Wandering the West
October 7, 2008
Utah may just be the capital of the United States when it comes to wide-open, desolate places. Hovenweep National Monument is one of them probably the least-visited unit of the National Park Service in monument- and national-park-rich Utah.
But it’s worth the trip out from Blanding or Bluff or other obscure points near the Four Corners. Hovenweep (Piute for "deserted valley") actually has six different locations, each preserving the ruins of an ancient Anasazi village dating from 900 A.D.
I wouldn’t recommend hitting all six, but the main site at Little Rim Canyon has the largest concentration of well-preserved, architecturally interesting, masonry ruins.
There’s a visitor center and a small campground, but nothing else. You are a bit far from civilization here, so make sure you’ve brought your own lunch and have gas in the tank to get back to a station. There’s a one-and-a-half-mile loop trail you must take, rather than just taking a quick look from the visitor center on the canyon rim. There are 10 viable ruins, including some you’ve probably seen in pictures because of their distinct shapes. On a stone perch near the bottom is Square Tower Ruin, two stories tall. Around the rim are some D-shaped ruins, and a pair of ruins called the Twin Towers leading to Hovenweep Castle, with its curving walls and European castle looks.
Look closely at the masonry work. Considering they are made of nothing except rocks and mud, the walls still stand tall and strong. Large gaps in the mortar lines are plugged with small stones. This kind of work would pass muster in a Deer Valley mansion.
The question, as you stand on the rim and look around, is "Why why would anyone think this was a great place to build a primitive civilization?" You’re on a mesa with unobstructed views to mountains in four states and nowhere in the view is there a sign of modern life. Today this corner is empty, but until 700 years ago it was dotted with villages like Hovenweep. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Archaic Age Native Americans showed up and found it conducive to agriculture. Early on they lived in caves and cliff overhangs, but as they grew corn, beans, squash and other crops in small fields irrigated from small hand-built dams, they apparently flourished to the point they had the time to build intricate two-story castles. They also produced pottery, jewelry and clothing, which have all been found during archaeological digs on the site.
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The residents of Hovenweep and its outlying villages survived in this rugged place until the late 1200s. What forced them out? Maybe it was an early version of climate change, or overcultivating their farms until the soil gave out. Whatever the reason, they abandoned this isolated mesa and headed farther south.
Hovenweep is off the beaten path. Even at the height of summer travel season you’ll find few people have made their way here. This time of year you should have it to yourself. Find lodging at Blanding or Bluff in Utah, or in Cortez just over the line in southwestern Colorado.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Hovenweep Visitors’ Center: 350 miles
Insider tip: Get out by dusk. This time of year, at this elevation, it gets cold fast.
Web site: http://www.nps.gov/hove