Tracking the Anasazi: Hovenweep National Monument, UT

Nobody knows what happened here. For centuries, the Anasazi carved a place for themselves out of the rocky Southwest landscape in what is now southern Utah and Colorado. They planted fields, built homes and kivas along the sandstone cliffs.

Then the Anasazi left.

Several well-preserved structures are located at Square Tower, Hovenweep’s largest and most accessible unit. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ruins of this ancient civilization can be found in the high desert of the Four Corners, amid miles of washes, canyons, and rolling hills of juniper.

The inhabitants of Hovenweep were part of the large farming culture which occupied the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Around A.D. 900 a group of Anasazi Indians left Mesa Verde and settled 100 miles west at what is now called Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado state line. By 1300 the site was deserted, and the Anasazis had probably gone to other sites in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona.

A Ute word meaning “deserted valley”, Hovenweep is the site of six separate pueblo settlements, and probably more, considering that most of the 784 acres at Hovenweep have yet to be excavated.

The monument is noted for its solitude, clear skies and undeveloped, natural character.

The largest and most accessible is Square Tower, where several well-preserved structures are located. The ruins present a remarkable tribute to the Indians’ masonry skills. Throughout the ruins, visitors may find castles, towers, check dams (for irrigation), cliff dwellings, pueblos, and houses. Petroglyphs can also be found in the area.

A Ute word meaning “deserted valley”, Hovenweep is the site of six separate pueblo settlements, and probably more, considering that most of the 784 acres at Hovenweep have yet to be excavated. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is a system of three loop trails at the Square Tower Unit.

But the purpose and square design of the towers baffle archaeologists, who are still trying to decide whom these Anasazis were defending themselves against.

Many outlying groups are also available for visitation. They include Holly, Horseshoe, Hackberry, Cutthroat Castle, and Cajon. The land surrounding the area is owned by the Navajo Nation, Bureau of Land Management, State of Utah, and private landowners.

Hovenweep doesn’t have the services of Mesa Verde but it’s certainly worth a visit.

The national monument has a small visitor center, where rangers can direct you to the outlying ruins, and a 26-site campground with flush toilets and running water, but no showers.

The sites are designed for tent camping, though a few sites will accommodate RVs 25 feet or less in length.

Hovenweep National Monument is 20 miles north of Aneth on a gravel and paved road.

Photo tips

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.

Hovenweep National Monument straddles the Utah-Colorado state line. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The buildings cling to the canyon rims, offering themselves for close-ups or cross-canyon shots that will reward even the beginning photographer.

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 in a jeweled rainbow, a spectacle seen only at a few select places on the planet.

Hovenweep National Monument


Operating Hours: Open year-round, 24 hours a day

Admission: $6/vehicle (good for 7 days); all federal lands passes accepted

Annual visitation: 28,000

Pets: Not allowed on any hiking trails or anywhere in the backcountry

Elevation: 5,900 feet

Size: 5,362 acres

Location: From Blanding or Bluff, Utah, turn east off Highway 191 on Utah State 262 to the Hatch Trading Post; follow the Hovenweep signs for 16 additional miles

Camping: $10/night; all sites first-come, first-serve

Address: McElmo Route, Cortez, CO 81321

Contact: (970) 562-4282

Worth Pondering…

I hope you dance because…


Time is a wheel.

Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along.

Tell me, who wants to look back on their years and wonder where their years have gone.

—Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers, I Hope You Dance

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