February 29, 2024 | Allison Robertson

The Montezuma Well


Montezuma Well

Montezuma Well is a desert karst oasis. It’s a large, ancient sinkhole with an underwater spring that is surrounded by desert landscapes and ancient ruins built into the rocky hillside.

Often considered one of Arizona’s hidden gems, visiting this stunning destination is a must.

montezuma well and woman split image

What is it?

Montezuma Well is a natural limestone sinkhole near the town of Lake Montezuma in Arizona.

It’s a large, circular sinkhole filled with blue-green water and surrounded by desert rocks, ancient ruins, and lush green foliage.

Montezuma wellAlexey Stiop, Shutterstock

Where is it?

It’s located at Montezuma's Castle National Monument, and lies alongside Wet Beaver Creek in the Verde Valley.

Tourists enjoy the stunning castle grounds while they visit the well.

Montezuma Castle National MonumentXander Ashburn, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

How big is it?

The "well" measures 386 feet in diameter from rim to rim and has a whopping depth of 55 feet.

Montezuma Well in Arizona, USAtishomir, Shutterstock

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How much water does it hold?

The sinkhole regularly holds about 15 million gallons of water. It contains a near-constant volume of spring water even in times of severe drought.

Montezuma WellExploring and Living, Shutterstock

How much water flows through the sinkhole every day?

Each day, 1,500,000 US gallons (5,700,000 L) of water emerge from an underground spring, filling the sinkhole with beautiful blue water.

The water may look inviting, but it’s more dangerous than you’d think.

Montezuma WellZack Frank, Shutterstock

What is the water like?

The water is highly carbonated and contains high levels of arsenic, as well as calcium and other chemicals.

This combination prevents fish from living within the well, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing living there.

Montezuma WellKen Lund, Flickr

Can it support wildlife?

At least five endemic species, the most of any spring in the southwestern United States, are found exclusively in Montezuma Well: a diatom, the Montezuma Well springsnail, a water scorpion, the Hyalella montezuma amphipod, and the Motobdella montezuma leech.

Montezuma WellZack Frank, Shutterstock

What is a Diatom?

Diatoms are photosynthesizing algae with intricate silicate cell walls. Scientists think the three diatoms found within the Well may have appeared around 8,000 years ago.

Montezuma WellPaul R. Jones, Shutterstock

What is The Montezuma Well Springsnail?

The Montezuma Well springsnail is one of the smallest wildlife species in Arizona. They grow to a length of 2 to 3 mm—smaller than a sesame seed.

These tiny freshwater mollusks are found nowhere else in the world. They thrive on the submerged rocks and sticks in the well’s outflow called the “swallet”.

Montezuma WellZack Frank, Shutterstock

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What is a water scorpion?

Water scorpions live in the weed bed along the shore of the Well, entering the open water at night to feed. It uses a sharp beak to pierce and suck internal body fluids from its adult prey.

The well may be safe for these creatures, but it is not safe for everyone.

water scorpionArno Meintjes, Flickr

Is the water safe for humans?

A study done at Northern Arizona University found that the well had “levels of arsenic around 100 parts per billion (ppb), twice the levels allowed in United States drinking water.”

Therefore, it is not safe to drink.

Montezuma Castle National MonumentTrevor Huxham, Flickr

How much arsenic is allowed in US water?

The US apparently has the most lenient standard in the world, “at five times the 10 ppb level recommended by the World Health Organization.”

But why is this a problem?

Montezuma WellKen Lund, Flickr

What does arsenic do to humans?

The federal Centers for Disease Control report that at high levels, arsenic can damage the nerves, stomach and intestines, and skin. Breathing high levels can lead to sore throat and irritated lungs.

Lower levels of exposure can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and more.

young woman feeling nauseatedmetamorworks, Shutterstock

How warm is the water?

Because the water of Montezuma Well comes from an underground stream, it has a constant temperature of 76 °F (25 °C).

Although this may be tempting to jump in, authorities would prefer you not to.

Montezuma Wellcpaulfell, Shutterstock

Can you swim in the well?

It is advised that visitors stay out of the well completely. Not only is the water unsafe to consume (even accidentally), it is filled with leaches and creatures that you’d want to avoid.

