Montezuma’s Well Loop Trail Guide
a short diversion to unique historical site near Arizona’s Interstate 17
MAP: available at Montezuma Castle Visitor Center
PERMITS: No fees here – Montezuma Castle requires a $10 entrance fee, but the Well is a separate location with no fee.
HOURS OF OPERATION: limited, most often from 8am to 4:45pm
DESIGNATION: Montezuma Castle National Monument
BEST SEASONS: spring, fall, and winter, but avoid crowds in March
DISTANCE: 0.4 mile loop trail
ELEVATION: 3,618ft with insignificant elevation change on the trail
ACCESS: paved roads, with a short stretch of well-graded dirt
DIRECTIONS: From the Camp Verde exit on I-17, travel north on the interstate for 5.5 miles. Take exit #293 for County Road 30/77. Follow County Road 77 (Beaver Creek Rd) for 4 miles to the parking area. Montezuma Well National Monument registers in Google Maps.
ROUTE: well maintained, paved trail, signed junctions
Here’s a map that shows the layout of the National Monument at Montezuma Well, courtesy of the National Park Service.
With less than half a mile of trails, Montezuma Well is far from a true hiking destination. It is, however, an interesting geologic and historic site that’s not far from the interstate. It’s generally not crowded, and doesn’t take long to explore.
Trails meander along the rim of the Well and descend toward its shore to visit the Swallet Ruin, one of several Native American cliff dwellings that sit alongside the lake.
A spur trail leads beneath shaded, riparian sycamore trees along Wet Beaver Creek to the flowing outlet of the well – definitely worth a visit on hot day.
The final connecting piece of the loop trail leads over an open landscape, with more evidence of native rock structures and dwellings.
The separate trail to the Pithouse Ruin is less than a tenth of a mile, leading to an archaeological site from the Basketmaker period that’s about 1,000 years old – approximately from the year 1050.
The site was excavated, and is now protected with a roof and soil cement to preserve its original appearance.
Geology and Natural Features
The so-called “well” is the main attraction here – a limestone sinkhole formed when the original strata collapsed into an underground cavern, likely over 12,000 years ago.
The depth of Montezuma’s Well is published as 55 feet deep, with a width of 368 feet across. Numerous natural springs keep its water level constant, despite an outlet into Wet Beaver Creek that flows at a rate of 1,100 gallons per minute. The water temperature remains relatively constant as well, at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Since the hydrology of the well operates independently of seasonal floods and other peripheral effects, it’s an environment ripe for a cluster of endemic species, or species that exist nowhere else in the world. These include unique water scorpions, leeches, and more.
Can you swim in Montezuma’s Well?
No! The site is sacred to the Yavapai people, as they believe it’s the place where they emerged into the world. Likewise, the ecosystem of the lake is unique and fragile, with a high concentration of endemic species.
The chemical makeup of the water (high carbon dioxide) is bad for fish, so you won’t find any of those in the well, either. It also has an above-average level of arsenic.
As if all this wasn’t enough to keep you out, the water is filled with leeches!
Though it’s thought that humans roamed the Verde River valley as early as 10,000 years ago, archaeologists think the first humans began settling the area around the year 600. These people are commonly classified as the Southern Sinagua, with attributions of Hohokam style, as evidenced in the Pithouse Ruin.
By the year 700, they’d come up with the bright idea to divert the reliable water from the well (aka dig canals) to the arid land below, to aid in the farming of corn, squash, and beans. It’s thought that water from Montezuma’s Well supplied up to 60 acres of farmland. A modern canal still exists below the outlet, some of which still follows its prehistoric course.
Spanish explorer Antonio de Espejo is thought to have been the first non-native to visit Montezuma’s Well. In the journal from his 1583 expedition, he writes of a lake with a pueblo that had an irrigation ditch running from it.
Otherwise, the site remained largely off the radar from the general public until Richard J. Hinton published the guidebook Handbook to Arizona in 1878. The Smithsonian Institute later studied the area in the 1890s.
Montezuma Castle National Monument (including Montezuma’s Well) was declared by President Theodore Roosevelt on December 8, 1906. The primary function of the National Monument system, to this day, is to protect cultural and historical sites such as this.
Why the name of Montezuma?
Montezuma was, of course, the Aztec emperor who dealt with Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, at present-day Mexico City in the 1500s. This emperor (and Aztec culture in general) have no tangible association with Montezuma Castle or Montezuma Well.
It’s thought that the first European-American visitors to the area attributed the name of Montezuma to the site the 1860s, possibly to honor Montezuma or simply through naivete, and the name stuck.
My Trip Notes and Photos
I visited Montezuma’s Well on December 30, 2016. It was a spur of the moment decision, with a couple of extra hours to spare while traveling between Phoenix and Grand Canyon’s South Rim.