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Verde Valley explorations

We’re not completely down to the wire quite yet, but we are fast approaching the point when we will have to stop banking memorable experiences and turn our attention entirely to the unenviable task of putting our affairs in order ahead of one more trip halfway around the world. Each evening spent on our laptops to take care of logistical odds and ends may bring us palpably closer to our imminent return to Manila, but the days still belong to us, and we have endeavored to make the most of them, revisiting our favorite trails, organizing outdoor playdates for the kids, going birding, and exploring new destinations.

In October, we had visited a trio of National Monuments to the north of us dedicated to the preservation of architectural remains of bygone pre-Colombian civilizations. Last week, we visited a couple more similar sites located in the Verde Valley to the south of us. The trip was a bit spur of the moment. We had planned to drive to the Grand Canyon during the mid-week Veterans Day holiday, but wound up dallying around the house too long to make the two-hour drive worthwhile. Instead, we set out to see the Montezuma Castle National Monument, which we had passed numerous times on the highway but had never bothered to visit.

The name given to this national monument is a complete misnomer, as its centerpiece neither is a castle nor has any relation to the famed Aztec emperor. The so-called castle is actually an impressive cliffside dwelling built near Camp Verde by the same Sinagua people who had constructed the dwellings we had seen in Walnut Canyon. This pre-Colombian civilization flourished between 1100 and 1425 AD, and the “castle” — which archaeologists have determined functioned more like a prehistoric apartment high-rise — was built decades before Montezuma was even born.

That the Sinagua had no earthly connection to the Aztecs did not discourage the European-Americans who first came upon these ruins in the 1860s from naming the site after Montezuma. At the time, it was widely believed that the Aztec empire had extended much further north than it actually had. As a result, major archaeological relics and sites across the southern states tended to be associated with the Aztecs and named accordingly. There also was much less effort at conservation in those days: old photographs from the turn of the century show crudely constructed ladders propped up against the cliffside to enable visitors to explore every inch of Montezuma Castle.

After marveling at the castle and letting our kids blow off some steam in a little wooded area, we turned the car toward the Montezuma Well — a natural limestone sinkhole also containing Sinagua dwellings that forms a detached unit of the Montezuma Castle National Monument. The so-called castle is impressive and definitely worth a visit, though it’s also fair to say that we enjoyed the visit to the well even more. A couple of the dwellings are located right at the upper rim of the well, and there is also a trail that leads down toward a cave dwelling near the bottom. Also, the lake inside the well was teeming with various ducks and other birds, which D and Junebug both loved.

There are also pre-Colombian architectural remains in Tuzigoot National Monument in nearby Clarkdale, but the sun was low to the horizon by the time we had wrapped up our walk around Montezuma Well, so we decided to skip Tuzigoot, especially since we have glimpsed the ruins from afar during numerous visits to the contiguous Dead Horse Ranch State Park. We still have a handful of weeks left in Sedona, so perhaps we’ll yet pay them a visit.

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