Coronavirus update (February 19th, 2021): Roads, trails and the campground at Hovenweep National Monument are open; only the museum and bookstore in the visitor center remain closed
In a wild, remote and somewhat forgotten part of the Southwest, Hovenweep National Monument contains six separate prehistoric ruined villages dating from the Pueblo period of the mid thirteenth century. The monument spans the UT/CO border though the largest and best preserved site is in Utah - the land hereabouts is similar to Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park but on a smaller scale, with flat, bushy mesas split by steep-sided, quite narrow ravines, and the settlements typically consist of several small ruins on or just below the rim around the head of a canyon.
Although in some cases little remains beyond a pile of stones or low wall remnants, the interest and appeal is enhanced by the general remoteness and peaceful nature of the surroundings. The name Hovenweep, a Paiute word meaning deserted valley, was bestowed on this region by explorer and photographer William Jackson in 1874, and the site became a national monument in 1923.
Overview map of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
in Colorado, showing the units of Hovenweep.
PDF format map of Hovenweep National Monument
, from the National Park Service (172 kb).
Hovenweep National Monument is reached from the south by several paved roads, starting from either US 191, Aneth on UT 262 or US 160 near Cortez in Colorado - this latter (Montezuma County Road G) is the longest, a bendy route through cultivated land along McElmo Creek and past some entrances to Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
. The drive from US 191 is the most used approach; it forks several times though all turnings are well signposted, and crosses rather desolate country, mostly flat, sandy and featureless apart from three distant mountain ranges to the northwest, east and south (Manti La Sal in Utah, Sleeping Ute in Colorado and Carrizo in Arizona). All these routes cross part of the Navajo Indian reservation, and there tends to be a lot of roadside litter.
Square Tower Unit
All signs lead to the main site, the Square Tower Unit, which is based around Little Ruin Canyon
. Here is found a campground and the visitor center which has a good selection of books and offers guided tours of the nearby ruins. A 1.5 mile loop trail (which takes from 1 to 2 hours depending on stops) starts from here, winding around two forks of the canyon, descending quite steeply to the floor then climbing back up towards the visitor center. There are at least 10 ruins visible, some quite substantial. Most impressive is Hovenweep Castle
, which has several rooms and D-shaped towers built on buff-colored Dakota sandstone slickrock right on the canyon edge. Towers are a particular feature of Hovenweep, and other similar structures of note are the two storey Square Tower
, a tall, elegant column rising from the canyon floor, and Twin Towers
on the opposite rim, unusual because of especially intricate masonry and the differing geometries of the two turrets - one horseshoe-shaped, the other oval.
The other five ancient villages are much less visited as they are largely undeveloped and not well signposted, and four are reached only by unmaintained dirt roads.
Only one is in Utah - the Cajon
site on the Navajo Reservation, 9 miles southwest, near the upper end of Allen Canyon. The other four are in Colorado - isolated locations surrounded by anonymous BLM land that is now part of the large Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
, established in 2001. The adjacent ruins of Horseshoe and Hackberry
are the closest, requiring just a one mile drive on an unpaved road, and like the Little Ruin site have scattered buildings on rocky canyon rims in a similar mixed state of preservation. Many ruins are completely unexcavated and often consist of just an earthen mound with stones on top. Straying from the official path is not encouraged though some buildings cannot be seen otherwise. Holly
is further down the approach road, while a little way east is the more remote Cutthroat Castle Group
, which is different to the other settlements as most dwellings are built within a canyon, not on the rim, and also because it has a relatively large number of kivas - circular ceremonial houses not found elsewhere in Hovenweep. The final site is Goodman Canyon
, in a different part of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, reached by a paved road from Arriola.