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Last Updated on April 30, 2024

Inside: Everything you need to know to visit Montezuma Well, a stunning pool of deep water with cliff dwellings nearby Montezuma Castle.

Imagine living in the desert 1,000 years ago and stumbling on this huge pool of water at the top of a hill . . . you’d probably gasp, right?

Spoiler alert: I actually gasped myself when I first saw it last year! Montezuma Well is truly a breathtaking sight.

What is Montezuma Well?

Montezuma Well is a deep pool of water that is actually a giant sinkhole perched high atop a hill. It’s one of several Arizona National Monuments dedicated to Native American culture.

View of montezuma well surrounded by limestone and fall foliage, with cliff dwellings in upper left
View of Montezuma Well from the water level. Note cliff dwellings on upper left

The “well” was created by the collapse of an underground cave thousands of years ago, and is replenished daily by underground streams. Montezuma well is about the size of a football field and maintains a steady water level year-round.

It’s like a giant pond nestled in a hilltop nest of limestone. Add in evidence of ancient peoples, such as cliff-dwellings and water-level cave rooms, and you’ve got a site that’s truly worth seeing.

And to top it all off, its absolutely FREE!

Take the Montezuma Well Hike

Follow the 1/2-mile trail, which will take you past all the discoveries at this magical place.

Ascend a gentle 80-yard rocky slope to reach the rim of the well. Roughly 100 feet below you’ll see the serene blue water snuggled amid reeds and mesquite trees in its limestone nest. Gasp! 😲 (told you!)

View 100 feet above montezuma well from edge-with iron railing
The unexpected well as you reach the top of the hill

You can walk along the edge to view the well from multiple angles. (Note: keep toddlers in check, the railings are sturdy, but they’d be easy for little ones to squirm through.)

Exploring the Cliff Dwellings and Caves

From your rim viewpoint search for clues of prior inhabitants.

Remains of rooms tucked into the stone cliffs overlooking the well (to your left) along the rim are evidence of the native peoples who have lived here. Experts believe the Sinagua, Hohokam, Hopi, Zuni and Yavapai all used the well at one time or another over the centuries. Because of their cliffside location, this is as close as you’ll be able to get.

close up view of cliff dwellings at montezuma well
Cliff dwellings: 1000-year old condo with a water view!

Keep looking. There are more clues . . .

A small sign points toward the “Swallet Ruins.” Hmmm, not sure what a “swallet” is, but “ruins” sounds promising. Looks like it goes right down to the water’s edge.

Descend a short trail of 112 stone steps. With each step the temperature drops, delivering a cooling respite from the Arizona heat. That coolness is welcome today; for indigenous peoples centuries ago (pre-A/C!) it would have been downright miraculous.

Soon you find yourself at some small rooms carved into the limestone wall right at the water’s edge. This is awesome! It’s like you’ve just discovered some centuries-old secret hideout!

You have. You’ve found the cliff dwellings down at the water’s edge. It feels pretty safe down here. These dwellings would have kept their inhabitants cool in the summer, and protected from storms in the winter.

And you’ve also found the beginning of the swallet: the point where the water leaves the well and goes out to the nearby creek.

Hang out for a bit in these cool (literally and figuratively 😎) spaces, envisioning one of the Sinagua grinding corn or washing clothes 900 years ago. There’s something serene about these simple domestic tasks in such a unique setting.

There’s one more historic surprise waiting down here, although the culture isn’t quite so ancient, and unfortunately it’s inconsiderate. See if you can spot the 200-year-old graffiti on one of the walls.

Avoid the temptation to add your “tag” here. As the nearby placard will warn, these are still sacred sites to the native peoples, and graffiti such as this is disrespectful. (Not to mention it’s now a National Monument, and you don’t want to be “that guy” who defaces federal property.)

Completing the Montezuma Well Hike

Return back to the rim of the well and continue on the path, which will take you down toward Beaver Creek before looping back to the parking lot.

You’ll be back in the high desert landscape of grasses, mesquite and prickly pear cactus.

Along the way you will see the remains of a few more stone dwellings, this time simply built out on the open grassy plain. Compared to what you’ve just seen, these remains might seem a little . . . mundane.

Man in front of Hilltop ruins on the montezuma well hike with fall foliage in background
These hilltop ruins at Montezuma Well only hint at the wonders nearby

But it’s these remains that provided an indication that there was, perhaps, a little more going on around here. Something that said, “look a little harder, explore a little more.”

Aren’t you glad you did?

If you like archaelology and Native American Culture, be sure to check out this post:

Details about visiting Montezuma Well

You can visit Montezuma Castle and Well on the same day. Montezuma Well National Monument is a short drive (roughly 10 miles) from Montezuma Castle.

  • Admission:Montezuma Well is free (unlike the Castle, which charges a small fee).
  • Opening Hours: 8am to 4:45pm, daily. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day) Picnic area closes at 4pm.
  • Services: Picnic Area with flush toilets, water refill station. Pit toilets on the trail.

Montezuma Castle National Monument was established in 1906 as the third National Monument devoted to Native American culture. Montezuma Well was added as an annex to the Monument in 1947. It is one of 30+ National Parks and Monuments in Arizona.

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