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Hovenweep National Monument: Ancestral Puebloan Community of Stone Towers

Each year over half a million people make a pilgrimage to Mesa Verde to see the truly astounding cliff dwellings. The unique stone towers and other buildings at Hovenweep attract far fewer visitors. Its relative obscurity comes from its location. Although on paved roads, Hovenweep's 20-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons sheltering 6 villages lies along the Utah-Colorado border in truly in the middle of nowhere. Make the journey anyway.

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The people who lived at the heads of small canyons were farmers, but they also built stone towers that are the signature construction of Hovenweep National Monument.

Visited by photographer William Henry Jackson in 1874, he named it Hovenweep based on the Ute Paiute word that means deserted valley.

People lived in Hovenweep as far back as 10,000 years ago. By 900 AD is was the site of permanent communities. Hovenweep was one of the linked communities that stretched across the area now known as the Four Corners. Most of the buildings were constructed around 1230 to 1275, the height of the ancient puebloan culture and contemporaries of the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde.

It is estimated that over 2500 people lived there. No one is certain as to the function of the towers. Everything from observatories, to storage facilities, as well as homes has been suggested.

Square Tower Group and Hovenweep Visitors Center

Start at the visitor center where you can visit the remains called the Square Tower group that stretch along Little Ruin Canyon. There are other groups of ruins that can be visited. You can download the map, but you’ll want to start at the Visitors Center regardless.

The large and diverse towers at the Square Tower group provide a stunning introduction to the communities strung along the rim. Watch the movie which depicts what the community would have looked like when it was inhabited. Then, take a walk along the Rim Trail Loop.

If you can’t make the entire trail, do go far enough to pick up the Tower Point Loop which will take you to the foot of Hovenweep Castle and Tower Point. Don't let the name mislead you - the people who lived in the canyon were farmers raising the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and squash and storing the excess for leaner years.

Tower Point also offers a commanding view up and down the canyon. Note the double wall construction - the time-consuming process of handbuilding the walls was undertaken twice.

For those comfortable on steeply inclined paths, you can walk down the trail into the canyon and gaze upwards from the valley to the towers.

If You Go

Take bug spray, and use it. Although it's a high desert climate, there's enough water somewhere to support a seasonally healthy population of biting insects. The roads leading to the Visitors Center are paved, but those within the Monument are dirt that are not well maintained. They can be impassible in wet weather.

Reach Hovenweep from Cortez, Colorado via County Road G / McElmo Canyon Road. Download a Map

Accessibility: There is a paved path that links the Visitor Center and the first overlook.

There are no facilities in the park other than at the Visitors Center - no food, no gas, no water. It will take between about 75 to 90 minutes to reach Hovenweep from Cortez. Bring with you whatever you will need for your visit.

While in the area, Cortez, Colorado makes a great central location. Learn more about visiting Cortez Colorado is Mesa Verde Country.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: June 26th, 2013

Updated: August 7, 2016

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