Driving away from the Valley of the Gods we were heading up Hwy 163 through Bluff, Utah where it changed into Hwy 191 and continued North. Nine miles North of town we saw another of those always intriguing brown sign with white lettering pointing the way to Hovenweep National Monument. With what we thought sounded like a Dutch name we wondered what the Dutch had to do with anything in this area (spoiler alert: nothing). Since a part of the impetus for this latest adventure was to visit some of the National Monuments on Trump’s Hit List we decided that another monument, even if it was not on that misguided list, was worthy of our attentions. The indicated 39 miles was substantially farther than our usual off-the-planned-route limit (if indeed there was one) but it was relatively early in the morning and so we turned right off the highway and soon enough came to a grinding halt.
Apparently a portion of the 39 miles of road between the highway and the Monument itself was being worked on in some fashion. Within a couple of miles of leaving the highway we were met head-on by a grader pulling a large pile of dirt along with it with a line of a dozen cars lined up behind it as it trundled down the road at single-digit speeds. It had obviously been at this work earlier as there were a couple of dirt berms, easily 2 feet high, running parallel down the road. All the cars in line behind the grader were 2-wheel or wrong-wheel (front wheel) drive and so had no recourse but to stay in line behind the machine and bide their time until they could get past it. We in the Tacoma on the other hand would have no issues but didn’t want to plow through some important berm or in general piss off the construction crew and so we waited. As the grader drew nearer we eventually caught the operator’s eye, hand signaled to him the universal “do you want us to go left or right?” gestures and he smiled and pointed to the right. We put the Tacoma in 4-wheel drive, plowed over/through one of the berms until we had the left tires on the “road” and the rights over the edge. The Tacoma now leaning at a 15 degree angle (we have tilt gauges installed) we rolled past the weenies (a.k.a. sensible people who get way better gas mileage than we do) in their Tercels and Civics and Camrys etc and continued on towards our destination, eventually getting there about an hour later.
The Visitor Center was a clone of any one of the several versions of standard Federal Park Visitor Center design. Wood, stone, American Flag on the pole out front. There were several shaded picnic tables to one side of the parking area and a leaking water faucet with a steel dog bowl chained to it that was the active, crowded, local small animal watering hole until Willow jumped out of the Tacoma and headed in that direction. With a noisy burst of activity the local critters hastily abandoned their spots in favor of this humongous and scary black predator that was trotting in that direction with a hint of evil glee in her eye…or maybe she was just thirsty and wanted a drink (she did).
After a quick read of some of the informational posters we saw something about “an easy 1/8 mile walk” and decided that was for us. Exiting out the back side of the Visitor Center we came to a nice, smooth, wheelchair-accessible concrete pathway that led off in the direction we wanted to go.
After an easy 2 or 3 minute walk we came to the first of the 800-year-old or so structures that make up this ancient ancestral Puebloan settlement.
Across the canyon from the Stronghold House we could see an interesting structure built into the area under a seemingly unstable boulder. We walked a bit to the right side of Stronghold House to find a better viewpoint and were introduced to the Eroded Boulder House.
Back at the Stronghold House it looked like the end of the trail as the path to the left led to the campground and to the right to some non-determinant area. Across the canyon we could see several other structures and so decided that the “easy” 1/8 mile hike was merely this little wheelchair-accessible portion that went only to the Stronghold House. Wanting a more thorough exploration we walked along the path to the left and quickly came to a sign saying only “Trail –>” and so took that right and began scrambling down the uneven rocks and over the tree roots that repeatedly crossed the less-than-smooth in some places and overly smooth in other places path. We eventually found out that this path is called the Square Tower Trail. We reached the bottom of the canyon and started up the other side where we came across this interesting, cracked, hollowed boulder.
Reading snippets of the handout we had picked up at the visitor center at each and every stop we made along the trail we quickly learned a lot of interesting tidbits and history about this amazingly preserved example of that ancient way of life. It was first reported by a Mormon expedition into the area in 1854. “Hovenweep” is a Paiute and Ute word meaning “deserted valley” and that name was given to it by a pioneer photographer named William F. Jackson in 1874. A Smithsonian Institution survey party in 1917-18 recommended that the area and structures be preserved and protected. In 1923 President Harding established it as a National Monument.
