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On The Road Again, Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot National Monuments, Arizona

 Story and photo By Jim Schlett

Dulles Airport and Corridor has been growing at a rapid rate with the expansion of the Silver Line of the Metro Rail System.   With so many companies relocating and expanding into the area, the population is also surging.  With such a fast pace of life, everyone needs some time to escape via the gateway and numerous flight selections at Dulles Airport.   I have published several articles about the “refocusing” phase of my life and my journeys to various National Park sites as the Artist-In-Resident (AIR) at five locations since 2016.  In early 2019, I was fortunate to be notified that I was also selected as the AIR at Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well and Tuzigoot National Monuments in Arizona just about 90 minutes north of Phoenix.  These locations are preserved and administered by the National Park Service.

From my previous trips to Arizona in spring to photograph the baseball spring training sites, I knew how photogenic the area could be in terms of the desert blooms, not to mention the amazing sunset skies.  My goal is to “capture the light” at our National Parks and I greatly favor the first and last hours of light each day.

The dates were for 2 weeks in April, just in time for the desert in bloom, which surprises most folks who have never experienced the desert in spring after substantial winter rains.  Montezuma Castle, in the Verde Valley, was established by President Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act of 1906.   This law gives the President of the United States the authority to, by presidential proclamation, create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant cultural, natural, or scientific features.   Like modern times, this allowed for numerous sites to be saved and preserved for future generations when things took too long for Congress to act upon.   The decision to save this site was due to the on-going removal of many Native American artifacts and damaging the ruins.  The Montezuma and Tuzigoot sites are considered to be one of the most important and valuable sites of Native Americans that were saved from additional looting.

Montezuma Castle actually consists of dwellings built into a sheer limestone cliff by the Sinagua people from many centuries ago.   The dwelling consist of approximately 20-45 rooms in a five story structure, connected through a series of interior ladders, built over the time span of 3 centuries, near the banks of the Beaver Creek.   The name of Montezuma is not really correct as it was named by the early European-American settlers under the mistaken belief that the site was connected to the Aztec emperor Montezuma.  Due to the amount of visitors and deterioration of the dwelling, in the early 1950s, the National Park Service decided it would no longer allow visitors to actually climb into the structure.   You can now walk to the site and look up into the structure, which some visitors say resembles an early version of a high-rise apartment complex—while talking with park rangers and volunteers about the lodging and the Sinagua people.   It is a spectacular site to look at.  To this day, no one has an absolute conclusion about why the Sinagua people abandoned the site.   

Part of the park, approximately 6 miles from the Castle is Montezuma Well is a collapsed sinkhole of limestone, where a spring emerges and warm water flows at a rate of about 1.5 million gallons a day.  When you first gaze out over the well from the top, you almost have the impression that you are looking at a crater created by a volcano.  At the top, it is almost 500 feet from side-to-side.   The water level is about 70 feet from the top with a maximum depth of 55 feet.  This enormous well contains several complex organisms found nowhere else on earth.  There are several Sinagua dwellings near the top of the cliff.  It is estimated that over 1,000 years ago, the Sinagua people diverted water from this well with a series of ditches and canals to irrigate and support their small gardens.  The canal is still in use today.  

The third section of the park, located approximately 25 miles from Montezuma Castle is Tuzigoot, centered on a pueblo on a hill and the surrounding area, containing over 100 rooms, which overlooks the Verde River.  This site came under the National Park Service in 1939 as a National Monument.  This site is also very close to Jerome, an old copper mining town that has been undergoing an artistic renaissance over the past 30 years.  The pueblo was built using local sandstone and limestone and consists of a cluster of many rooms in a 2-3 story structure. The equivalent of mortar was used to hold the structure together. Both Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot have excellent Visitor Centers with a wealth of information about the sites and people who dwelled there.

In addition to these National Park sites, I had arrived several days early to explore other parts of northern Arizona.   There are so many great outdoor activities to see and experience within a few hours drive from Montezuma Castle.  Some of the places we spent time at included Jerome, the Copper Art Museum in Clarkdale, the Verde Canyon Railroad, the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. We wandered around the amazing variety of red sandstone formations found in Sedona.  The red rocks of Sedona have such a “western” look, that the area has been used in over 60 Hollywood movies and attracts visitors from all over the world to feel the aura of the location and several unique vortexes.

As with all of these AIRs, the time passed so quickly and I am now in the midst of editing my photos for prints for future exhibitions.   I would strongly encourage you to make time to visit our National Parks.  I have also received notification that 2 more National Park locations have selected me as one of the AIRs in the second half of 2019.  What a great adventure this has been!

 To see more of my photos of the National Parks, visit

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