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Cajon Tower, Hovenweep

Cajon Tower, Hovenweep

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Modern Mysteries: The Prehistoric Towers of Hovenweep National Monument

On the border between Colorado and Utah lie some of North America's most ancient and remarkable ruins.

The towers of Hovenweep National Monument have stood for more than 700 years, yet we know very little about them.

Stumbling upon a mystery
The first historical reports of the abandoned structures of Hovenweep date back to 1854, when they were discovered by W.D. Huntington, the leader of a Mormon expedition into southeast Utah. Huntington's Ute guides were already familiar with the area, but they considered it haunted and warned the expedition to keep away. As is the case with many visitors to this day, the mystery of the towers proved too powerful to resist, and word of their existence quickly spread.

The name "Hovenweep" comes from the Ute/Paiute word meaning "deserted valley." Fearing the site would be lost to vandalism and theft, J.W. Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution surveyed the structures in 1917 and recommended they be protected. President Warren G. Harding dedicated Hovenweep National Monument on March 2, 1923.

Uncovering the monument's past
We know a bit about the people who built the Hovenweep Towers, but much of their history remains unknown. The towers were built by ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the region from around A.D. 500 to A.D. 1300. The ancestral Puebloans were farmers who cultivated the land, created terraces on hillsides, and formed catch basins to hold water. It is believed that they built the towers sometime between the years 1200 and 1300, but the structures’ use is unclear.

The towers and other remaining brick structures at Hovenweep display surprising craftsmanship and architectural dexterity. The masonry is beautifully and skillfully designed, allowing the towers to have stood on the irregular boulders of the desert floor for more than 700 years. Some towers are square, while others are round or D-shaped. Archaeologists speculate that they may have been used for storage, defense, celestial observation, or as homes and civil buildings.

For reasons unknown — perhaps drought, food shortage, or warfare — the ancestral Puebloans abandoned the area sometime around the end of the 13th century. They migrated south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona, where many of their descendants (the Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people) still reside.

Visiting Hovenweep
The towers and other structures at Hovenweep National Monument can be viewed by the public. Most are located near the visitor center, and a series of roads and hiking trails lead to various ancient structures throughout the monument. The trails cover mostly easy, flat terrain, but hikers should come prepared with sunscreen and plenty of water, especially during the hot summer months. Ranger-led talks, tours, and interpretive programs are available spring through fall.

Hovenweep National Monument is a popular destination for photography, not just because of the towers, but also its vibrant desert landscape and rich plant and animal life. Camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis. You can choose among more than 30 tent and RV sites with picnic tables, fire rings, shade structures, and access to modern restrooms. Light pollution is nearly nonexistent at Hovenweep, giving it some of the darkest night skies in the country — it's a perfect place for stargazing.

Hovenweep National Monument is one of the over 400 national parks protected by the National Park Service. It is home to a modern mystery that has stood the test of time and continues to capture the imaginations of visitors from all over the country.

Check out the Hovenweep National Monument Visitor Guide for details about visiting this unique place. And for more information on other national parks off the beaten path, download your FREE copy of “The Places Nobody Knows” Owner’s Guide!

Photo credits: NPS images courtesy of Andrew Kuhn and Jacob W. Frank

Rock Art: A Tribute to Hovenweep's Beauty and Ranger Chris Nickel

When we think of rock art, we most commonly think of the intricate, evocative, and mysterious ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs and pictographs. There are several fine examples of each type at Hovenweep.

At the Cajon unit of the National Monument, there is a panel of pictographs, paintings on the rocks, in an alcove beneath the canyon rim.

The petroglyphs at the Holly Unit of Hovenweep are particularly unique. They are etched into a wall beneath an overhang of a broken boulder on the canyon slope. There are three sun symbols made up of numerous spirals and concentric circles. At sunrise on and around the summer solstice a dagger of light shines through a narrow gap formed by the upper edges of two additional boulders and passes through the petroglyphs, and at its most intense, connects the centers of the spiral and concentric circles which are several feet apart. The Holly Solstice Panel is one of several calendrical features found at Hovenweep.

I am convinced that Hovenweep’s ancestral Puebloan structures should be considered rock art as well as the pictographs and petroglyphs. Exceptional craftsmanship is clearly demonstrated in the shaping of both rock and structures. When one looks closely at the rockwork in any of the towers or other buildings at Hovenweep it is easy to see the way the sandstone rocks have been pecked and shaped, in many cases looking more like fabricated bricks than native stones.