As we looked out over the large and lonely area around us I couldn’t help but imagine the sights and sounds of what life would have been like all those hundreds of years ago. We also appreciated these many artistic and smartly designed, architecturally impressive structures which archeologists consider to be some of the finest (if not the finest) examples of ancestral Puebloan masonry to be found anywhere. As a quick side note, we expect that anyone who has spent any time in the American Southwest has heard the term Anazasi. That name has been used for a long time to indicate the prehistoric farmers in the Four Corners area. That term has now been replaced by the more correct term ancestral Puebloan to denote that they were the ancestors of modern-day Puebloans.
This area the natives chose to settle in (now called Little Ruin Canyon) had many natural attributes and features that they took advantage of when planning and building their community. There are natural shelters in the form of alcoves and caves. They had a variety of naturally abundant food sources both plant and animal. They had solid foundations of bedrock and boulders on which to build upon as well as building materials in the form of rocks and trees. There is a small spring at the head of the canyon and they built check dams to capture and hold substantial amounts of that permanent water source as well as rainwater for use in drier seasons. They cleared the flat tops of the surrounding mesa to cultivate both local and non-indigenous domesticated crops such as maize (corn). They made garden terraces along the steep canyon walls. They kept domesticated animals such as dogs and turkeys. They built with and into the natural terrain many times using existing canyon sides as a sturdy wall and/or a large boulder as a stout foundation.
At our first stop along the rim across the canyon from the wheelchair-accessible route we took in the sight of the Twin Towers structure.
When actively in use the Twin Towers together had a combined 16 rooms. One building is oval and the other horseshoe-shaped. Their walls are almost touching. Some of the sandstone blocks are thick and others are thin and the builders laid the two different sizes together skillfully. The original wooden lintels are still in place in one tower and growth rings indicate that tree was cut in 1277 CE (Common Era). Together these two towers are considered some of the most carefully constructed structures in the entire Southwest.
Standing two stories high this structure does not have any internal room divisions so is thought to have not been used as an actual dwelling. There are many small openings placed into the walls whose function is not known. Peepholes or ventilation are two guesses.
The two-story-tall Square Tower has its base in the canyon itself and extends up to the level of the canyon rim. It was built with a slight spiral shape either for some minor additional structural strength or merely for aesthetics which is the explanation we like. It was most likely built as a grain storage building.
The remains of Hovenweep House stand alone on that side at that end of the canyon. From that spot you can look out and see a great many of the other structures along both sides of the canyon.
Around the canyon corner from the Hovenweep House and past the Square Tower we arrived at the Hovenweep Castle. Again, this was named by white folks about 800 years after it was abandoned and archeologists have zero reason to think royalty or anyone other than farmers ever lived in it. The “Castle” consists of two D-shaped buildings built right on the rim of the canyon.
While we were there we could hear pounding and metallic clanking throughout the area and as we got closer to the Castle we could tell it was coming from inside. For a brief moment I was upset that someone had the nerve to be using tools to steal ancient artifacts in such a bold manner. Happily we found out that it was just members of the Preservation Crew working on stabilizing a section of that particular structure.
Reconstruction is not usually practiced here unless it must be done to prevent the collapse of a particular section. Back in the early days of the National Monument cement was used as a mortar replacement but it has been found to have some corrosive properties and doesn’t hold up as well to the weather in the area so now an acrylic-modified soil mortar is used in its place.
It was interesting to see the particular habit the original builders had of placing small pieces of rock as filler within the mud mortar.
While many of the structures here are unique in their shape or relationship to its neighbors there is one particular type of structure which has been found to be a standard used throughout the ancient Puebloan culture. It has been given the name of a Unit Type House and it has a representative example here as well.
The general layout consists of a few living and storage rooms with one Kiva which was usually home to one family or small clan. While not practiced here may other, larger pueblos expanded their footprint by repeating this floor plan over and over again.
As we walked along the path we found several species of strikingly beautiful yet vicious little stabby members from the barrel cactus family.
If you know what species they are please feel free to let us know and we will update this post with that information.
