How To Explore the Ancient Ruins of Hovenweep

Hovenweep is a Paiute and Ute word, meaning “deserted valley”, and as you look around in the area, you’ll feel that it is a fitting description. We love visiting it not only for the structures but also for its remoteness, of this feeling of being alone in a deserted landscape.

A Great Destination for the Free National Park Day

So when we needed a destination during National Park Week, on a day when the parks waived the entrance fee, it was a natural choice. We knew most parks would get more crowded than usual, and we were trying to think of one off-the-beaten-track within driving distance.

While we knew of a few others that most likely would be manageable (Chaco among them), when we thought of Hovenweep, we knew we found the right one. Off the beaten track, in the middle of nowhere, though not too far from Cortez and Mesa Verde, the ruins have everything we enjoy in a National Park. Even quiet and tranquility on an otherwise busy National Park weekend.

Getting to Hovenweep National Monument

Like in most cases with the monuments and ancient ruins in the Four Corners area of the US, I have to think about which state it is. Hovenweep National Monument is on the Utah-Colorado border, in the middle of nowhere between Southwestern Colorado and Southeastern Utah. The Visitor Center and the largest ruins are in Utah, though some structures lay in Colorado.

The two closest towns to it are Cortez, Colorado and Blending, Utah, about the same distance, 40-45 miles. The GPS might get you lost, so follow the signs – you’ll find them from Cortez; I’m not sure about Blending or Bluff. We drove there from Cortez, Colorado, after spending a day exploring the area.

Visiting Hovenweep

Close to Mesa Verde, the site of Hovenweep is far from getting as busy as the well-known ruins on the mesa top. Once passed Cortez, the road was empty; we didn’t encounter other cars until stopped at the parking lot. Though ours wasn’t the only vehicle stopped there; we noticed two others.

Since it was a cloudy day, perfect for hiking, we didn’t even stop at the Visitor Center when we arrived, eager to get on the trail.

Walking towards the ruins, I kept watching the Sleeping Ute Mountain, a perfect shape of the sleeping warrior that gave it its name.

Sleeping Ute Mountain

According to legend, the Sleeping Ute was a mighty warrior, defending his surroundings and all creatures in it. Once, fighting against a strong opponent, he was wounded, and, after winning the battle, he laid down to rest.

Sleeping Ute Mountain - view from Hovenweep
Sleeping Ute Mountain – view from Hovenweep

The blood from his wounds, flowing towards the ground, turned into streams and rivers for the animals to drink from. While laying there, he fell into a deep sleep, from which he still didn’t wake. Though his people know that when they need him, he will wake up to defend his people and the environment. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it might be time for him to wake up… or he’s just waiting for the last second, hoping that we, the people can do the work, and save our mother Earth.

Walking through the Ruins of Hovenweep

A cloudy day is perfect in the high deserts of Four Corners to enjoy the outdoors, so we took our time through the site.

The only trail we could access from the Visitor Center was the Square Tower Group Trail. A few others belong to Hovenweep, but they are all down primitive dirt roads, and we drove a low-clearance, city-slicker car. But the trail we took was the best, and since we did the whole loop, the longest.

A Paved Path to the Overlook

We started out on a paved path, about a half mile long, surrounded by pinion trees, with sweeping vistas dominated by the Sleeping Ute Mountain in the distance.

Overlook - Little Ruins Canyon. Hovenweep
View from the Overlook of Little Ruins Canyon

We stopped at the Little Ruins Canyon Overlook and enjoyed the view of the ancient structures in and around the Canyon. Then we started off the Square Tower Loop Trail.

The Square Tower Loop Trail

A 2-mile dirt trail, the Square Tower Loop Trail took us around the Canyon, down into and out again while getting close to the surrounding ruins. We started our trail towards the Hovenweep Castle, to the right of the viewpoint.

Square Tower Group

Walking along the rim we had a good view of the Square Tower Group inside the canyon. This group comprises the largest number of ancestral Puebloan structures in the area, once home to about 500 people.

Structures inside the Little Ruins Canyon - view from the hike towards Hovenweep Castle
Structures inside the Little Ruins Canyon – view from the hike towards Hovenweep Castle

Though we couldn’t see them, archaeologists discovered the remains of about 30 kivas, and many other structures in the canyon and perched on its walls.

Square Tower, the structure that gave the group its name, is a tall, three-story tower, built on a boulder, dominating the head of the canyon.

Square Tower on the bottom of Little Ruins Canyon
Square Tower on the bottom of Little Ruins Canyon

With no trail leading down closer to it, we admired it from the top, which made it even more impressive.

Hovenweep Castle

Walking along the rim of the canyon, with views of the Square Tower Group, we reached the Hovenweep Castle, about 0.8 miles in.

Built on the top of the rim of the canyon, the Castle comprises a few structure.

The Hovenweep Castle
The Hovenweep Castle

After spending some time at the Castle, we kept going, circling the canyon. From the far end, we had some of the best views of the site, including Square Tower.

Continuing on the Trail

Square Tower from above.
Square Tower. View from above.

As we continued on the other side of the canyon, we had a different perspective of the Castle and its surroundings.

Hovenweep Castle.
A different perspective of Hovenweep Castle.
Hovenweep Castle from the opposite rim of the canyon.
Hovenweep Castle from the opposite rim of the canyon.

Twin Towers

Eventually, we got close to the Twin Towers we saw from the Viewpoint. They looked more impressive close-up than they did from across the canyon.

The Twin Towers. Hovenweep
The Twin Towers
A closer look at the twin towers.
Even closer look at the twin towers.

Into the Canyon

The trail eventually led down into the canyon.

Inside the canyon
Inside the canyon

Back to Where We Started

Crossing it, we climbed out and back to where we started.

Back on the side of the Visitor Center.
Back on the side of the Visitor Center.

It was such a pleasant day, we were ready to do the hike again. Instead, we spent more time at the overlook and took our time walking back towards the Visitor Center.

Who Built these Structures?

The Ancestral Puebloans also called Anasazi lived in the Four Corners area between 500 -1300 AD. They were associated with those who lived in Mesa Verde and other nearby sites. In their time the Four Corners region was not as deserted as it is now but filled with different size villages like this one.

Where did the Name Originate?

We don’t know what the ancestral pueblos called the place. But when photographer William Henry Jackson stumbled upon the ruins in 1874, he adopted the Ute word Hovenweep, Deserted Valley, for them.

Hovenweep Becomes a National Park

In 1917-1918 the Smithsonian Institute surveyed the area and recommended the ruins to be protected. It took a few years, but in 1923 Hovenweep became a National Monument.

In a Nutshell: FAQ

  1. What is Hovenweep National Monument?

    Hovenweep National Monument protects the remains of six prehistoric villages, built between 1200-1300 AD by the Ancestral Puebloans, who inhabited the Four Corners area.

  2. What does Hovenweep mean?

    The word Hovenweep means “deserted valley”, with its origins in the Ute language.

  3. Where is Hovenweep?

    In the Four Corners area of the US, Hovenweep National Monument is on the border of Utah and Colorado. Its Visitor Center and the most popular sites are in Utah, though it comprises a few sites across the border, in Colorado. Off primitive dirt roads, the Colorado sites might only be accessible by four-wheel-drive and/or high clearance vehicles.

Hovenweep NP

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