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Hovenweep National Monument is Now 100

This year marks the centennial of Hovenweep. In 1923, President Warren G. Harding proclaimed Hovenweep a national monument, marking its 100 years as a significant designation of archeological sites. Here you can see pueblos, ceremonial rooms, or kivas, pit houses, round and square towers, and there’s even a “castle;” masonry that has stood for centuries. Hovenweep is located in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. It sits on the Cajon Mesa of the Great Sage Plain. The monument and campground are open all year and the monument is administered by the National Park Service.

The first people to inhabit the Hovenweep area were Paleoindians, who lived there as early as 10,000 years ago. These nomadic hunter-gatherers followed the seasonal weather patterns, moving to different areas of the mesa to find food and water.

Around 900 CE, a group of people known as the Ancestral Puebloans began to settle in the Hovenweep canyons, which contain permanent springs. These people were farmers, and they built their villages on the mesa top, where the soil and climate were favorable for agriculture. They planted corn, beans, squash, and a grain called amaranth. There is also evidence they grew cotton. They planted in small fields and terraces. The long draws draining into the canyons offered an advantage in that they could be terraced to hold back the soil and provide sheet-water irrigation for crops and created check dams for irrigation. They also hunted animals and trapped birds, and domesticated turkeys.

The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the Hovenweep area for about 400 years. They built kivas, which were circular chambers used for religious and ceremonial purposes. They were a thriving culture, and their villages grew to be quite large. However, around 1300 CE, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the Hovenweep area. The reasons for their departure are not entirely clear, but it is believed that they may have been forced to leave due to drought, warfare, or a combination of factors.

The Hovenweep area remained uninhabited for centuries. In 1854, W.D. Huntington first documented the discovery of the structures after he led a Mormon expedition into southeastern Utah. The name Hovenweep is a Ute/Paiute word that means “deserted valley.” The settlers named the area and ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan villages “Hovenweep.”

In 1874, pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson captured the beauty and archeological significance of Hovenweep. In 1917-18, J.W. Fewkes surveyed the area for the Smithsonian Institution and recommended Hovenweep be protected. All of this led to President Harding proclaiming Hovenweep a national monument in 1923.

Today, the monument is a popular tourist destination, and it is also an important archeological site. The ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan villages provide a glimpse into the lives of these early people, and they help us to understand the history of the Four Corners region.

The Little Ruin Loop
little ruin canyon sign hovenweep

The Little Ruin Trail is a 1.8-mile loop trail that takes hikers past several Ancestral Puebloan dwelling sites in the Square Tower Group of ruins in Hovenweep National Monument. The trail begins at the visitor center and winds its way through the canyon, passing by the remains of several small villages, including Stronghold House, Square Tower House, and Hovenweep Castle. The Little Ruin Trail is a great way to learn about the Ancestral Puebloans. The dwelling sites are some of the best preserved in Hovenweep. The walls of the structures are still standing in many places, and it is possible to see how they lived and worked in these villages. The trail offers stunning views of the canyon and the surrounding landscape. It takes about an hour and is an easy horizontal trail until the end that takes you down the canyon and back up. You can always back track if you don’t want to go down into the canyon. The trail is wheelchair trail accessible from the visitor center to the Stronghold House for 300 yards. This is the first stop on the trail.

Stronghold House:
stronghold house hovenweep
This small village is located on a promontory overlooking the canyon. The village is made up of several interconnected rooms, and it is believed to have been used as a defensive stronghold. The imposing fortress-like appearance is what led to its name of Stronghold House. You can see the actual upper story of a large pueblo, which is now rubble built on the slope below. Access to the structure was either by ladder or hand-and-toe hold chipped into the rock. Stronghold House has two sections made by finely shaped stone blocks. Stronghold Tower is on the right and was built over a crevice in the cliff. A log once bridged and supported the tower but decayed and fell to the canyon.

Unit Type House:
unit type house hovenweep
This is a perfect example of a typical basic building plan of ruin sites in the Southwest. Archeologists refer to these as simple living and storage rooms and one kiva, for a family or a clan. As families grew, the pueblos grew by expanding and repeating constructed surface rooms in contiguous rows with stone masonry. The single kiva here is of the Mesa Verde style with two openings in the wall facing east.

Eroded Boulder House:
eroded boulder house hovenweep
Looking across the canyon is the intriguing Eroded Boulder House built amongst a huge rock as its roof and walls. Sitting on top of the boulder are the remains of a tower once perched above with only stones left in its place.

Tower Point:
tower point hovenweep
The Tower Point Loop is 0.5 mile and brings you closer to this rounded tower that has alcoves below the rim. It is believed that the inhabitants used these rooms to store their precious crops to harbor over the extreme winters. Crops would include beans, corn, and squash that they stored in clay pottery they made. These granaries served to be an efficient storage method of housing excess food and were used commonly in the ancestral Puebloan way of life.

Hovenweep Castle:
hovenweep castle hovenweep
This large structure is located on the rim of the canyon. The castle is made up of two D-shaped towers that sit on the edge of Little Ruin Canyon. It contains several rooms and a tower. The masonry work is impressive with stone walls made in two and three courses thick which offered stability and strength. One of the wooden tower beams revealed growth rings indicating the tower was built in 1277 CE. The castle is one of the largest ruins at Hovenweep, however it more likely was inhabited by farmers. It is also believed it could have been used as a community center or a spiritual center.

Square Tower House:
square tower hovenweep
This two-story structure sits low in the canyon and is the most iconic dwelling site on the Little Ruin Trail. The tower is made of sandstone blocks in the shape of a spiral, which sit on a large sandstone boulder. Its location was probably due to the spring at the head of the canyon where there was evidence found of a doorway facing that direction. The water proved a precious and permanent resource as evident by the large hackberry trees growing next to Square Tower House.

After Square Tower, the rim trail loops around some slick rock with a line of rocks spanning a small streambed. The Ancient Puebloans built these checkdams to capture and store water up to two feet high, serving their personal water needs and for growing crops. Archeologists found checkdams all over the mesa, and reconstructed the one you see here in 1974. These water collection methods allowed the Ancient Puebloans to survive and thrive this oftentimes harsh environment

Hovenweep House:
hovenweep house hovenweep
This ruin was built on solid sandstone, and this is the part that is still standing. The rest have fallen and are now broken rocks, but these rocks do tell a story. They reveal that Hovenweep House’s size and shape may have served as the center of the Square Tower Group as it’s one of the largest of the Pueblo villages.

Rimrock House:
This two-story structure is designed differently from the other sites. It is rectangular in shape and has many small windows on random levels, perhaps to serve as peepholes for protection? Maybe the holes were to increase air flow for harvested crops to reduce spoilage? Archeologists believe Rimrock House was not actually lived in as it doesn’t resemble any of the other residences.

Twin Towers:
twin towers hovenweep
This is the last site on the Ruin Trail. As usual, the best is saved for last. The Twin Towers collectively once had 16 rooms. One tower is oval shaped and the other is horseshoe shaped. They were built so close they almost touch. These meticulously constructed buildings were purposedly placed on solid bedrock and built entirely with thick and thin stones with wooden lintels for support. This is evident in one tower. The builders of yesterday were skilled craftsmen whose work is still enjoyed by today’s visitors.

The Ruin Trail offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape along with the many ancient sites. Be sure to stop often along the way and take in the scenery as you walk along back in time. canyon view hovenweep
The latter part of this trail starts to dip into the canyon, dropping off about 80 feet. It’s a bit steeper, but manageable. Here in the canyon you will find shade from the cottonwood trees as you peer up into the sandstone layers above that was used to form these amazing ancient Puebloan villages.