One of the towers at the Holy unit of Hovenweep National Monument is square however the corners themselves are rounded. Again, the evidence that the rock was carefully worked is clear and the very detailed and exact nature of the ancestral Puebloans’ construction techniques are apparent. Round, square, or some other shape, the towers of Hovenweep are testament to the expertise of their builders.

The vast majority of the remaining Hovenweep structures are built on canyon rims, on the solid foundation that bedrock provides. Several of the towers are built on boulders which stand on the canyon bottoms or on talus slopes. Perhaps most unique is a round tower at the Cajon site, built on, around, and fully incorporating three boulders on the canyon floor. Such construction, to me, indicates an intimate knowledge of the land, the rocks, and very sophisticated building techniques.

Round Tower Incorporating Boulders at Cajon

One building that makes almost whimsical use of a boulder on a canyon slope is Eroded Boulder House in Little Ruin Canyon. It seems clear that the ancestral Puebloans had an architectural aesthetic. The towers and other structures of Hovenweep are, indeed, another form of rock art.

Eroded boulder House, Little Ruin Canyon

Yet one more set of changes to the land created by the ancestral Puebloans at Hovenweep holds beauty and intrigue for me. When first created, they were purely functional. With the centuries, they have, for me, taken on the quality of art. At the Horseshoe site, there is a "Moqui Step" carved into the rock, a simple aid to make climbing out of the canyon easier.

Moqui Step at Horseshoe

At both Little Ruin Canyon and Cajon, there are depressions in the rock used for grinding corn and other seeds as well as for sharpening tools. These carvings in the bedrock, like art pieces, reveal something of their creators.

Grinding Depressions at Cajon

In my nearly three months at Hovenweep I have found great beauty in the rocks. Like the "rock art" left by the ancestral Puebloan people, there is also Nature's geologic "art." The upper layer of Dakota Sandstone creates a gently undulating surface. In its potholes and curves it is easy to visualize its origin, being deposited on the bottom of a shallow sea.

Dakota Sandstone

Beneath the surface layer of sandstone is the only other rock formation at Hovenweep, the Burro Canyon Formation. This is primarily a conglomerate rock, laid down as river bottom sediment. In seeing the variety of pebbles cemented together in discernible layers it is easy to visualize that rocky Cretaceous river.

Burro Canyon Conglomerate, Little Ruin Canyon

Burro Canyon Conglomerate at Cutthroat

At the point immediately beneath the sandstone there are some deposits of shale which were laid down in muddy deposits as the river filled and became a marshy environment.

Burro Canyon Shale at Horseshoe

We mark the trails here at Hovenweep with either cairns (piles of rocks) or rock borders. This is critical for visitor wayfinding and for resource protection. In particular, we work heard to protect the unique cryptobiotoc soil crust which is particularly robust at Hovenweep. The biological soil crust or "hidden life" is a symbiotic relationship between fungi, moss, lichens, cyanobacteria, and the mineral soil itself. The knobby black to brown crust slows erosion, makes nitrogen and carbon available for plants, and helps to retain precious moisture. It also grows very, very slowly. One misplaced footstep can undo decades worth of biological work. We are vigilant about keeping visitors on the trail so as to protect the cryptobiotic soil crust as well as the other natural and cultural resources preserved at Hovenweep.

Trail Border Protecting Soil Crust

In some places the rock borders have an artistic and aesthetic appeal all their own.

The Way "Rock Art" Should Be!

Chris set the tone that has made Hovenweep such a positive and pleasant place to work. Early in my time here Chris sat down with me so he could share his “perspective on the park.” He made it clear that the most important aspect of our work here was the protection of the many and unique natural and cultural resources. He also emphasized the importance of providing the highest quality visitor experience and that the only thing that might limit the activities of our visitors would be our vigilant protection of the park itself. Hovenweep, as a very small unit of the National Park System, works. It is a positive, affirming, stimulating, beautiful, and challenging place. I say this in thanks to Chris, to our Lead Interpreter Todd Overbye, and to our Maintenance Supervisor Alan Shumway. Together, these three men oversee a small team that has been an amazing joy to be part of.

