CAMP VERDE -- Cicada song echoes off the limestone walls, and cool, moist air blows off Beaver Creek to provide comfort from the sun. People walk along the path, preferring to catch patches of shade provided by cottonwoods and Arizona sycamores towering out of the rich soil.
The journey from the visitor center takes but minutes -- a few hundred yards. The view opens, and high above, set in a cavernous natural alcove on the cliff face, it rests. Layers of rock, dried, red mud and lumber once housed the first people in this valley of rich soil meandering through Arizona high desert.
Welcome to Montezuma Castle, home to an ancient tribe of American Indians known as the Sinagua.
Within an hour's drive of Flagstaff, visitors and residents alike can take a trip back in time and visit one or several sites left by the Sinagua. With names like Montezuma Castle, Montezuma Well, Tuzigoot, Walnut Canyon and Wupatki, the ruins of Sinagua dwellings that dot the landscape fill out any vacation plans to the Grand Canyon.
These attractions offer some great options to explore with visiting families during the holidays season, while also offering a chance for locals to learn more about the ancient culture.
"Wherever the Sinagua went, they followed water," says Walter Kneeland, an interpretive guide at Montezuma Castle National Monument. He stands in a shaded area talking with about 20 visitors. The massive structure perches in the background more than 100 feet above in the cliff face.
The dwelling, one of two at the monument, has five different levels. Construction of the levels took generations to build as more and more Sinagua congregated in the area. The dwelling was completed in the 1200s.
At the base of the cliff, remnants of another dwelling, Castle A, rest. Castle A -- also made of rock, wood and mud -- was built on the ground, had several stories and contained 40 rooms. Castle A was destroyed by fire.
The Sinagua came to the Verde Valley in around 600 A.D., Kneeland said. At first, they lived individually all over the valley and didn't really begin joining together in communities until about 1100 as farming developed. At about the same time, Sunset Crater near Flagstaff erupted and many of the northern Sinagua came down the mountain to the Verde Valley to live, bringing their above-ground architecture dwellings with them. The site was occupied until 1450 A.D.
"Then, they left," Kneeland says. "We don't know why they left."
Kneeland says that by the time the Spanish came in the 1500s looking for gold, the Sinagua had abandoned the site. Drought could have impacted farming, or too many people settled in the area and depleted the resources. As to where they are now, Kneeland says that the Sinagua are likely part of the many tribes that now occupy the area. The Hopis to the north have a deep, spiritual connection with the Sinagua and continue to come to the Verde Valley to conduct ceremonies.
They left evidence of a rich life -- pottery, tools, clothing, jewelry and other items of daily life.
A few miles to the north at Montezuma Well, creeks feed a limestone sink filled with water to quench a thirsty landscape. Visitors amble under sun-drenched terrain up a short series of steps among creosote and mesquite bush to arrive at a lush wetland tucked into the sink. Remnants of Sinagua dwellings and irrigation systems surround the life-sustaining water supply. The water itself is charged with carbon dioxide gas, so no gilled fish live in it. But animals like raccoons, foxes, squirrels -- even Canadian geese and mallard ducks -- can be counted among Montezuma Well's inhabitants.
To the northwest near the town of Clarkdale stands Tuzigoot, a 110-room dwelling built on a hill in the middle of a fertile valley on the banks of the Verde River. At its height in the 1300s, Tuzigoot housed more than 200 people. Limestone and sandstone make up the walls of the structure, and the roof supports were made of juniper, cottonwood and pine.
Don Gouirand, an 11-year volunteer at Tuzigoot says his No. 1 question from visitors is, "Why did everybody come through the roof?" All of the rooms, except one used for religious ceremonies, had their entrances in the roof. Not everybody thought that a door in the wall was the best place to put an entrance, Gouirand says.
The dwelling began as a small series of rooms at the top of the hill and slowly grew as more people congregated. Some of the dwellings were at least two stories, and the remnants of those were used to construct the visitor center and museum at the site.
Gourirand adds that most visitors to the Sinagua ruins in the Verde Valley come in the fall, when the temperature has subsided.
"Summer's busy, too, but they all look like they're going to die before they get to the top," Gouirand says, smiling.
Just 5 miles outside of Flagstaff, Walnut Canyon drops 400 feet through limestone and red sandstone. Over millions of years, water carved deep groves into the ground, providing refuge for the Sinagua after the eruption of Sunset Crater to the north in the 1100s. Remnants of dwellings, built into alcoves, protected the inhabitants from the elements.
Along the Island Trail, which drops into the canyon from the visitor center, visitors can learn from interpretive guides like Steve Rossi about the daily lives if the Sinagua of Walnut Canyon. He takes the trail through pinion pine, Douglas fir and Gambel oaks to allow visitors an up-close look at what the Sinagua left behind. He passes around Sinagua pottery for guests to feel the smooth durability and contemplate the craftsmanship of the ancient people.
"It's a perfect place to start to build a community," Rossi says, adding that the canyon has 300 dwellings that were built over a 200-year period. Although some of the dwellings have been "restabilized" by modern people, nearly 80 percent of the dwellings are original, left just the way they were at the time of the Sinagua 700 years ago.
"But they left," Rossi says. Tree-ring data suggests the Sinagua left with the coming of a drought, likely south to Montezuma Well, where there was a more regular water supply.
Half an hour to the north from Flagstaff, past the lava flows and cinder cone of Sunset Crater volcano, at the precipice of the Painted Desert stands the pueblo complexes of Wupatki. The ruins jut out from the desert terrain in testament to the presence of the Sinagua and the frontier among them and other established groups of the time like the Kayenta and the Cohonina. The ruins were once considered a place of commerce and agriculture. Given the arid, treeless landscape, populated by fourwing saltbrush, broom snakeweed and rabbit brush, it is hard for visitors to imagine life once flourished in such a seemingly desolate place.
Breeze moves over sandstone walls. Visitors walk through the ruins that tell stories in hushed timelessness only the desert can give.