Exploring Montezuma Well

Montezuma Well is a sub-unit of Montezuma Castle. Managed by the Park Service, it is located about 15-20 minutes to the North. From Montezuma Castle National Monument, head toward I-17 and go North 1 1/2 miles to the next exit (Exit 293). Total trip between Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well is 11 miles.
Montezuma Well Road Map
Montezuma Well Road Map

NPS Photo

A picture of Montezuma Well
A picture of Montezuma Well on a clear day

NPS Photo Ed Goodwin

Cliff dwellings at Montezuma Well
Cliff dwellings are perched along the rim of Montezuma Well.


History of Montezuma Well

The land around Montezuma Well has been home to many prehistoric groups of people since as early as 11,000 CE. The first historical groups came to the Verde Valley after Arizona became a territory in 1863. Some accounts say Spanish settlers traveled through earlier, in the 1500s, but did not settle in the area.

The first Anglo-Americans to settle at Montezuma Well were Wales and Jennie Arnold in 1870. They operated a mail station and used the prehistoric irrigation canal to water their land. The land then passed through a series of ranchers, farmers, and business people until William and Margorie Back claimed right to the land. They operated a ranch, farm, and orchard in the area.Legend claims that Abraham Lincoln “Link” Smith purchased the land around the Well in 1887 for one horse. Smith then sold the claim to the Backs in 1889 for a team of horses, thereby “doubling his profit.”

The Backs also converted Montezuma Well into a tourist attraction for the first time. The family charged for tours, displayed artifacts found at nearby archeological sites, and later operated campgrounds, picnic areas, and a resort where guests could stay. Some of the biggest attractions were boat tours of the Well. The family even, unsuccessfully, attempted to stock the Well with varieties of fish so that guests could go fishing, until the fish died soon after being introduced to the water.The Backs owned and maintained the land around the Well for more than 60 years.

The Backs agreed to sell the land to the US government and Congress approved the legislation in 1943. But funding was delayed, so Montezuma Well did not become part of the National Park Service until 1947. Montezuma Well is now a separate unit of Montezuma Castle National Monument.The National Park Service continued to use the Back house and other structures until the Mission 66 initiative of the 1950s, when the buildings were removed. But many of the original structures remain standing and are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, visitors can still see the irrigation canal, picnic areas, and historic Back ranch house at Montezuma Well. Take your time as you explore the trails at Montezuma Well and discover the tranquility of a site still considered sacred by many local tribes. The shaded forest along the trail near the swallet ruin and the outlet provides welcome relief from the unrelenting Arizona sunshine. The temperature difference at the outlet can be up to 20 degrees cooler than along the rim of the Well, making it easy to imagine the people of the Sinagua culture spending the hot summer days in this tranquil setting.

The Outlet at Montezuma Well
The trail to the outlet at Montezuma Well brings you to a site of surprising tranquility.


Wildlife of Montezuma Well

The water in Montezuma Well has unusually high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide and arsenic, as well as calcuim and other chemicals. This combination prevents fish from living within the Well, but is also responsible for the evolution of the five endemic (native plant or animals that are restricted to a certain place) species found within the Well.

View a list of Birds at Montezuma Well

A picture of Gomphonema montezumense
Gomphonema montezumense

NPS Photo

Diatom (Caloneis latiuscular var. reimeri, Cyclotella pseudostelligera f. parva, and Gomphonema montezumense): 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 (Blinn 2008).
Hyallela azteca
Hyallela azteca

NPS Photo

Amphipod (side-swimmers; Hyallela montezuma and H. azteca): Amphipods can be found along the weedy margins of the Well. The amphipod species that live here are susceptible to parasitic infection by worms. During infection, the amphipods become slower and less prone to seek camoflauge, and more likely to be found in the nearshore vegetation, where they come food for water bugs, water scorpions, and waterfowl (O'Brien et al. 2002). The amphipod species that live in Montezuma Well become a keystone species because of its role in the food web.
Picture of a leech

NPS Photo

Leech (Motobdella montezuma and two Helobdella species): The three species of leeches that live in the Well hunt the amphipods, ascending to the surface to feed an hour or two after sunset (Blinn 2008). They track their prey by detecting vibrations in the water using special structures called sensilla (Govedich and Bain 2005). These structures are so sensitive that the leeches can selectively hunt, choosing juveniles or adults. Each leech eats between 12-16 amphipods per night, swallowing their prey whole and then using enzmes to digest the internal body fluids. (Blinn 2008; Govedich and Bain 2005).
Water Scorpion

NPS Photo

A water scorpion (Ranatra montezuma): Water scoripions 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 amphipods (Blinn 2008; Blinn et al. 1982). The water scorpion buries its eggs in soft, partially decayed plant tissue to hide them from predators during the months of December through February (Blinn 2008).
Spring Snail

NPS Photo

A spring snail (Pyrgulopsis montezuma): The spring snail lives in the swallet and associated limestone and moss habitats along the shoreline (Blinn 2008). This species is currently vulnerable and until recently, were potentially threatened by the red-ear slider turtles introduced to the Well in the late 1960s or 1970s (Cordeiro 2012).This particular snail cannot survive outside the Well, requiring at least 50 mg per liter of carbon dioxide in the water - ten times that found in most standing waters (Blinn 2008).
A picture of Pondweed

NPS Photo

The pondweed most common and visible in Montezuma Well is also likely endemic but unnamed (NPS 1992). According to Cole (1965), the Montezuma Well Potamogeton species has stem anatomy like P. gramineus and upper anatomy like P. illinoiensis. The pondweed in Montezuma Well roots in sediments as deep as eight meters (about 26 feet) below the surface, which may be the deepest known for a Potamogeton species (Blinn 2008).
Picture of a Mud Turtle
Sonoran Mud Turtle

NPS Photo

A Mud Turtle (Kinosternon sonoriense): The Mud Turtles found within the Well may be endemic to Montezuma Well (NPS 1992). If formally recognized, the mud turtles of Montezuma Well will be the third subspecies of K. sonoriense known in the greater Southwest, or perhaps a new species altogether.

Last updated: March 11, 2021

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