Oasis of Montezuma Well
The Ongoing Oasis of Montezuma WellIt’s not actually a well and has nothing to do with Montezuma but being wrongly named doesn’t detract at all from the serene beauty of Montezuma Well.
This unique geological feature is a limestone sink formed long ago by the collapse of an immense underground cavern. A continuous water flow has created a lush, verdant oasis in the middle of desert grassland. Such a reliable source of life-giving water has lured humans for thousands of years, although Montezuma was never one of them.
Montezuma Well is a detached unit of Montezuma Castle National Monument. Early settlers to the area believed that the exquisitely-preserved five-story cliff dwelling belonged to Aztec emperor Montezuma. In truth, the “castle” was built by the Sinagua and was deserted a century before Montezuma was born.
Yet the name stuck to both the ruins and the beautiful pond which measures 55 feet deep and 368 feet across. Subterranean springs replenish the well with 1.5 million gallons of water a day, an amount unvarying since prehistoric times. The water, which maintains an even temperature of 76 degrees year round, enters a swallet, or opening through which a stream descends underground. It flows through 150 feet of limestone before re-emerging from an outlet into an irrigation ditch. Sections of this ditch date back over 1,000 years.
The HohokamThe Hohokam were the first to establish permanent residence near the well, about the year 600 AD. They lived in pit-houses and diverted water to grow crops. Around 1125 AD the Sinagua moved into the Verde Valley. They built more sophisticated cliff dwellings that can still be seen on the rock ledge above the well, on surrounding hillsides, and of course, the famous castle in the other portion of the monument. The Sinagua continued to irrigate crops utilizing the consistent water flowing from the ground.
Sometime around 1425, the Sinagua abandoned the area, leaving large villages deserted. Reasons for their departure remain a mystery but warfare, drought and disease are a few of the theories suggested. It is believed many Sinagua families moved north, eventually joining other ancestral Puebloan groups at the Hopi Mesas.
The Montezuma Well TodayToday, visitors to Montezuma Well can savor a tranquil desert oasis, radiant with history. A paved trail leads to scenic overlooks of the well and sheltered cliff houses. Along the way, informational signs fill in the ecological and cultural details. The trail curves down into the recesses of the well for close-up views of more ruins and the swallet.
Circling back to the rim the path then drops through a shade-drenched corridor to the outlet, on a ledge above Beaver Creek. Under the lush canopy of Arizona sycamores and velvet ash trees, temperatures at the outlet are sometimes 20 degrees cooler than atop the well. It’s easy to imagine the Sinagua people enjoying the same soothing respite on summer days centuries ago.
A picnic area sits on a terrace below the well and nearby is another cultural treasure: a Hopi garden. For the first time in almost 600 years, Hopi corn, beans and watermelon are being grown at Montezuma Well. In a cooperative effort between the National Park Service, Friends of the Well, the Institute of Ecotourism and the Hopi Tribe, a traditional Hopi garden has been built at the monument.
The effort reestablishes the Hopi’s ancient connection to their ancestral lands in the Verde Valley. It also provides a chance for visitors to witness traditional Hopi agriculture. Seeds are handpicked from the ancient seed stock that are direct descendents of the crops grown by Sinagua farmers at this very place, using water from the 1,000 year old irrigation canal.
Visitors are welcome to explore the sacred garden but please step carefully to avoid damaging the crops.
Montezuma Well opens daily at 8 a.m. Admission is free. For more information call 928-567-4521.
By: Roger Naylor