It is with great sadness that I report Chris Nickel's passing. On that beautiful, almost balmy Saturday afternoon, Chris left the Visitor Center to get a bite to eat at his residence and then head onto the trail to oversee his special domain. Early on his hike, Chris collapsed and died. We don't know what happened but believe that he did nothing more than sit down and die. HIs death has left a huge hole in the Hovenweep community and our collective heart. The only sense of consolation or peace in this tragic incident is that Chris passed while overseeing a place he loved and cared deeply for. It is in tribute to him, his work ethic, his solid commitment to resource protection, and his special way in the world that our park community has been rededicated to carrying on and holding close to the lessons he provided.

My dear friend, colleague, and fellow volunteer Petra is better and more economical with words than I am. Her tribute to Chris cut right to the heart of who he was and the impact he has had.

The Provenance of Stars

R.I.P. Chris Nickel: friend, colleague.

Your kind, dryly witty, meticulous, nature-loving, pistol-packing soul will forever walk the trails at Hovenweep National Monument.

The smell of sage will always remind me of you now and I will always be convinced that shooting star I saw was you, laughing.

Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument was designated in 1923 to protect a desolate cluster of six ancient villages found spanning a twenty-mile area across the southeastern Utah/Colorado border. The towers of Hovenweep were built by Ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the Four Corners region of Utah between 500 and 1300 A.D. Most of the structures are believed to have been built around 1200 A.D. Archaeologists believe they were part of an agricultural community with close ties to ancient Native Americans near Mesa Verde.

Of the six groups, Cajon Tower and Square Tower reside on Utah land, while Cutthroat Castle, Holly, Horseshoe and Hackberry, and Goodman Point are located in Colorado. The structures vary in shape and size, including circular kivas (ceremonial rooms) and towers, and square or D-shaped dwellings. The Cutthroat Castle Group is the largest ruin, with several kivas below ground level, while the Square Tower Group includes the largest collection of pueblos. The Cajon Group is another large structure, estimated to house close to 100 people. Unusual in its D-shape, the Horseshoe House is believed to be several rooms designed around a central kiva. The Holly Group features a rock art panel that may have served as a solar calendar.

National monument

President Warren G. Harding proclaimed Hovenweep a National Monument on March 2, 1923, [3] which is administered by the National Park Service. [38] On October 15, 1966 the National Monument was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. [39]

In addition to the ruins, located in the Hovenweep National Monument are: [3] [38]

Cajon Tower, Hovenweep - History


Hovenweep ruins.
Photo by George L. Beam.

Four groups of remarkable prehistoric towers, pueblos, and cliff dwellings are contained in the Hovenweep National Monument, which was created March 2, 1923. Two of these groups in Hackberry and Keely Canyons are in Colorado the Ruin and Cajon Canyon groups are across the State line in Utah. Hovenweep is an Indian word meaning "deserted valley." The area of the monument is 286 acres.

In the Ruin Canyon cluster there are 11 different buildings, the largest of which, Hovenweep Castle, has walls that measure 66 feet long and 20 feet high. Besides towers and great rooms, this building has two circular kivas, or men's ceremonial rooms, on the east end, identical in construction with those in ruins on the Mesa Verde National Park. The towers, distinctive features of the Hovenweep ruins, are rectangular, circular, semicircular, D-shaped, and oval, and generally are two or three stories high. Some have single rooms while others have multiple chambers, the latter being a unique type not found elsewhere. Unit Type House, a pueblo, having a single centrally placed kiva, compactly surrounded by rectangular rooms, is a pure type pueblo.

In the Keely Canyon group five large buildings cluster around the rim of a spur of the canyon or are perched on angular rocks at its base. Even to-day, after centuries of wear, they show fine masonry, although some of the mortar between the courses of stones has been washed out. There are small cliff houses in the walls of the canyons below most of the great houses.

One of the buildings in the Hackberry Canyon group is called the Horseshoe House by reason of its shape. The ruin has two concentric walls, a curved outer wall on the north separated by about 4 feet front an inner circular one and united to it by two radial partitions forming compartments still well preserved. The height of the outer wall is 12 feet that of the inner somewhat less. Half-fallen walls of a cliff dwelling of considerable size are found in a cave situated below this building, and upon a neighboring point stands a square tower with high walls and carved corners.

