When I chose the setting for the third Pegasus Quincy Mystery novel, Fire in Broken Water, which centers around the ongoing Water Wars in Arizona, I knew parts of it had to be located at Montezuma’s Well.
The Well is surrounded with mystery and magic. Who expects to see this blue-green water in the midst of the high desert terrain of the upper Verde Valley? As you climb up 500 feet to the summit of the limestone sink, white-gray limestone cliffs are peopled with spare junipers struggling for survival, along with some spindly creosote and scrub oak.
In the spring, and later in the fall after the monsoon rains you’ll find a colorful display of desert wildflowers including yellow prickly-pear cactus, blue lupine, and orange globemallow. There’s also a variety of birds: raptors such as the kestril and red tailed hawk, scrub blue jays, the black crested phainopepla, and tiny bushtit.
Once you reach the top, look over the edge into a blue-green lake. Montezuma’s Well was originally an underground basin, fed by freshwater springs. When the top collapsed, the Well was formed. It has Indian ruins around the inner edge and another cave down at the bottom, near the flow-through channel to Oak Creek below.
Perhaps because of the warm spring water (a constant high 70-degrees in temperature), the Well is home to five species of critter found nowhere else in North America, including a unique type of water scorpion. No fish, though, because the water is too high is carbonation–over 80 times the level of normal freshwater–and contains arsenic leached from the surrounding rock formations.
The depths of the Well have been explored by scuba teams recently, and their findings are fascinating!
The Well was named by early settlers, but was never seen by the Aztec leader Montezuma. However, it is held sacred by the surrounding Indian tribes. The Hopi call it “sun spring,” the Yavapai, ʼHakthkyayva or, “broken water,” and the Western Apache, “Water Breaks Open.” The last two refer to an unusual feature of the well, an underground tunnel, or swallet about 150 feet long that acts like the safety drain on your sink, allowing the overflow water from the well to pour out of solid rock into an irrigation ditch on the outside of the formation.
There, the air is cool and moist–over 20 degrees cooler than on top–Columbines and wild watercress grow in the mossy waters.
At this point the water is diverted into an irrigation ditch over a thousand feet long, built Indian tribes centuries ago and still used today for cattle ranches downstream. The high limestone content of the water has coated the sides of the canal, similar to the sides of a swimming pool.
Here, take a walking tour of Montezuma’s Well to experience the stark difference between the arid land at the top of the Well and the moist-creekside environs at the bottom.
More than 90% of the springs in Northern Arizona have been lost as the result of underground pumping, too many wells depleting the ground water and periodic droughts. This sometimes sets neighbor against neighbor in the struggle between development and natural beauty. Montezuma’s Well dwells in the midst of this dispute, quiet and serene over the centuries.