Friday, June 8, 2012

Montezuma Castle National Monument: Montezuma's Well

Montezuma's Well, part of Montezuma Castle National Monument.  This is the well viewed from the cliffs surrounding the pond.
The Montazuma's Well portion of Montezuma Castle National Monument is the lesser known of the two sections of the park.  It has far fewer visitors every year, but I personally find this section far more interesting.  First of all, the "well" itself is pretty interesting.  This "well" is simply a hole in the ground pond, quite an unusual landscape feature and I know of nothing quite like it.  This pond is located on a hill top that caved in as water dissolved away the limestone bedrock forming the hill.  Nearly vertical cliffs line all sides of the pond and there are well over 100 stairs down into this hole along the trail.  Ancient Native American ruins are built into many of the cliff walls around the pond.  If you think about it, this would have been quite a nice place to live 1000 years ago or so.  At least compared to the surrounding desert.  The surrounding Upper Sonoran Desert is similar to what is found at the Montezuma Castle portion of the National Monument, however, it is slightly higher elevation.  This means it is slightly cooler and receives a little more rain, just enough to support Juniper trees in addition to all the other plants found in the desert we discussed in our previous post.  While Junipers do add another food source, a little more shade, and a source of materials, it still doesn't make living out in the open desert possible.  Within the "well" area, the pond moderates extreme temperatures, supports trees that provide shade, and provides water.  All this making for a nice place to live during ancient times.  Every time I have visited the well in the summer though, I still think it would be an unbearably hot place to live.   I have noticed the cliff walls where the ruins are located are considerably cooler though.  Hanging out in the cliff walls during the heat of the day was probably a major way ancient inhabitants avoided the heat. 
Montezuma's Well at the outlet, where the pond flows into one of the surrounding cliffs.
If you aren't at least sort of amazed just by the landscape structure of the well, than hopefully learning about the aquatic biology of the pond itself will amaze you.  The biology of the pond is truly weird, almost sci-fyish.  First of all, because the spring that feeds the pond come out of limestone there is a huge amount of carbon dioxide dissolved in the water.  This does not mean the water is poisonous, but does mean that fish cannot live in the pond.  Which would have been a bummer to me if I was an Native American living there 1000 years ago.  Algae, however, thrive on the abundance of carbon dioxide.  This algae supplies food to loads of amphipods, which are sort of like tiny freshwater shrimp.  At night time, huge numbers of non-blood sucking leaches migrate towards the surface to feed on the amphipods.  It is rather creepy imagining a mass migration of leaches swimming towards the surface. 
Vegetation along the canal the empties into Beaver Creek.
Once outside of the well, the trail also takes you down a cliff opposite the pond cliffs and along Beaver Creek.  This is actually my favorite section of the entire monument.  As mentioned before, water flowing out of the well flows into one of the cliffs surrounding the pond.  On the other side of the cliff, the water flows out of another cliff along the creek.  This water enters Beaver Creek in a truly beautiful desert oasis.  This area is very wet and shady.  Temperatures are far cooler here in the shade and thick vegetation.  Huge Sycamores and Ash trees fill the area.  The area has enough moisture to support beautiful Columbine flowers and even some poison ivy, so watch out.  This verdant green area is quite a refuge from the surrounding harsh desert landscape.  

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