Hovenweep National Monument

History | Places | Activities





Hovenweep protects a collection of unique prehistoric archeological sites. The inhabitants of Hovenweep were part of the large farming culture which occupied the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona from about 500 B.C. until nearly A.D. 1300.  Located along the border between Utah and Colorado, the monument is noted for its solitude and undeveloped, natural character.


Monument Information

Hours/Seasons:  Hovenweep is open year-round. The Ranger Station is open daily from 8:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., with extended hours during summer. The Ranger Station is closed winter holidays.

Individual - $3 - 7 Days
Vehicle - $6 - 7 Days
Local Passport - $25 - 1 year
Good for entrance to Arches, Canyonlands, Hovenweep and Natural Bridges

Directions:  The only paved entrance road is Highway 262, which travels east from Highway 191 approximately 15 miles south of Blanding.

Weather:  Summer highs may exceed 100 Degrees Fahrenheit, with lows in the 60's. Fall and Spring temperatures are milder, with highs in the 70's and 80's. Winter temperatures range from highs in the 40's and 50's to lows well below freezing.



Human Prehistory
Human habitation at Hovenweep dates back over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people continued to use the mesa for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900 A.D. these people started to settle here year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil on the mesa's top. At its prime in the late 1200's, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.

Ancestral Puebloans
The inhabitants of the Hovenweep area during the late 1200's, referred to as the ancestral Puebloans (formerly Anasazi), excelled in architectural and craft skills as well as farming. Hovenweep is most generally associated with the Pueblo II/Pueblo III transition (A.D. 900-1300). The majority of the standing prehistoric structures at the monument were constructed in the early to mid-1200's. By evidence of masonry and architecture, as well as the predominance of Mesa Verde pottery at all of the Hovenweep villages, it is apparent that the people who built these structures were part of the Montezuma Valley/Mesa Verde culture.

The buildings that visitors to Hovenweep see today are the remnants of the settlements these people built during the high point of their occupation of region. The structures here are numerous and varied. Some are square, some D-shaped, some round, some measuring nearly four stories tall. There are towers, kivas, pueblos, room blocks, granaries, check dams, and farming terraces. The ancestral Puebloan's masonry is as beautiful as it is complex, and many of the structures are precariously built atop rock outcroppings, still standing after almost 700 years.

Many theories have been offered as to the use of the buildings at Hovenweep. The famous towers could have been used as celestial observatories, defensive structures, storage facilities, civil buildings, homes, or any combination of these. Archeologists have found that most of the towers were associated with kivas (religious and social structures), giving some evidence toward a ceremonial use. Around the towers are piles of rubble that indicate that there were many more structures in existence than are seen today, leaving archeologists to ponder over the actual function of these towers.

While we do not know the uses of some buildings, we do know that the people who built them were successful farmers. They terraced their land into farmable plots, formed catch basins to hold water run-off, and built check dams to retain the soil that would normally wash off the cliff edges by erosion. Storage caches along the canyon rims still exist and can be spotted by the discerning eye. These caches would have held dried crops of corn, beans and squash for later use. Some believe that stored crops would be plentiful enough to last through anticipated dry years as well.

Masonry Styles
The masonry found in the Hovenweep area is very distinctive and shows considerable skill in construction techniques. Structures at other locations in the region, even the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to architectural detail. In brief, the tower walls have the following characteristics:

  1. Wall stones are thick blocks taken from sandstone containing calcium carbonate. One flat rectangular side forms the visible wall face, while the other stones within the walls are irregular.
  2. Wall faces were dimpled with a pecking stone to resemble flatness.
  3. Coursing was incidental to the use of rectangular faced stones.
  4. Mud mortar was sometimes used, with the intent of closing voids between stones.
  5. Spalls were used to support stones in place. Spalls were also used to fill in spaces between stones after the walls were constructed.

By the end of the thirteenth century the people of Hovenweep and the surrounding region (such as Mesa Verde and Kayenta) packed up and left the area, presumably moving southward and joining with the people of the Hopi and Zuni. Several theories have developed as to the reasons for the ancestral Puebloan's departure. Some say they were forced out by hostile neighbors. Others say a combination of overpopulation, overuse of the land, and a 20 year drought beginning in the year 1276 made the area uninhabitable. Most likely it was not just one factor but a combination of many which caused the ancestral Puebloans to decide to leave their elaborate homes.