The Cajon Canyon group includes a number of important antiquities. The several multiple-chambered towers of the Hovenweep Monument belong to a prehistoric type distinct from pueblos, for nothing is found in modern pueblos comparable to them. They do not suggest habitations, for they would hardly accommodate the number of workmen necessary to build them. Their general appearance suggests granaries, forts, castles, or some communal use, possibly religious. Then, too, they are sometimes too shut in by surrounding cliffs to serve as watch towers and are accompanied by cliff dwellings which show evidences of habitation. Whatever their use, they are a specialized architectural type and apparently localized to this section.

The Hovenweep Monument lies about 50 miles west of the Mesa Verde National Park, and since there is no resident custodian the superintendent of that park assists in its administration. It is, however, under the general supervision of the superintendent of southwestern monuments. Each of the four groups of ruins is situated within a mile of the main-traveled road between Dolores, Colo., on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, and Bluff, Utah. The ruins are accessible by automobile, and a side trip may be easily made to them in connection with a visit to Mesa Verde Park.

Last Modified: Thurs, Oct 19 2000 10:00:00 pm PDT

Hovenweep’s remote ruins are a quiet outlier in the Four Corners

The Hovenweep Castle ruins at Square Tower Unit at Hovenweep National Monument stand apart from cliff-dwelling neighbors.

Visitors admire the Hovenweep Castle ruins at Hovenweep National Monument. Those who venture to the more remote sites here might have them to themselves.

HOVENWEEP NATIONAL MONUMENT &mdash Seen from the rim, Eroded Boulder House looks like a mud-and-stone meal being devoured by a ravenous sandstone mountain lion.

Like many Ancestral Puebloan structures in the Four Corners region, it lies protected beneath an overhanging rock. Its neighbors, however, rise boldly skyward like diminutive Trump Towers.

While their cliff-dwelling neighbors at Mesa Verde, 35 miles to the south, built cities in protected alcoves, natives atop Cajon Mesa constructed towers exposed to the elements. The fact they’re still standing is testament to how well their builders built them.

The multi-story structures grace Hovenweep National Monument along the Colorado-Utah border west of Cortez. The preserve consists of six units the main one, Square Tower, lies just across the state line in Utah. It offers a campground, hiking trails and a modern visitor center with water, flush toilets and ranger talks in season. A short stroll along a paved trail leads to the Little Ruin Canyon overlook, where ancient structures pepper rim and floor. From here, a moderate 2-mile trail circles the head of the canyon and offers close-up views of the ruins.

The site derives its name from the Square Tower Ruin, a two-story edifice rising from the canyon floor. Other towers cap the rim, some rounded and others D-shaped, square or rectangular.

The structures appear to have been used for multiple purposes. In one tower, archeologists found what appear to be ceremonial, grinding, processing, cooking and sleeping rooms. Some feature small openings near their tops, which experts speculate may have been used for observation, signaling, solar sighting, defense or maybe just ventilation.

Most of Hovenweep’s buildings date to around 1230-1275, about the same time as Mesa Verde’s. Clustered around a seeping spring, the site once housed perhaps 100 to 150 people who grew corn, beans and squash. While apparently not employing irrigation, they did build check dams to slow and capture flash-flood water.

Most visitors are content with simply exploring the Square Tower Unit, but for the intrepid traveler, Hovenweep offers five deliciously empty outlying sites to investigate. All lie off dirt roads best traversed with high-clearance vehicles. Those stuck with the family Buick can lace up hiking boots and reach three of the outliers on foot.

For hikers, the Holly Unit lies at the end of a 4-mile trail, which begins with a tight squeeze through a narrow sandstone slot. Beyond, the route opens to follow Little Ruin Canyon downstream before turning up Keeley Canyon. Blooming cactus, blossoming wildflowers and colorful collared lizards often adorn the way.

The Holly Unit consists of a collection of structures built around the canyon rim, with Holly House still sporting a pair of its original 800-year-old crossbeams. Built on a boulder, Boulder House appears to have been constructed from the inside out, one floor at a time. Tilted Tower also once stood atop a boulder, but the rock shifted, causing its upper stories to tumble.

A mile or so up the dirt road lie the Horseshoe and Hackberry units. Tower Point Ruin lies at the head of Horseshoe Canyon, perhaps built for observational or defensive purposes. Beyond lies Horseshoe House. Its apparent lack of doors suggests occupants must have dropped in Santa-like through the roof.

An 8.5-mile drive northeast from Square Tower leads to the access road for the Cutthroat Castle Unit’s two parking areas. From the upper lot, an easy 1-mile hike leads to the ruins. Those with high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles can grind down to a parking lot immediately above the site. Unlike Hovenweep’s other ruins, the structures here were all built below the rim in a piñon and juniper forest.