Montezuma WellTraveller70, Shutterstock

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Where does overflow water go?

Overflow water exits through a long, narrow cave into an ancient canal system that trickles through the desert surroundings, adding to the beautiful landscape in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Yavapai Indian Native American Cliff Dwelling found at Montezuma's WellGerald Peplow, Shutterstock

When was it created?

The exact age of Montezuma Well is unknown but is between about 5.5 million years old. This tells us a lot about the ancient ruins that scatter the area.

Montezuma's WellGerald Peplow, Shutterstock

Who discovered it?

Thousands of years ago, ancient peoples—the Sinagua—chose the surrounding area as their home, specifically close to the well.

Montezuma WellJeffrey M. Frank, Shutterstock

What did they live in?

The Sinagua people built several one-room dwellings, as well as a much larger one, known today as the Montezuma Castle—which has 55 rooms.

Montezuma Castle National MonumentPaul R. Jones, Shutterstock

What were the dwellings made from?

Their dwellings were made primarily of poles, sticks and mud. They were built into the hillsides and among the rock formations.

Most of their dwellings remain intact over a thousand years later.

Cliff dwellings at Montezumas Wellmelissamn, Shutterstock

Can visitors see the ruins?

There are several ruins left intact along the Montezuma trail that visitors can experience close-up. They’re often found built into the hillside, not far from the well.

The better views are a little off the trail, for those who like adventure.

A woman taking a photo of Montezuma Castlechristopher babcock, Shutterstock

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Who maintains the Montezuma Well?

The National Park Service has done an excellent job of preserving the areas original look and feel. Visitors can see the canal, enjoy picnic areas, and a historic back ranch house at the well.

A Family Exploring Montezuma's WellGerald Peplow, Shutterstock

How do visitors get around the grounds?

The National Park Service have created easy, cemented walking trails for visitors to follow as they casually explore the area.

Shaded forest areas along the trail offer relief from the hot Arizona elements.

Montezuma Castle National Monument protects a set of well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings near the town of Camp Verde, Arizona, United States.Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz, Shutterstock

How long is the trail?

The self-guided hike to Montezuma Well is about 500 yards from the parking lot to the main lookout point. According to other visitors, you can walk the entire trail, down to the well in less than a mile.

But if you choose to keep walking, there is more to see.

Visitor Center, Montezuma Castle National MonumentKen Lund, Flickr

What else can you see along the trail?

There is also a pit house you can see near Montezuma Well. It is believed that the Hohokam people lived here around 1050 AD—after the Sinagua.

Along with the pit house, you’ll see more ruins the further you walk.

Pit house at Montezuma WellPaul R. Jones, Shutterstock

Are there more trails?

Shortly after the main attraction—the “Well”—you will find trails that continue on into the desert. One trail will bring you to a large rock staircase that will lead you down to get up-close-and-personal with some of the ruins.

Montezuma Well Disappearing StaircaseSammysWalks, Shutterstock

What sits above the well?

Another trail will take you further up above the well, to see other ruins that are built on top, rather than into the hillside—offering a different view of the stunning Arizona landscape.

Trail in Montezuma Castle National MonumentFredlyfish4, Shutterstock

Where else will the trails take you?

You will find another side trail which will take you down to the water outlet. It is lined with stunning rock formations, various forest foliage, and rocky steps.

It is a nice trail along the irrigation ditch and if you look further out you can see Beaver Creek.

After the water outlet, you’ll follow a trail that leads back to the main ranger station.

Beaver Creek near Montezuma Castle National MonumentBennekom, Shutterstock

What do tourists think of the Montezuma Well?

Toursist reviews rave about how “unexpectedly beautiful” the Montezuma Well actually is. The sinkhole is apparently much larger than most people expect, and the trails are easy and accessible to most people.

The trail can be short or long, depending on where you want to go, and the park is carefully managed.

Montezuma Castle and WellJonathan Manjeot, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

If you get a chance to visit the Arizona desert, adding the Montezuma Well (as well as the Montezuma Castle) to your bucket list is highly suggested.

Montezuma Castle and WellJonathan Manjeot, Shutterstock

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4


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