Skip to Content

Off the Beaten Path: Tuzigoot & Montezuma Castle

| Updated Oct 27, 2015

Our Route 66 road trip brought us to Winslow, Arizona. This is where we started to see maps marking various prehistoric sites, too numerous to see them all. So, we gathered information about the American Indians who lived in these places. Several things struck us as never before: the diversity of culture, the ingenuity of mankind, the differences between “here” and “there, and how time, water, and agriculture shaped society. The earliest people moved in small bands of 20 to 50 hunter-gatherers seldom stopping for more than a few weeks. Then came pit house builders as agriculture became more established based on corn and bean cultivation.

A professor coined the term Sinagua (Spanish = without water) to characterize this culture based in arid areas, where water was scarce. It was NOT an Indian name. The larger the cultural groupings and fancier structures they built, water became more abundant year round. The various cultures were complex and can't be understood without visiting two ruins that are close together and not far from historic Route 66. Fascinating to learn, today's American Indian nations are varying blends of many cultures.

Montezuma's Castle - ZoomSouth of Route 66 in Flagstaff, Arizona, Interstate 17 takes you south to Camp Verde. Exit 289 to Montezuma Castle National Monument to visit this historical landmark. However, the name of the monument has nothing to do with Montezuma or the Aztecs. Early explorers assumed it must be related and gave the site this misleading title.

The site is one of the best preserved cliff dwelling structures in the southwest built into a natural niche in a canyon wall. The original cliff dwelling had ladders leading up to a five-story, 20 room dwelling. These living quarters housed the farmers who grew corn, squash, peas, and beans in gardens below. Although these farmers migrated between 1100 and 1300 AD, the dwelling remains.

A few miles to the northwest are the towns of Cottonwood and Clarksdale, Arizona. You’ll find Dead Horse Ranch State Park there. (A great camping spot for RVs).Tuzigoot - from Top

Nearby is the Tuzigoot National Monument. In 1934, the pueblo was a heap of stones, but two archaeologists assembled a team of native workers to restore a very large pueblo by recovering artifacts and rebuilding walls. The Verde River provided plenty of water for extensive agriculture between 1000 and 1400 AD. From the recovered artifacts, Tuzigoot was a center for trade routes. Items that were bartered include attractively painted pottery from the north vs. plain un-decorated local pots of large size, tools, arrows, woven baskets and cloth.

Tuzigoot - from road

Estimates are that up to 200 people occupied this location, overlapping the group at Montezuma Castle. The museum at Tuzigoot presents the complete story and gives a window of understanding into the development of cultures, trading, agriculture, intermingling, and finally abandonment. Spanish explorers probed these far reaches of their New World briefly in the 1500s, and settlers from the east arrived in the 1800s.

There are literally dozens of Indian ruins in Arizona. Both the region and the ruins, provide a continuous story that helps visitors gain an overall understanding of how culture and civilization grew on this frontier of North America.


Mike Wendland

Published on 2015-10-27

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

2 Responses to “Off the Beaten Path: Tuzigoot & Montezuma Castle”

October 27, 2015at1:22 pm, Carol said:

Nice write-up. So much great to see around that area. Another fascinating and worthwhile journey near Flagstaff is Walnut Canyon National Monument for some more cliff dwellings of the Anastazi people. Beautiful area.

October 27, 2015at9:29 am, Gwynne875 said:

We love that area and are familiar with the sites you mention. The “apartments” are a wonderful glimpse of a very different life. It is quite a contrast from our New England home base. I agree with all of your recommendations but would also add: if you are in Winslow, AZ make a stop at the historic La Posada. Enjoy the architecture of one of the original old Railroad hotels designed by Mary Colter. Aside from atmosphere the food is wonderful too. We usually make a point of taking a break from the road and ordering coffee and dessert (prickly pear cactus bread pudding).

Comments are closed.

Back to top