European History
The first historic reports of the abandoned structures at Hovenweep were made by W.D. Huntington, the leader of a Mormon expedition into southeast Utah in 1854. The name "Hovenweep" is a Paiute/Ute word meaning "deserted valley" which was adobted by pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson in 1874. In 1917-18, J.W. Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution surveyed the area. Fewkes recommended the structures be protected. On March 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding proclaimed Hovenweep a unit of the National Park System.




1. Ranger Station/Square Tower

2. Holly Group

3. Horseshoe & Hackberry Group

4. Cutthroat Castle Group

5. Cajon Group


Ranger Station/Square Tower
The ranger station contains limited exhibits and educational information for visitors. There is a bookstore specializing in materials on the culture and natural history of the area. A video is available for those not able to take the walking tour of the sites. Picnic tables are available at the Ranger Station Area. Due to the high cost of garbage removal, visitors are required to pack out their own garbage. The Ranger Station is open from 8:00 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., seven days a week (except for winter holidays).


Square Tower Group
The most concentrated remains of buildings at Hovenweep are found at Square Tower Group, spread along both sides of a Y-shaped canyon. Nearly thirty kin kivas were once scattered along the slopes of this canyon between the many stone masonry housing units, indicating that perhaps as many as 500 people once lived in this canyon. There are numerous named buildings at Square Tower Group, some of which are mentioned below.

Hovenweep Castle is what remains of a large pueblo situated on edge of the canyon rim. Even though it is called a "castle," its use was most likely domestic. There is very little evidence at Hovenweep to support the theory that these structures were built purely for defensive purposes.

Square Tower, for which the group is named, is a three story high tower that sits upon a sandstone rock below Hovenweep Castle. Its location near the spring at the head of the canyon gives rise to speculation that it is a ceremonial structure.

Hovenweep House is a horseshoe-shaped building near the remains of check dam on the canyon rim above the spring. Dams were typically built above springs in order to hold water and allow it to slowly percolate down through the sandstone until it reached an impervious layer of shale, from which it flowed into the canyon as a spring.

Tower Point, at the center of the Y-shape of the canyon, holds a single round tower that commands a view of the entire area. And while it appears to be a lone tower, the canyon below was once filled with dwellings, and it is likely that other buildings ran right up to it just as at Hovenweep Castle.

Across from Tower Point is Eroded Boulder House, a dwelling built within a large boulder. Above that, on the canyon rim, are the Twin Towers, a pair of two-story apartment-type buildings containing sixteen rooms.

Across and down the canyon are Stronghold House (at left) and Stronghold Tower, structures that were once connected by a log that bridged a crevice in the canyon. Beyond Stronghold House is Unit-Type House, a dwelling similar to the unit pueblos of Mesa Verde (blocks of rooms with a southern kiva and a trash dump south of that). Openings in the east wall of Unit-Type House are arranged to allow a determination of the solstices, equinoxes, and perhaps even moon cycles.

Holly Group
The Holly Group was once the home to an estimated 150 or more people. This group contains five named buildings: Tilted Tower, Holly Tower, Curved Wall House, Great House, and Isolated Boulder House. The most spectacular of these is Holly tower, a graceful two-story structure that was skillfully built on a tall, narrow boulder. This tower has a single entrance, reachable only by hand and toe holds carved into the boulder, and represents one of the finest examples of Montezuma Valley architecture.

Also at Holly is the most dramatic example of how these people determined the solstice and equinox by tracking the sun's position. Tucked under a rock ledge are markers consisting of a complete spiral, a partial spiral, and a complete three-ring concentric circle. Daggers of light appear on these petroglyphs as the sun rises, aligning on the three designs to mark the summer solstice and the fall and spring equinoxes. As farmers, it was vital to know when it was time to plant crops, and astronomical devices such as this are found at nearly all the sites, usually in the form of holes in the eastern walls of certain structures.


