Ancient Ruins in a Deserted Valley: Hovenweep National Monument

Graeme Churchard
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Hovenweep National Monument is an inspiring place that begs visitors to ask questions about the ancients. Located a mere 39 miles northeast of Bluff on US 191 and Highway 26, this enchanting place is known for its six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins. These multi-storied towers cover an expanse of more than 20 miles throughout a wilderness of mesas and canyons sparsely dotted with sage and juniper.

These 700-year-old and older archeological sites can be visited by paved and improved dirt roads, but hikes are necessary to fully explore the ruins. As you check out the structures, such as the iconic and photogenic Hovenweep Castle and Square Tower House, it’s impossible not to imagine what happened here hundreds of years ago. How were such structures built on top of cliffs and balanced over boulder heaps? Why were these magnificent structures abandoned in the late 1200s? How do the portals in the castles align the rays of sunlight and cast shadows with the solstices and equinoxes.

In 1923, Hovenweep became a National Monument, and in July 2014, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Hovenweep an International Dark Sky Park, similar to Natural Bridges National Monument. Enjoy hikes on your own or go out with a ranger, and also camp in the Hovenweep campground while you’re here.

What Makes it Great

Tony Beeman

For anyone who has visited Mesa Verde, the architectural style here will look familiar. These structures were built by Ancestral Puebloans, a farming culture occupying the Four Corners area from approximately 500 BCE to 1300 CE.

Hovenweep is the Ute Indian word meaning “deserted valley.” Some of the most pristine archeological Ancestral Puebloan structures can be found in this monument. And checking them out via hikes is easy.

The variety of architectural structures at Hovenweep is striking. There are square and circular towers, which are often thought to be used for celestial observation, protection, and civil and/or storage matters. There are also D-shaped dwellings and circular, ceremonial kivas.

The first thing on many hikers’ agendas is the Square Tower Group Loop Trail. This 1.5-mile round-trip hike will take you through a serenely beautiful desert landscape to the Hovenweep Castle and onward to Tower Point. Plan about 1.5 hours this jaunt.

To continue your exploration of the ruins, head to outlying sites such as the Holly unit, which features a petroglyph sun panel. D-shaped towers can be found at the Horseshoe and Hackberry units. These and many other units are generally made up of several structures, some with walls only standing a foot or two high today.

All the destinations at Hovenweep are remote and peaceful.

What You’ll Remember

Tony Beeman

The thoughts and questions you have of ancient life; the smell of juniper and sage as you hike through the desert; the towering masonic feats before your eyes.

Who is Going to Love It

David Wiley

Amateur archeologists, historians and aspiring anthropologists; modern-day masons and awe-inspired architects; hikers and enjoyers of beautiful, preserved places; dogs who like to hike on desert trails.

GPS Coordinates, Parking, and Regulations

Larry Lamsa

GPS Coordinates:
(37.383694, -109.072946)

Hovenweep National Monument does not charge an entrance fee and is open year-round. The fee for camping is $10 and is available on a first-come first-serve basis, though the 31 sites rarely fill up. Pets are allowed on trails and in the campsite, but must be on leash at all times.

The best time to visit Hovenweep National Monument is March to late-May and September to October.


Difficulty: 1.5 - 3 (depending on cumulative length of hikes)

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