With most things, you get what you pay for. But as most of us touched with acute wanderlust have learned, that’s not always true when we’re traveling. Some of the most interesting and delightful sites I’ve visited were either free or had only a token admission fee. Arizona’s Montezuma Well falls into the free category but proved to be both interesting and delightful even for the two ten year old boys who were my traveling companions.
Montezuma Well is a prehistoric site formerly inhabited by the Sinagua Indians. Located just off Interstate 17 in the Verde Valley about half way between Phoenix and Flagstaff, the Well is a part of Montezuma Castle National Monument park which also includes the Montezuma Castle located about 11 miles further south.
For more than 400 years from about AD 900 to AD 1400, the Sinagua Indians built a thriving agricultural community in the Verde Valley. Making a life from the arid land was not easy; however, the early inhabitants used ingenuity to build home and channel water from any available source to irrigate their food and cotton crops. Some of the Sinagua Indians lived around Montezuma Well and used its underground water supply to irrigate nearby fields.
Because of the scarcity of water, the Sinaugas might have regarded the natural well, with its inexhaustible supply of warm water, as a sacred place. (Sinauga is a combination of Spanish words “sin” or without and “agua” or water). Within the stone walls around the well and around the rim of the well, they built homes and established a community.
Today we can stand on the ridge above the Well and see the entire width of the 368 foot funnel-shaped pool which began as an ancient cavern. Scientists speculate that the well became visible about 11,000 years ago when the roof gradually crumbled. Underground springs replenish the 55 feet deep well with over a million and a half gallons of water each day regardless of drought conditions in the surrounding land. The water remains at a constant year-round temperature of 76° (25 C°) and exits the well through a side cave in the limestone cliffs.
In the heat of the day, the aqua waters of the well are deceptively quiet. However, beneath the surface is a thriving aquatic community of unique species that depend on each other for survival. Amphipods, tiny shrimplike animals feed on the algae that float on the water’s surface. At night, leeches rise from the bottom of well and feast on the amphipods. Night-swimming water scorpions also make a meal of the tiny amphipods. Other animal species living in or around the well include turtles, muskrats, squirrels, foxes, skunks, raccoon, and snakes. Black-headed Canadian geese, green-winged teals and mallards stop by the Well in the wintertime.
In the stone wall above the Well is a small one room cliff house. This type of shelter, facing east to capture the sun’s warmth in the winter, was built in natural cavelike openings among the huge rocks. Cliff houses were popular among the early inhabitants because they were readily available, easy to enclose, durable, dry, and possibly offered protection from invading enemies. The residents used cliff ledges and ladders to reach their house.
The cliff house is best seen by climbing down a set of stone steps that lead to an area near the waterline of the well. The windy steps are easily negotiated and well worth the climb. At the bottom are cave homes, another form of early dwelling. Cave homes used overhanging cliffs for ceilings and walls to provide shelter. These walls of these 800 year old ruins are still blackened from the cooking and warming fires.
On the rim above the Well, Sinagua Indians built another form of housing common throughout the southwest. Unfortunately, the only evidence of this form of multi-roomed dwelling are the rock debris scattered around the rim. These pueblos would have contained 15 – 20 rooms with walls made of limestone and sandstone. Nearby juniper, sycamore and cottonwood trees were used for support posts, their branches were used for roofing materials and mud from the creek bottom served as plaster. The rooms were small – about 12 by 8 feet – because the families spent most of their time outdoors.
The paved path at the top of the rim leads to another set of steps that are well worth the extra effort of climbing even at an altitude of 3,618 feet above sea level, steep enough and high enough to cause most of us from the flatlands along the US east coast to break a sweat. The stone stairway leads down to the swallet outlet from Montezuma Well that flows into a mile long three feet deep ditch or canal dug by the prehistoric farmers to channel water from the Well into the flatlands below where they planted crops. The sheltered area at the foot of the steps provided a delightful respite from the dry, hot Arizona sun. We sat on the little wooden bridge that crosses the canal, took off our shoes and dipped our feet into the cool 76° (25 C°) flowing water. Shaded by tall sycamores and cottonwood trees and surrounded by lush native plants, this spot was the highlight of the Montezuma Well visit.
Sitting on a rock in the shady, cool area was a couple of retired, well-traveled teachers who live nearby who told me that this was one of their favorite places in the whole world. I can understand why they feel that way. Given more time, I certainly would have sat for a spell and reflected on the daily life of the Sinagua Indians and why they left this beautiful place.
Over the nearly 500 years that the Sinaguas lived in this area, they established a thriving community and way of life. Then they left. They left their homes, farms and ready supply of water. Maybe they were decimated by disease, by infighting or killed by invaders. There are no written records to reveal why they left. Even the cave homes are surprisingly free of wall paintings or carvings. If any members of the Sinagua Indians survived, they may have been eventually absorbed into other nearby indian tribes since no separate Sinagua tribe exists today.
The National Park Service manages the Montezuma Castle National Monument including Montezuma Well to remember the Sinagua Indians and to preserve their ancient habitat for future generations.