Horseshoe Ruin was a small village housing only 50 to 60 people. There was a dam on the canyon rim creating a reservoir, groups of unit houses in the canyon, and ceremonial structures to the east and west of the main pueblo. An isolated tower stands on the sandstone point to the west of the main dwellings, overlooking the canyons to the south as if watching for danger, but its function was probably ceremonial. The most significant building at this site is Horseshoe House itself, a D-shaped structure with a curved wall on one side, subdivided into compartments in the general pattern of the Sun Temple at Mesa Verde.  Beneath the canyon rim below Horseshoe House is a small cliff dwelling and kiva, and in the grotto that holds the spring are many well preserved ancient hand prints.

Hackberry Group
The Hackberry site was a medium-sized village probably as large as Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, having around 300 to 350 inhabitants. It consists of a cluster of room blocks around a spring at the head of a canyon, similar to many of the Hovenweep groups. One unique feature here at Hackberry is the amount of vegetation due to its very productive spring. Water might have been available here when other springs in the area had slowed to a trickle. The large hackberry trees in this canyon (giving the site its name) provide a distinct contrast to the sagebrush-juniper plant zone on the mesa top just a few yards away. It is also evident that the people here terraced the slopes inside the canyon for planting small plots of crops. With the abundant water, and shelter from the elements, crops raised on these terraces could have extended the growing season later in the fall and earlier in the spring than crops farmed on the mesa top.

Cutthroat Group
Cutthroat was a Pueblo III village of substantial size, perhaps having a population over 200, built on an S-shaped stream that was dammed to provide a small reservoir between the two sections of the village. Cutthroat differs from the other site groups in that it is built on a stream bed rather than clustered around a canyon head spring. Another interesting feature of several of the towers at Cutthroat is their lack of visible entrances. Many of these entrances could have been below ground, or the towers could have been accessed from the top by ladders. This site sits at the highest elevation of all the Hovenweep group, receiving higher annual precipitation, cooler temperatures, and having deeper soils than the other sites.


Cajon Group
The Cajon group consists of the ruins of a small village constructed in the same configuration as Hackberry, Horseshoe, and Holly. The surviving structures are situated about the head of a small canyon, and the rubble of other room blocks at the site indicate that about 80 to 100 people was lived here. Under the ledge of one canyon wall are small cliff dwellings and pictographs painted in Mesa Verde pottery style, and the remains of a good-sized earthen dam built in the wash above the spring can still be seen today.  On the western slope of the canyon stands an exotic circular tower with its walls following the undulations of three large boulders. The builders of this tower carefully fitted their masonry stones to the rocks to produce a round building plan on a remarkably uneven surface. It is a prime example of the skill and determination of the architects and masons of Hovenweep.





There is a small campground near the ranger station which is open seasonally on a first-come, first-served basis. The sites are designed for tent camping, though a few sites will accommodate RV's 25 feet or less in length. The fee is $10.00 per night. Flush toilets and running water are available. Backpacking is not permitted within Hovenweep.



The trail system at Hovenweep is primitive and lightly maintained. To protect cultural resources, hiking is limited to established trails only. Hiking trails are available at each of the cultural sites and walking tours are possible with self-guiding trail guides. Trails range in length from a 1/2 mile loop to an 8 mile route that connects two of the cultural site groups.Two trails originate at the Ranger Station and offer visitors the opportunity to view nearby archeological sites: one is a two mile trail that takes about 1.5 hours and has an elevation change of 150 feet; the second trail is shorter and easier.



Hovenweep is a paradise for photographers. The rich colors of the sandstone glow in the crisp sunlight against a sky so blue it seems almost unreal. Abandoned structures cling to the canyon rims, offering themselves for close-ups or cross-canyon shots that will reward even the most amateur picture-taker. And the night sky at Hovenweep is a treasure all its own, with air so clear and free of light-pollution that the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon like a jeweled rainbow.


Ranger Station

The ranger station contains limited exhibits and educational information for visitors. There is a bookstore specializing in materials on the culture and natural history of the area. A video is available for those not able to take the walking tour of the sites. Picnic tables are available at the Ranger Station Area. Due to the high cost of garbage removal, visitors are required to pack out their own garbage.


Ranger-led Programs

Guided hikes and talks are lead by the interpretive staff peridoically spring through fall. Inquire at the ranger station for details and schedules. Interpretive programs can be arranged in advance by contacting the Ranger Station.



For Additional Information Contact:

Hovenweep National Monument
McElmo Route
Cortez, CO 81321



For more information visit the National Park Service website