Four Corners National Parks
Hovenweep National Monument

The Towers of Hovenweep

About 1200 A.D. the ancient Anasazi people who had lived for centuries on the mesa tops at Hovenweep suddenly moved to canyon heads and built the famed "Towers of Hovenweep" on the sharp canyon rims. Where they acquired the masonry skills and what purposes the towers served are uncertain. By 1300 A.D., Hovenweep was deserted. Why remains a mystery.

This is a view from the ranger station aka visitors center at Hovenweep. In the distance to the southeast lies Sleeping Ute Mountain. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
Click on image for enlargement

Alone Today in the Desert

During 37 scenic miles of piņon, juniper. sagebrush, rock and sand between Montezuma Creek and Hovenweep, we did not meet another vehicle. Hovenweep is alone today in the desert.

The name Hovenweep, meaning "deserted valley," is fitting. Silence and solitude are the first characteristics that come to mind. At Chaco Canyon were numerous small groups and a few vehicles coming and going. At Mesa Verde were people, rangers and traffic everywhere. At Hovenweep was solitude and silence.

My first impression of the park was deceivingly uninspired. I knew there were supposed to be the ruins of six ancient Anasazi villages out there somewhere. From where I stood, it didn't look like there was much left of those ruins to see.


Ranger Station and Visitors Center

As every National Park Junkie knows, finding a place to park (and remembering where you left your car) is a major hassle at most National Parks.  Hovenweep doesn't have that problem. 

In the visitors center parking lot were three vehicles. One ATV belonged to a group of tourists waiting to start on a ranger guided tour (we immediately signed up). The others belonged to the Ranger and a seasonal volunteer, a young woman from Rhode Island.

Having worked one summer while in college at Yellowstone, I  had an idea about what motivates a young woman to go off to a national park for a summer. Hovenweep didn't seem to have much of it. 

Ranger Station and Visitors Center There is an experimental garden of corn beside the Visitors Center. The mesa top would have been covered with it at the height of the Anasazi culture. (Photo by Brian Larkin, October 2000).
Click on image for enlargement

Tower Point Ruin has a clear view into Horseshoe Canyon. The tower was once walled off from the mesa top, raising questions about the use of such structures for defense. (Photo by Brian Larkin, October 2000)
Click on image for enlargement

Anasazi at Hovenweep

Humans at Hovenweep date back 10,000 to 12,000 years when nomadic Paleo-Indian began to visited the Cajon Mesa. Migrating with the seasons, those ancient hunter-gatherers used the Hovenweep area on Cajon Mesa for countless centuries.

Around 500 to 1200 AD their successors, the ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), began permanently settling the Hovenweep area. They grew crops on the mesa top and later in terraces and built the structures that today the National Park Service "preserves and protects." 

In the early years, small family farms were widely dispersed across the area. Around 1200 AD, something happened as the Anasazi farmers formed the settlements we know today. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to an estimated 2,500 people in six villages or "pueblos" as they are called.. By 1300 A.D. Hovenweep was deserted.

Villages of Hovenweep on Cajon Mesa

The villages of Hovenweep are located on the Cajon Mesa on both sides of the Utah-Colorado border. 

The mesa descends 2,000 feet, from 6,800 feet near Pleasant View in Colorado to 4,800 feet at the San Juan River in Utah. It crosses though four plant zones (piņon juniper in the higher elevations, juniper and sage, sage, and scrubland at the river) and six ecosystems.

Anthropologists make the point that the villages of Hovenweep were not the lonely places to live that they today appear to have been. Buildings, walls, fences, fields, paths, terraces filled the towns. Within a two hour walk of Square Towers were other villages including Cajon, Holly, Hackberry, and Cutthroat. Within three days walk were thousands of people.

Their pottery, architecture and other artifacts show they were also in contact with their kin at Mesa Verdi and with pueblos in what is now the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and in Montezuma Basin (e.g., Yellow Jacket) with it's estimated 30,000 people.

(Map from The Towers of Hovenweep by Ian Thompson)
Click on image for enlargement

Still standing and unrestored after 800 years, this structure testifies to the craftsmanship of the prehistoric Anasazi at Hovenweep. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
Click on image for enlargement

Building Boom at Hovenweep

Hovenweep's 15 minutes of fame came in the 1200's AD when it suddenly appeared as an entity on the map. 

As Lead Ranger Chris Nickel wrote in 2006, "Hovenweep as we know and see it today only became a community in the 13th century. Continuous habituation even in the general area did not begin until approximately AD 900 and rather minimally at that." 

"Prior to the formation of the canyon head communities in the thirteenth century these few people were much more dispersed. Many sites that today have standing structural remains were not continuously occupied but only became communities as the overall ancestral Puebloan population grew in size and expanded geographically."

The Towers of Hovenweep

Where Mesa Verde is famed for its cliff dwellings, Hovenweep is known for its towers. The extant structures were used for religious and civic purposes, storage, manufacturing, and possibly defense. Debris is widely and in places abundantly strewn around these towers, suggesting that other buildings once existed there, too. 

Much like medieval European castles, which were built at roughly the same time, most of these extant towers at Hovenweep were not generally used as domiciles, except perhaps as the farmers flocked to them for protection.. 

Built at the heads of canyons near sources of water, the size, number and workmanship evidence a high level of social organization.

Hovenweep Castle is named "castle" because it is reminiscent of and was built at the same time as the castles in medieval Europe. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
Click on image for enlargement

(Photo by Brian Larkin, October 2000)
Click on image for enlargement

A Moment of Anasazi Life

As our  two-mile Square Tower loop trail started to climb back up to the rim of Little Ruin Canyon, it passed through a rock open-ended chamber created by huge, vertically slabs.

The massive rock slabs act as insulation from the sun and, coupled with a faint draft, make it surprisingly cool. 

Our guide speculated that on hot days, Anasazi men would have sat in here. 

I wondered what the women would have been doing while the men were cooling their heels here in the shade? Working, I suppose. I remember reading that skeletons of many elderly Anasazi women revealed severe arthritis caused by constant bending, kneeling and grinding.


The extant structures at Hovenweep vary in size, shape, and layout. In addition to usual rectangular and circular buildings, the Anasazi also built D-shaped structures and kivas. D-shaped buildings are a hallmark of Anasazi architecture. 

Such buildings were generally connected to kivas (often with underground passageways), indicating some possible religious purpose.

The use of D-shaped for buildings is relatively rare compared with other shapes such as rectangles and circles (domes, silos, etc). One of the few places they are found outside the Anasazi world is in ancient Peru where they are associated with religion. The coincidence is interesting.

Twin Towers on the Canyon Rim (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
Click on image for enlargement

Hovenweep wall  close-up illustrating the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail. (Photo by the National Park Service)
Click on image for enlargement

Craftsmanship at Hovenweep

As the park service brochure notes, "The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Even the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to detail."

The masonry style, while similar to that in Mesa Verde and Chaco, is advanced and distinctive. This raises the question of how this development occurred in such a short period of time?

Walls are made of thick sandstone blocks and mud mortar. Exterior stones are rectangular with faces dimpled with a pecking stone. Small wedge stones (spalls) were used to support stones in place and to fill in spaces between stones after the walls were constructed.

*Notes: In 1998, the full Hovenweep summer staff consisted of 5 paid rangers and 3 volunteers. In 2005, park statistics show there were 26,853 visitations in 2004 for an average of about 75 a day.

LAST  |  TOP  |  MENU  |  NEXT