Hovenweep’s sixth unit lies in the Navajo Nation in Utah, nine miles southwest of Square Tower. At mesa’s edge, it offers views stretching to Monument Valley and Black Mesa. A seeping spring once allowed folks to live and grow crops here, but today, it lies dry and deserted with only nearby oil tanks for company.

As with Mesa Verde, Hovenweep’s residents departed about the time a severe drought hit in 1276. By 1300, the sites lay deserted, exposed to the elements and the ravenous maws of sandstone mountain lions.

Dan Leeth is a travel writer/photographer more at LookingForTheWorld.com.

If you go

Spring and fall are the best times to visit Hovenweep National Monument. Summer temperatures can hit triple digits, and winter lows can plunge below zero. Biting gnats, appropriately known as no-see-ums, can be a pest from late May through early June.


The least complicated way to reach Hovenweep is to drive 20 miles north from Cortez on U.S. 491 to Pleasant View, turn west on County Road BB, and five miles later turn southeast on County Road 10. Follow it 20 miles to the monument entrance.


Overnight lodging is available in Cortez or Dolores in Colorado, as well as Bluff and Blanding in Utah. Hovenweep offers a 30-site campground with limited spaces suitable for large rigs. No food service is available inside the monument.


While Hovenweep’s outlying sites can be reached by automobile, poor road conditions may necessitate high clearance or even four-wheel-drive vehicles. The routes become nearly impassible after a rainstorm. All require short hikes to reach the actual ruins. The turnoffs are marked only with small posts bearing the image of a white bird.


Visitors should stay on the trails at all times, avoid touching the ruins and take only pictures, not artifacts. Leashed dogs are permitted on trails. Bikes are not. Bring water, slather on the sunscreen, wear sturdy shoes and watch for rattlesnakes.

CO/UT – Hovenweep National Monument

It’s nearly impossible to visit Hovenweep National Monument without at least driving through Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. They are intertwined in a good way. I think the concept of National Park managed units within BLM managed land makes for a flexible and positive solution. The yellow represents BLM-managed land, which includes Canyons of the Ancient sites.

According to Park literature, “Once home to over 2,500 people, Hovenweep includes six prehistoric villages built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. Hovenweep National Monument was established in 1923 by President Warren G. Harding.” Four of the units are in Colorado and two are in Utah.

Cutthroat Castle Group

I was extremely impressed with how the masonry was shaped to fit the surface of the base rock and become nearly a single structure.

It was cool to see some remaining pottery shards around, even if they’d been relocated to this display.

The earliest historic record of Cutthroat Castle dates from 1929, when it was documented by archeologist Paul Martin. The site was added to Hovenweep National Monument in 1956. Unlike the other Hovenweep pueblos, the structures at Cutthroat Castle are not located immediately at the head of a canyon, but further downstream. The Cutthroat Group also appears to have a large number of kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures) relative to other building types. Puebloan kivas are usually built into the earth, and are typically round. An exception is the kiva incorporated into Cutthroat Castle, which rests on top of a boulder.

In Puebloan religion, the kiva is a structure that connects with different worlds. The floor is related to the world below, and is usually built below ground level. The entrance to a typical kiva is through the roof, which relates to the world above. Cutthroat Castle Kiva is surrounded by another structure or room. Access into this surrounding structure appears to have been from below the boulder on which the kiva is built, through a split in the boulder.

Though it may appear isolated, the ancestral Puebloan population at Cutthroat Castle was quite large. Natural resources in the area, particularly the forest of piñon and juniper trees, provided the Puebloans with a variety of useful materials. Piñon seeds were a food source rich in calories and protein. Piñon sap or pitch was used as a waterproof sealant for baskets. Shredded juniper bark was used for clothing and sandals. Trees were burned in fires and used as building materials. In fact, by counting the tree rings present in structural timbers, archeologists can determine exactly when these sites were built.

Researchers studying prehistoric diets have found sagebrush flowers, seeds, and leaves in the Puebloans’ waste. As a minor part of their diet, sagebrush would have been a good source of iron and Vitamin C. In larger amounts, it kills intestinal parasites. Quartz pebbles from stream beds provided material for stone tools. When these rocks are broken using another rock or a piece of antler, they have edges as sharp as glass. Puebloans shaped these hard rocks into tools such as knives, scrapers, and projectile points.

