* Montezuma Well and Montezuma Castle, Arizona *
One of my favorite wells in America, this Native American sacred site is phenomenal and full of mystery! When driving up to the Well, just north of Montezuma Castle, it’s a small 1/3 mile hike up a short hill to a naturally occurring spring in a sink hole thriving for hundreds if not thousands of years in the desert. Over the top of the sinkhole is a series of empty cliff dwellings, caves, and ruins of stone pueblos from peoples who used to live at the sacred spring.
It was formed by an enormous limestone cavern collapsing into the spring forming the sinkhole that you see here. From prehistoric cultures to a 14th-century farm, the ruins on this National Park property is enticing on their own with the magical spring as icing on the cake. This natural oasis is like none other as a natural well with a never-ending supply of water for a region where water is very scarce. The waters in this spring well up from deep underground caverns and flow constantly out into the sinkhole and down through the boulders into the nearby river. The sinkhole measures approximately 368 feet across and 55 to 120 feet deep with an elevation of 3,618 feet above sea level. The well’s spring water trickles down through the limestone boulders into Beaver Creek, the sacred outlet being a spring hole under the boulders from the sinkhole and is most likely the revered sacred outlet of the spring.
Over 15 million gallons (57 million liters) springing forth from these primordial origins. The geology of the area is very unique providing refuge to various species of animals, plants, and creatures that are found nowhere else in the world. This contributes to the sacredness it possesses to early peopling in the area, especially those living at Montezuma Castle cliff dwellings. The name “Montezuma” is a misnomer, as he most likely never visited nor knew of this place.
The Hopi called it “Yuvukva” meaning “sunken spring” or “Tawapa” meaning “sun spring”. The Yavapai called it “Ah-hah gkith-gygy-vah” meaning “broken water”. The Western Apache called it “Tu sitch’iL meaning “Water breaks open”. The spring and sinkhole are embedded into emergence mythologies and is a place of origins to many tribes. The communities that settled here were able to exist here for several centuries. No one is sure of why these people left, but it could have been a build-up of low-level arsenic found in the waters affecting their health over time. The Dwellings date from the 1100s of the Common Era (C.E) through 1400 C.E. when large networks of pueblo-communities set up their villages in the Verde Valley especially at Sacred Mountain and Montezuma Castle.
The two peoples that lived in this area well recorded were the Hohokam and the Sinagua. The first settlers were believed to be the Hohokan, a Pima word for “all used up”. They lived in pit houses made of sticks, poles, and mud irrigating crops of beans, corn, and squash. The second peoples were the Sinagua. Sinagua means “without water” in Spanish, and may have related to the disappearance of the people when droughts hit the area. The Sinagua created the cliff dwellings and pueblos upwards of 55 rooms in the area.
They primarily farmed the area as well as some hunting. They were master craftspeople creating tools, Manos, metates, ornaments, and garments. Natives first occupied the area around 2,000 years ago – along the Verde River and Beaver Creek. The peoples went through waves of occupations and disappeared almost as quickly as overnight. Archaeologists pondered the reason for this, from low levels of arsenic in the waters making them ill over time, drought, exhausted soil, diseases, wars with marauding tribes coming into the area, or viral outbreaks. No one knows for sure, but when they left, they left the dwellings in the same condition as they had inhabited them.
This sinkhole has been a mystery to everyone who has encountered it. Science today is still stumped about its complexities – its depth, its source, and its constant flow. It is considered quite miraculous. The Yavapai and Apache peoples believe that once something emerges from its vents at the bottom of the well, it can never return. Oral traditions tell of the spirit of a great water serpent that still lives here called “Ah-hah bavilwaja” or “water monster”. That has been true, even to science. Even when a regional drought is taking effect on the area, a sweet 1.6 million gallons flow through its main vents every day at a fairly regular consistency and nearly constant 74 degrees Fahrenheit (23 degrees Celsius).
Science thinks they might have an idea where the water originated and is constantly investigating with National Park Service dive teams. 55 feet deep, fluidized fine sand boiling up in swirling cascading mounds creating the mirage of a false bottom as the vents are another 65 feet deeper making measuring its depth difficult. They tried to put research equipment in and just as the legend dictates, could never get them in, they would always be pushed out. Specialists of all kinds have come to study the well over the years. The geology of the well tells its formation was between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago from precipitation atop the Mogollon Rim peculating down through hundreds of yards of rock, basalt flows, Coconino sandstone, Supal Group, Hermit Shales, and others until it reached the relatively permeable Red wall Limestone beneath trickling towards the Spring that is Montezuma Well.
The waters and soils combined with an underground dike of volcanic basalt forcing it back to the surface after its ten-millennium journey. Geological patterns and ripples of travertine just 1/3 of a mile around the spring are remains of another massive dome created by yet an older spring than the existing one in Montezuma Well. There are no fish within these waters, just thousands of freshwater leeches and is home to creatures found nowhere else on the planet. Since there are high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide – 80 times higher than any other lake, life is impossible for the fish, amphibians, and aquatic insects to settle here.
The well is home to only 5 living species with the leeches being the top of the food chain. These are (1) Endemic leeches, (2) amphipods, (3) snails, (4) diatoms, and (5) water scorpions. The amphipods risk going to the surface to feed on microscopic algae trying to escape the leeches during the late afternoon sunlight. Once darkness folds, the leeches rise and feast on them. Migrating ducks, native Sonoran mud turtles, and muskrats often come in and swim the waters on occasion as well. Around the edge of the spring is quite a varied assortment of plant and animal life. The plant life includes the One seed Juniper, Arizona Sycamore, Arizona Walnut, Acacia, Velvet Mesquite, Velvet Ash, Joint-fir, Ephedra plant, Cliff-rose, Brittlebush, Salt Bush, Creosote Bush, Desert Broom, Spanish Dagger, Indian paintbrush, gray thistle, hedgehog cactus, gray thistle, pale evening primrose, penstemon, prickle poppy, prickly pear, jimsonweed, milkvetch, yellow columbine, maidenhair spleenwort, and Globemallow.
Animal life includes deer, raven, American wigeons, coots, cinnamon teal, Canadian geese, gadwalls, ruddy ducks, mallards, robin, roadrunner, red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, American kestrel, belted kingfisher, gamble’s quail, cardinal, canyon wren, black phoebe, Gila woodpecker, great blue heron, lesser goldfinch, mourning doves, red-shafted flicker, gopher snakes, bull snacks, rattlesnakes, collared lizard, horned toad, cottontail rabbit, javelina, skunks, Arizona gray fox, porcupine, beaver, chipmunk, cottontail rabbit, and jackrabbits.
While Native Americans inhabited this region for hundreds if not thousands of years, the first white explorer to come to the well was the Spanish explorer Antonio de Espejo during his 1583 expedition. He basically described the Montezuma castle and well site in his journal as an abandoned pueblo with a ditch running from a nearby pond. Early settlers believed the cliff dwellings belonged to the Aztec emperor Montezuma which gave root to the naming misnomer. The castle was actually home to the Sinagua Indians and deserted a century before Montezuma was even born.