Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument
The Hovenweep Castle on the rim of Little Ruin Canyon was home to farmers and includes a log that was cut in 1277 to create a wooden beam for one of its towers. | Photo by Neal Herbert / National Park Service

Staff writer

Visitors looking for a quiet destination to embrace the harsh beauty of the Four Corners region (where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet) and to contemplate the skill of ancient stonemasons will find both at Hovenweep National Monument.

The first inventive humans who made seasonal pilgrimages to the arid, rocky area arrived about 10,000 B.C., leaving slight footprints of their centuries in the region.

About 900 A.D. some put down shallow roots and nearly 800 years ago Ancient Puebloan people, relatives of those who created nearby Mesa Verde, settled in the site that straddles the Colorado-Utah state line and created more lasting evidence of their presence.

They built six clusters of finely joined stone structures overseen by towers of different shapes. The purpose of the towers isn’t clear – observatories, religious sites, storage bins or lookout posts are possibilities.

They fed on sagebrush flowers, seeds and leaves, built terraced fields to grow domesticated crops like amaranth, beans, squash and maize. Scarce rainwater was collected and flowing water was dammed and directed to benefit wild plants, including cattails, ground cherries, milkweed and bee weed.

The estimated 2,500 settlers had only about 100 years to enjoy the haven they had created before an extended drought chased virtually all residents of the region to new homes in neighboring states.

Ute and Navajo arrived later and discovered the ruins. The Ute language gave the area its name, which means “deserted valley.” In 1854, native guides led the first European visitor, missionary William Huntington, to Hovenweep. Many other visitors followed, apparently lured by the archaeological treasure. In 1903, surveyor Mitchel Pruden reported a field of broken pottery, scattered bones and stolen artifacts.

Smithsonian ethnologist J. Walter Fewkes published a detailed survey of the area and urged protection. In 1923 President Warren G. Harding complied, naming Hovenweep a National Monument, to be managed by the National Park Service. In 1966 Hovenweep was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite the early depredations, Hovenweep remains a little-known treasure of six villages crowned by multistory towers spread over a 20-mile expanse of mesa tops and canyons.

Modern additions to the site include a visitor center, a 31-site campground, hiking trails and picnic areas.

Hovenweep is open year-round and the visitor center is open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day) with hours varying with seasons. The visitor center and restrooms are accessible to wheelchairs and there is a paved trail leading to the Square Tower overlook. Other trails are unpaved.

Pets are allowed but must be leashed and on-trail.

Individuals who arrive on foot or by bicycle or motorcycle can purchase a seven-day pass for $3. A seven-day pass is $6 per vehicle.

Campground sites near the visitor center are $10 per night and are first-come, first-served year round. Most sites are for tents but a few can handle RVs up to 36 feet long, although no hookups are available. Running water (up to five gallons per person) is available only in the summer.

Temperatures may vary up to 40 degrees in a single day.

Hovenweep National Monument
McElmo Route
Cortez, CO 81321