The geology of the surrounding landscape produces springs and seeps. In these canyons, permeable Dakota sandstone rests on top of impermeable Burro Canyon shale. Water from rain and snow soaks through the sandstone, but is forced to flow outward when it meets the shale. When this water reaches the wall of a canyon it forms a spring. For the Puebloans, these canyons with seeps and springs were the ideal place to locate a village. Source: NPS website

Horseshoe Group

The walking trail to Hackberry Canyon is a one-mile round-trip walk that includes the structures at both Horseshoe and Hackberry. Structures at these sites were built approximately 800 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Puebloan people. Today their descendents are among the Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona.

Horseshoe Tower is built on a point that marks the start of the Horseshoe Site. From this tower, inhabitants could see clearly into Horseshoe Canyon. At one time, the tower was walled off from the mesa top, raising questions about the use of such structures for defense.

Further along the Canyon Rim Trail is Horseshoe House, which is composed of four masonry structures that together form a horseshoe shape. From the trail it is easy to see the precisely cut stone-masonry that forms the outside wall of Horseshoe House. Each stone was shaped for a precise fit before being set into place. Clay, sand, and ash, mixed with water from seeps in the canyon below, made the mortar that still holds these walls together. One unresolved question is whether specialized masons built these structures, or if the entire community contributed to their construction. Source: NPS website

Hackberry Group

There’s not much left in this unit however, I met a team of preservation rangers who were working on this site.

About 500 yards east of the Horseshoe structures is the Hackberry Site. Archeologists speculate that Hackberry canyon may have had one of the largest populations of all the Hovenweep units because of the constant seepage of water in the canyon. As many as 250 to 350 people may have lived here. It is unclear if the residents were related or represented different clans and lineages.

The concentrations of structures at both Horseshoe and Hackberry demonstrate the importance of water to the people who lived here. Large multi-story pueblos and towers, located at canyon heads with seeps and springs, are the defining characteristics of the late Pueblo III time period. In this climate, precipitation comes in the form of winter snows, spring rains, and isolated summer thunderstorms. The intermittent rains of summer were crucial to the survival of crops, and Puebloans responded by constructing water-control features. In washes on the mesa tops, small stone dams were built so that sediment could accumulate and water could soak into the ground, flowing slowly into nearby garden plots.

A 23 year-long drought beginning in A.D. 1276, possibly combined with warfare, overpopulation, and limited resources, forced the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people to leave Hovenweep. By the end of the 13th century, Puebloan communities across southeast Utah and southwest Colorado migrated south, joining the pueblos of the Rio Grande River Valley in New Mexico, and the the Hopi in Arizona. Source: NPS website

Holly Group

This was my favorite site. I found out later this tilted structure was most likely caused by floods.

Look at the construction where the bricks attach to the rock.

The petroglyphs were extremely challenging to photograph due to distance, angle and light. But I got at least one spiral to show up.

The Holly Group is named for Jim Holley who ranched and traded in this area during the late 1800s. Holly Site includes Holly House, Tilted Tower and Holly Tower, located at the head of Keeley Canyon. Traveling the pedestrian trail from east to west, the base of a tower structure can be seen along the canyon rim. This multi-story pueblo called Tilted Tower was built atop a large sandstone boulder that shifted sometime after the canyon was abandoned (A.D. 1300). The upper stories of the tower tumbled into the canyon while the footing remained attached.

The design and construction of Tilted Tower is similar to Holly Tower, which is the large multi-story tower located inside Keeley Canyon. Built atop a large sandstone boulder on the canyon bottom, Holly Tower is detached from the canyon rim, and like many of the towers at Hovenweep National Monument, it is located adjacent to a seep. In contemporary Puebloan culture, springs are special locations associated with stories that talk about the origins of Puebloan peoples. Holly Tower was built sometime after A.D. 1200, and it appears that the tower was constructed without outside scaffolding. Each floor was built from the inside, one floor at a time, building upward. Looking at Holly Tower, you can still see the steps or hand-holds that were pecked into the boulder below the entrance.

