Monday, June 4, 2012

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Montezuma's Castle
I recently made a trip to Montezuma Castle National Monument in central Arizona.  The National Monument is just a short trip off of the I-17 north of Phoenix and has two parts, the Montezuma Castle which is the main part, and Montezuma's Well which is a lesser visited section of the park.  Today, we will be discussing the castle portion of the monument.  We will discuss the well at a later time.  Both of these sections have some pretty interesting biology.  I will save some blog space by letting you read-up on the monument at the National Park website if you are interested:
Instead of giving the basic information on the park, I'll try to give you a little different perspective.
The tiny Beaver Creek that runs past Montezuma's Castle makes big changes in the desert landscape.  Much more water runs underground in this stream than above ground, feeding the trees of this desert oasis.
During the summer, Montezuma's Castle can give us modern humans a good perspective of what a desert oasis is like.  Us moderners are used to air conditioning, running water, and produce filled super markets everywhere we go.  Obviously this wasn't the case in the desert less than a century ago.  Hiking around the monument in the sweltering heat and scorching sun of summer should get one major point across to everyone about living in the desert.  That is: water is life.  The rolling limestone hills and mountains surrounding the monument are covered with relatively sparse Upper Sonoran Desert vegetation.  Water for drinking is completely absent and shade is minuscule.  Yuccas, prickly pear cacti, Creosote Bush, and Grey Thorn are the dominate plants, none of which cast any significant amount of shade.  Finding or not finding shade in the summer can mean life or death.  Think about how much hotter it is in the sun than it is in the shade.  Temperatures the weatherman gives us everyday are always taken in the shade.  If you were to take the temperature in the desert sun it might be thirty or more degrees hotter.  130 plus degrees is not easy for the body to handle and can quickly lead to life threatening heat stroke.  This is exactly why ancient Native Americans settled along Beaver Creek, where the water from the creek mean life.
Gazing up into an Arizona Sycamore tree along Beaver Creek in Montezuma Castle National Monument.  This tree casts life giving shade that decreases the temperature by tens of degrees.
Beaver Creek might not look like much, but its effect on the landscape is dramatic.  The water-less shade-less landscape surrounding Beaver Creek quickly is transformed into a more moist and shady habitat the nearer you get to the creek.  Real trees become abundant near the creek, replacing the diminutive pathetic excuses for trees further away.  Smaller desert trees such as Desert Willows, Mesquites, and Acacias, become common along the outer edges of the riparian area.  Riparian areas are simply the vegetation adjacent to water.  As you move closer huge Arizona Sycamores, Arizona Walnuts, Velvet Ash and Cottonwoods become abundant and cast a dense shade on the ground.  Hackberry, Mesquites, and Acacias are also common in the undergrowth of these large trees.  This shady more moist environment is far more hospitable and inviting than the surrounding desert.  In-fact, you can get the feeling this shady desert oasis might have even had a paradise like sense to it to ancient desert dwellers.  While the actual creek might not look like much, remember, a much large amount of water is flowing slowly underground.  This underground water feeds the deep rooted riparian trees tens of yards away, creating an abundance of life in the desert.

Beyond all this, the creek of course also supplied plenty of water for agriculture for ancient inhabitants.  The riparian vegetation also supplied the ancients with plenty of wild foods to eat such as mesquite bean pods.  Furthermore, the riparian area was not only attractive to humans but also to wildlife, which were hunted.  On our trip we saw an abundance of wildlife including two snakes, squirrels, wrens of various species and a rather tame Summer Tanager.  
A rather tame Summer Tanager found at the monument.


  1. Your photo shows a Summer Tanager. The two species look a lot alike, but this is more of Tanager habitat, and the bird doesn't have any of the characteristic black on its head.

  2. Opps... That's why I am a plant biologist.