From numerous spots along the trail if you look out towards the southeast you can see a distinctive reclining shape about 18 miles (29 km) distant.
Legend has it that this is a sleeping Ute Chief and that someday he will awake and return the land to its native people. That is indeed a nice story if you are Native American. For the rest of us…not so much. The tallest part in the photo is his “folded arms” with his head to the North (left) and his toes near the New Mexico border. The mountain’s height of 9,970 feet (3,041 meters) makes it an easily recognizable point from almost any spot within the Four Corners region. The geologic facts are of a bit more interest to us. I’ll split the difference of the time ranges I have seen and say that about 17 million years ago molten magma pushed its way up and out through cracks in the sedimentary rock above it and made this relatively small mountain range called a laccolith. In the millions of years since that event much of the softer material has been eroded away and we are left with these hard lava domes. The geek in me thinks this is Neato!
After finishing our hike around the trail loop which was about 2 miles or so we ended up back at the visitor center and our trusty Tacoma. We made a quick stop off back at the leaky water spigot so Willow could refill her tank but knew we had more to see this day. Heading back out the way we had arrived we turned instead off to the right at Highway 10 towards Colorado so we could check out the Cutthroat Group section of the Monument before heading further on to explore the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, another line item on Trump’s hit list.
Cruising along Hwy 10 we spotted one of those common markers that inform you of the presence of an underground pipeline. We’ve seen these in every state we have ever gone adventuring in but have never seen one announcing that the pipeline carries Carbon Dioxide.
As luck would have it that marker was right at the turn off which led towards the Cutthroat Unit.
Around the corner from where the above picture was taken the road devolved into a state that essentially demanded you have at least a high-clearance vehicle to proceed and 4-wheel drive was a useful bonus. As our Tacoma has both of those attributes we continued on. Sorry 2-wheel-drive family sedans, you are not going any further unless you’re in a rental you don’t care about and have paid that special insurance and even then…probably not. Perhaps 20 minutes of true 4-wheeling later we arrived at a small turn-around with only one other vehicle in attendance, a nicely maintained and slightly upgraded Lexus LX 470 which is essentially a plush Toyota Land Cruiser. We signed the guest book sitting at at the head of the trail down towards the ruins and left a couple of our cards (always marketing) just as the LX 470 owner was getting back up to the top of the trail. We exchanged greetings and a couple of prideful yet true remarks about the capabilities of our respective Toyota platforms and went our separate ways.
This group of puebloan structures is noticeably different from the ones at the Square Tower Group we had just come from for two main reasons the first being that it is not situated at the head of a canyon and the second being all the buildings are below the rim of this canyon. As far as the hike in goes the first structures could be seen from the edge of the parking area and the path led us to the first one all of 50 yards from where we parked.
From our time at the main Hovenweep section we knew that climbing or entering the structures was not allowed and so we played nice even though there were more than a few cool pictures we could have taken of Willow being all majestic up on some portion of the site. Oh well, we do want to leave it in as nice a condition as we found it for your visit.
Right about then it was a little after 1pm, we had been exploring ancestral Puebloan ruins for 3.5 hours and the sun was doing its best to melt us and so we decided to finish up here and head back to the air-conditioned Tacoma.
As far as a spur-of-the-moment turn off to see where a brown sign with white lettering leads to we think this was a grand success. Even if you can’t or won’t visit the Cutthroat section of the Monument the Square Tower area offers a variety of ancient Puebloan architectural styles and interesting history in a relatively compact and easily accessed area. The path from the visitor center to the Stronghold House is wheelchair accessible and offers expansive views of many of the other structures in the area as well. Water, restrooms and shaded picnic areas are also available as well as a selection of commemorative items and books in the visitor center itself. Frugal adventurers that we are we limited ourselves to one of those little white oval stickers with the 4-letter code of the National Park unit on it.
If you have any interest in the lives, history and architecture of the Ancestral Puebloan culture the Hovenweep National Monument is a less traveled, less crowded option with a great return for the slight extra time and effort spent getting there. Between this post and the three links below we think you have all the information you’d need if you plan on making a visit. We highly recommend it