Archeological analysis of the Hovenweep towers suggests these structures were used for multiple activities, although some activities were probably very specialized. The presence of grinding stones such as manos and metates indicates plant materials were being ground, probably for food production. Stone tools typically used for chopping, scraping, and cutting suggest a variety of activities associated with daily life were occurring within the towers. The presence of bone awls suggests activities associated with weaving might have also occurred. In addition, archeologists suggest these towers were usually paired with kivas (Puebloan religious structures), and the towers may relate to how the kiva connects with the outside world. The deliberate location of towers and kivas at the heads of canyons goes beyond architecture, and has everything to do with the hydrology of the canyon and the way Puebloan peoples envisioned their world. Some of the towers and kivas are placed virtually on top of the springs and seeps that emerge from these canyons. Source: NPS website

Square Tower Group

This is the most popular area of the Monument, with most visitors walking part or all of the Little Ruin Trail which passes by the various structures including Stronghold House, Eroded Boulder House, Hovenweep Castle, Square Tower, Hovenweep House, Rim Rock House and Twin Towers. I like how the Sleeping Ute keeps watch over the canyon.

The Square Tower Group contains the largest collection of ancestral Puebloan structures at Hovenweep. The remains of nearly thirty kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures) have been discovered on the slopes of Little Ruin Canyon, and a variety of other structures are perched on the canyon rims, balanced on boulders and tucked under ledges. It’s possible that as many as 500 people occupied the Square Tower area between A.D. 1200 and 1300.

Square Tower, for which the group is named, is a three-story tower built on a boulder at the head of Little Ruin Canyon. A nearby spring would have been an important resource for the inhabitants of Hovenweep. To increase water storage, a checkdam was built above the spring in order to slow storm runoff. The unique location and appearance of Square Tower fuels speculation that it was a ceremonial structure. Source: NPS website

Stronghold House:

Stronghold House was named for its fortresslike appearance, though it is not clear whether its architects designed it or any other structures for defense. The builders may simply have been following an aesthetic sense or responding to the challenges of the terrain. What you see is actually the upper story of a large pueblo, which now lies in rubble, built on the slope below. People entered the house by way of hand and-toe holds chipped into the rock, or possibly by a wooden ladder. Stronghold House has two distinct sections, and the stone blocks are exceptionally well shaped. To your right is Stronghold Tower, built over a crevice in the cliff. At one time, a log bridged the crevice and supported part of the tower. The log rotted away, and most of the tower tumbled to the canyon bottom. Source: NPS literature

Twin Towers

Together, Twin Towers had 16 rooms. Their architecture is amazing the two buildings rise from the native bedrock, their walls almost touching. One is oval, the other horseshoe shaped. Their builders skillfully laid up thick and thin sandstone blocks. Original wooden lintels are still in place in one tower. These towers are among the most carefully constructed buildings in the entire Southwest. Note a deposit of soft gray material, which is weathered coal. You also pass the contact between the two major rock formations in this region. The upper layer is sandstone that forms cliffs and ledges and is the rock used in Hovenweep buildings. The lower layer is a shaly conglomerate, made up of pebbles and cobbles interspersed with layers of sandstone. Water cannot permeate the lower layer, but drains out as life-giving springs and seeps. Up the canyon at the confluence of the two arms of Little Ruin Canyon, you see large cottonwood trees, another sign that water is nearby. Source: NPS literature

Eroded Boulder House

Eroded Boulder House is another delightful structure visible in the canyon. It incorporates the huge rock under which it sits as part of its roof and walls. On top of the boulder are a few shaped stones where a tower once perched. Source: NPS literature

Rim Rock House

Despite its name, Rimrock House may not have been a place where people lived, for it lacks any apparent room divisions. The structure is rectangular in shape and stands two stories high. Many small openings were placed in the walls, at unusual angles. Peepholes for seeing who might be coming for a visit? Observation ports for tracking the sun? Or maybe something as simple as ventilation? Their function
remains unknown.

In the canyon you can see the remains of Round Tower. It is almost perfectly circular and was probably two stories tall.

