was mistakenly named for the Aztec ruler Montezuma by a group of miners and soldiers in the mid-19th century. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the site a national monument.

To see the imposing cliff dwelling, one must first stop by the visitor center. Admission is $5 per person or is free with a federal recreational fee pass. The visitor center has exhibits on the Sinagua people who lived here in the 12th century as well as a bookstore. Rangers are on duty to answer questions.

The ruins are reached via a paved trail that is a third of a mile long. The path is handicap accessible, although the side path to ‘Castle A’ is not recommended for wheeled vehicles. Wayside exhibits explain what visitors are looking at while a diorama and audio presentation gives visitors a glimpse into what Sinaguan life inside the structure might have been like.

Montezuma Well, a secondary unit of the Montezuma Castle National Monument, is 11 miles away at I-17 exit 293. A source for water both historically and contemporarily, the Well is a unique geological feature that is home to aquatic creatures that live nowhere else. The water is a warm 74 degrees year-round and is attractive to wildlife. A 1/2-mile paved trail leads visitors to the Well, and to more ancient cliff dwellings. This trail, however, includes steep stairs and an overlook that is rocky, so wheelchairs and strollers cannot make the journey.

Montezuma Castle is open daily (except for Christmas) from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. MST. In addition to the ruins, visitors can relax in the picnic area adjacent to the parking lot. Restrooms are located next to the visitor center. The entrance gate at Montezuma Well is also open daily (except for Christmas) from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. MST. Pit toilets are available on-site. Dogs on leashes are allowed on trails in both sites. To contact the park, phone (928) 567-4521.