Hovenweep National Monument
The Anasazi built many impressive masonry buildings during the early to mid-1200s, near the end of their 1,300-year stay in the area. A 25-year drought beginning in A.D. 1274 probably hastened their migration from this area. Several centuries of intensive farming, hunting, and woodcutting had already taken their toll on the land.
Archaeologists believe the inhabitants retreated south in the late 1200s to sites in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. The Ute word Hovenweep means "deserted valley," an appropriate name for the lonely high desert country left behind.
The Anasazi at Hovenweep had much in common with the Mesa Verde culture, though the Dakota sandstone here doesn't form large alcoves suitable for cliff-dweller villages. Ruins at Hovenweep remain essentially unexcavated, awaiting some future archaeologist's trowel.
The Anasazi farmers had a keen interest in the seasons because of their need to know the best time for planting crops. Astronomical stations (alignments of walls, doorways, and tiny openings) allowed the sun priests to determine the equinoxes and solstices with an accuracy of one or two days. This precision also may have been necessary for a complex ceremonial calendar.
Astronomical stations at Hovenweep have been discovered at Hovenweep Castle and Unit-Type House of Square Tower Ruins and at Cajon Ruins.
Hovenweep National Monument protects six groups of villages left behind by the Anasazi. The sites lie near the Colorado border southeast of Blanding. Square Tower Ruins Unit, where the visitor center is, has the greatest number of ruins and the most varied architecture. In fact, you can find all of the Hovenweep architectural styles here.
The visitor center (970/562-4282, www.nps.gov/hove/, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Apr.-Sept., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct.-Mar., $6 per vehicle or $3 per person) has a few exhibits on the Anasazi and photos of local wildlife. A ranger will answer your questions, provide brochures and handouts about various aspects of the monument, and give directions for visiting the other ruin groups. There's also a small campground at the monument ($10, no reservations).
Square Tower Ruins
This extensive group of Anasazi towers and dwellings lines the rim and slopes of Little Ruin Canyon, a short walk from the visitor center. Obtain a trail guide booklet from the ranger station; the booklet's map shows the several loop trails and has good descriptions of Anasazi life and architecture and of the plants growing along the trail.
You'll see towers (D-shaped, square, oval, and round), cliff dwellings, surface dwellings, storehouses, kivas, and rock art. Take care not to disturb the fragile ruins.
Keep an eye out for the prairie rattlesnake (a subspecies of the Western rattlesnake), which is active at night in summer and during the day in spring and autumn. Please stay on the trail—don't climb ruin walls or walk on rubble mounds.
You'll need a map and directions from a ranger to find the other Hovenweep ruins, as they aren't signed. One group, the Goodman Point, near Cortez, Colorado, has relatively little to see except unexcavated mounds.
Holly Ruins group is noted for its Great House, Holly Tower, and Tilted Tower. Most of Tilted Tower fell away after the boulder on which it sat shifted. Great piles of rubble mark the sites of structures built on loose ground. Look for remnants of farming terraces in the canyon below the Great House.
A hiking trail connects the campground at Square Tower Ruins with Holly Ruins; the route follows canyon bottoms and is about eight miles round-trip. Hikers could also continue to Horseshoe Ruins (one mile farther) and Hackberry Ruins (one-third mile beyond Horseshoe). All of these lie just across the Colorado border and about six miles (one-way) by road from the visitor center.
Horseshoe Ruins and Hackberry Ruins are best reached by an easy trail (one mile round-trip) off the road to Holly Ruins. Horseshoe House, built in a horseshoe shape similar to Sun Temple at Mesa Verde, has exceptionally good masonry work. Archaeologists haven't determined the purpose of the structure.
An alcove in the canyon below contains a spring and small shelter. A round tower nearby on the rim has a strategic view. Hackberry House has only one room still intact. Rubble piles and wall remnants abound in the area. The spring under an alcove here still has a good flow and supports lush growths of hackberry and cottonwood trees along with smaller plants.
Cutthroat Castle Ruins were remote even in Anasazi times. The ruins lie along an intermittent stream rather than at the head of a canyon like most other Hovenweep sites. Cutthroat Castle is a large multistory structure with both straight and curved walls.
Three round towers stand nearby. Look for wall fragments and the circular depressions of kivas. High-clearance vehicles can go close to the ruins, about 11.5 miles (one-way) from the visitor center. Visitors with cars can drive to a trailhead and then walk to the ruins (1.5 miles round-trip on foot).
Cajon Ruins are at the head of a little canyon on Cajon Mesa in the Navajo Reservation in Utah, about nine miles southwest of the visitor center. The site has a commanding view across the San Juan Valley as far as Monument Valley. Buildings include a large multiroom structure, a round tower, and a tall square tower. An alcove just below has a spring and some rooms. Look for pictographs, petroglyphs, and grooves in rock (used for tool grinding). Farming terraces were located on the canyon's south side.
Getting to Hovenweep National Monument
One approach from U.S. 191 between Blanding and Bluff is to head east nine miles on Highway 262, continue straight six miles on a small paved road to Hatch Trading Post, then follow signs 16 miles. A good way in from Bluff is to go east 21 miles on the paved road to Montezuma Creek and Aneth, then follow signs north 20 miles.
A scenic 58-mile route through Montezuma Canyon begins five miles south of Monticello and follows unpaved roads to Hatch and on to Hovenweep; you can stop at the BLM's Three Turkey Ruin on the way. From Colorado, take a partly paved road west and north 41 miles from U.S. 491 (the turnoff is four miles south of Cortez).
© W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell from Moon Utah, 9th Edition