The Mysterious Towers of Hovenweep National Monument

Last Updated on: 6th May 2023, 01:25 am

Shortly after the collapse of sites like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, the unique Ancestral Puebloan city of Hovenweep arose in what’s now southeastern Utah. Hovenweep National Monument is mainly known for its well-preserved towers built in the 13th century. But their true function remains a mystery.

Were they built for defense or perhaps long-distance communication? Or did they serve some type of religious purpose? While we may never know the answer, we do know that the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi) settled at Little Ruin Canyon due to the presence of a small spring. 

But they wouldn’t stay for long. Most of the surviving structures were built between 1230 and 1277. And not long after, the site was mysteriously abandoned.

While Hovenweep had long been known to local Navajo and Ute tribes, in more recent times, it was first documented in 1854 by W.D. Huntington, an early Mormon missionary. A few decades later, it was visited by early photographer William H. Jackson, who gave it its current name, which means ‘deserted valley’ in the Paiute and Ute languages.

Established as a National Monument in 1923, it’s currently managed by the National Park Service. The entire National Monument, however, is huge, spreading out across twenty miles and consisting of no less than six building groups.

The area described below is known as the Square Tower Group and is what most people picture when they think of Hovenweep.

Following this guide to Hovenweep National Monument, be sure to check the end of the article for details on entrance fees, transportation and planning out your itinerary.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Visitors to Hovenweep National Monument (specifically the Square Tower Group covered here) have three options when it comes to viewing the ruins.

The first is to simply walk along a 300-yard  paved trail to the Canyon Overlook before returning to the Visitor Center. This is only ideal for those with mobility issues or who are very short on time.

A slightly more time-consuming option is to head to the Canyon Overlook before turning right and walking to the Tower Point Loop area. This journey should take you about 45 minutes roundtrip.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

The third option is to hike the entire 2-mile loop trail around the canyon rim, which will take you one to two hours. Naturally, this is the option I chose. While you can hike in either direction, I decided to do it clockwise.

In any case, you’ll first want to spend some time at the Hovenweep National Monument Visitor Center, where you’ll be able to learn about the site at a small museum and also pick up some free maps. The gift shop isn’t bad, either.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

After several minutes of walking past the Visitor Center, you’ll arrive at the Canyon Overlook. From here, not only can you enjoy clear views of Little Ruin Canyon, but you’ll also be able to see many of Hovenweep’s significant ruins.

The Stronghold House

Closest to the overlook is Stronghold House. While it was named as such in modern times for resembling a fortress, we still don’t know its original function.

Interestingly, lower stories were built on the slope below the surviving structure, though little of them remain. Nevertheless, it’s still impressive what has managed to remain in place after 700 years of abandonment.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

For those hiking clockwise, a path to the left of the Stronghold House will take you down into the canyon and then up the other side. This section of the trail drops about 80 feet, or 24 m, but it’s not terribly challenging.

In my case, however, it had just started drizzling, and I decided to focus on getting out of the canyon as soon as possible in case of a potential downpour.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
The Twin Towers

Arriving at the other side, the first landmark I encountered was the Twin Towers. Amazingly each structure was built directly atop a large boulder, taking up the entire surface. As one can imagine, there would’ve been no room for error.

Archaeologists believe that Hovenweep represents the apex of Ancestral Puebloan architecture, and it’s easy to see why. But one wonders why the Puebloans took such a risk with structures like the Twin Towers when there was plenty of more space along the mesa.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Unfortunately, my fears about the weather were realized, and I soon found myself caught in a downpour. While I’d come prepared with an umbrella, I still ended up getting soaked due to the strong wind and complete lack of shelter.

As I was too far to turn back, I decided to keep on moving, passing by a relatively small structure called Rimrock House.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Finally, the rain let up for a few moments, allowing me to take out my camera again to snap stunning views of Hovenweep Castle on the other side of the canyon. But more on that structure shortly.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
A view of Hovenweep Castle

From here, I could also get a clear view of Square Tower House, after which this entire section of Hovenweep was named. Interestingly, it was built not on the canyon rim, but down on the canyon floor. 

Its unusual location calls into question the true function of Hovenweep’s towers. If they were built for defense or as lookouts, why would they build a tower down there? Was it symbolic, or merely a multi-story residence?

In any case, the tower features a T-shaped doorway which was typically used to delineate sacred spaces, as can be seen at Chaco Canyon’s Pueblo Bonito. But by the time Hovenweep was built, these doorways seem to have become a lot more widespread among commoners.

Next to the tower also once stood a kiva, a round ceremonial structure used for religious rites and meetings.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
A view of Square Tower
Hovenweep House

Near the end of the canyon, I passed Hovenweep House. While much of it has crumbled, it once stood at the center of a small village. This area also likely once hosted a terrace garden that would’ve been watered by runoff rain.

It was also around here that the original inhabitants constructed a check dam to slow the flow of water during floods. 

With farming taking place on the canyon floor, these dams may have been built to prevent the crops below from completely getting washed out. Of course, Hovenweep farmers also planted crops along the mesa tops as well.

Hovenweep Castle

Coming around the corner, I arrived at Hovenweep Castle, which I’d previously admired from afar. Comprised of two large D-shaped towers, tree ring data tells us that it was (at least partially) built in 1277 AD.

The structure likely did serve as a residence of some sort. And given its size, we can surmise that it was probably indeed home to the Hovenweep elite. But as mentioned above, the site would be abandoned not long after it was built.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

While the rain had stopped for a few moments and I even caught glimpses of some blue sky, it started pouring again by the time I made it to the next landmark, Tower Point.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

Tower Point consists of a few structures, but the main reason to stop here is the views. Across the canyon, I could see ruins I’d passed earlier in the hike, such as the Twin Towers and Rimrock House.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument

But I could also see additional landmarks lower in the canyon, such as Eroded Boulder House, which was built within a hollowed-out boulder. In ancient times, a tower even once stood on top.

Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
Twin Towers (left), Eroded Boulder House (foreground) and Rimrock House (background)

Managing to survive the storm and see all of Hovenweep National Monument’s main structures, I arrived back at the parking lot after a couple of hours of exploring.

While soaking wet, I was happy to have made the trip out to this underrated archaeological site and would love to come back someday under more ideal conditions.

Additional Info

On its own, Hovenweep National Monument costs $20 to enter (learn more here).

If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $10, while those on motorcycles will be charged $15.

But considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.

These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.

What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.

As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.

Hovenweep National Monument is located about 42 miles west of Cortez, Colorado (near Mesa Verde National Park) and about 67 miles east of Mexican Hat, Utah (near Monument Valley). No tours seem to go here, so renting a car is a must. While a regular car is fine for Hovenweep, having a high-clearance SUV for the Four Corners region as a whole is ideal.

Hovenweep, therefore, makes for a perfect stopover for those traveling between Monument Valley and Mesa Verde. You can also combine it with Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado, which you can learn more about in our dedicated guide.

In my case, I spent the previous night in Cortez, Colorado before beginning my journey west through Canyons of the Ancients. I stopped at Escalante Pueblo, Lowry Pueblo and Painted Hand Pueblo before crossing the border into Utah and visiting Hovenweep. 

I then proceeded onward to the Monument Valley area. Of course, one could also visit these destinations in the reverse order, starting from Monument Valley.

In Cortez, some of the top-rated accommodations include the Hampton Inn and the more budget-friendly Retro Inn. Finding a local Airbnb is another good option.

You may also want to take things more slowly and camp. As Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which allows dispersed camping on its lands, you’ll have plenty of options as long as you’re not too close to an archaeological site (learn more here).

This also includes spending the night in your RV. If you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy.

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