Square Tower

The two-story-tall Square Tower stands down in the canyon. Situated on a large sandstone boulder, it was built in a slight spiral shape, perhaps for added strength or for aesthetics. The single T-shaped doorway faces west. There is evidence of an earlier doorway facing the spring at the head of the canyon. A kiva was excavated beside Square Tower. Unlike many tower-kiva associations elsewhere, Square Tower and its kiva were not connected by a tunnel. Source: NPS literature

Hovenweep House

Hovenweep House was the center of one of the largest Pueblo villages in the Square Tower group. What still stands was built on solid sandstone bedrock. The rest has crumbled to the ground, but a closer look reveals its former size and pattern. As with other buildings in this area, the masons took great pains with their stonework. Some boulders were pecked on the surface, a technique also seen at nearby Mesa Verde. Small, flat rocks were inserted as spalls, or chinks, in the mortar joints. The walls may have been completely covered with thick layers of claybased plaster. Source: NPS literature

Hovenweep Castle

Hovenweep Castle consists of two D-shaped towers perched on the rim of Little Ruin Canyon. The stone
walls, two and three courses thick, show detailed masonry techniques. Growth rings on a wooden
beam in one tower indicate that the log was cut in 1277 CE (Common Era), one of the latest dates on any structure in the San Juan region. A residence was associated with the “castle,” but the people who lived here were farmers, not kings and queens. Source: NPS literature

Cajon Group

The Cajon Group (pronounced ca-hone) consists of a small village constructed in the same configuration as Hackberry, Horseshoe and Holly. The surviving structures are situated at the head of a small canyon, and evidence indicates that 80 to 100 people may have lived here. Under a ledge in the canyon below are several small structures that may have been built to protect and store water from the spring.

On the western slope of the canyon stand the remains of a remarkable circular tower that conforms perfectly to the shape of three large, irregular boulders. This round structure on a completely uneven surface demonstrates the skill and determination of the ancestral Puebloans that lived at Hovenweep. Source: NPS website

The earliest people we have evidence of using the area were here during the Archaic period (5500 to approximately 500 BC). At that time, people used the area on an intermittent basis as they hunted and gathered food. The structures you see today were built during the Pueblo III period (1100 to 1300 AD). Tree-ring dating of a beam in one of the rooms indicated the tree was cut in 1168 AD, presumably very close to the time that the room was built. Source: NPS literature


I was very curious about the icon that was used on all the signage at Hovenweep. After much research it seems to represent macaws and the t-shaped doorways used on many structures in the southwest. Why the macaw? They were trade items from Mexico with feathers, remains and petroglyphs indicating they were representative of the period.

Rules, Regulations, Precautions

It is the visitor's responsibility to know and obey park rules. Regulations are designed for visitors' protection and to protect natural resources.

The archeological sites are extremely fragile. The monument contains areas of crypto- biotic soils, which are very prone to damage and require years to heal.

  • All types of climbing on the ancient walls, picking up artifacts or other such activities prohibited.
  • All hiking is limited to established trails only.
  • No overnight stays are permitted at any of the sites.
  • Mountain bikes are limited to roadways. Mountain biking areas can be found on other public lands in the area.
  • Spring and Fall are the most ideal visit seasons. Summer visits are recommended before 10:00 AM when temperatures are moderate.
  • Winter travel is discouraged in late afternoons due to remote location and possible storms.

Cajon Tower, Hovenweep - History

Location: - The road to Square Tower is paved from Cortez, Colorado, on County Road G (the McElmo Canyon Road), and is also paved on Highway 262 from White Mesa (south of Blanding).

The road to Pleasant View from Square Tower leads to Hovenweep's outlying units in Colorado however, it is dirt and gravel, and may be impassable following rain or snow.
All roads into the outlying units are dirt and gravel and are not maintained high-clearance vehicles are recommended for visiting these sites.

Hours: Open All Year 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. except December 25.

Fees: Person: $3.00 per person - Vehicle: $6.00 per car.

Preparation: 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. Snow is usually light to moderate. Good walking shoes, plenty of water and protection from the sun are very important.

General Information:
Hovenweep National Monument includes five prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages located on the Cajon mesa along the Utah-Colorado border. The standing architecture typical of the area was built about 800 years ago by ancestors of today's Puebloan people.

Hovenweep is noted for its solitude and undeveloped, natural character. The Square Tower Unit is the monument's primary contact facility with ranger-led tours, a visitor center and campground. Outlying units include Holly, Horseshoe, Hackberry, Cutthroat Castle and Cajon. Land surrounding Hovenweep belongs to the Navajo Nation, Bureau of Land Management, State of Utah, and private landowners.

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.

The inhabitants of the Hovenweep area during the late 1200's, referred to as the ancestral Pueblo (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 Puebloans departure. Some say hostile neighbors forced them out. 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.

Watch the video: Hovenweep. National monument in the United States of America. Colorado. Utah. K2s Adventures (May 2022).