Hovenweep National Monument: A Gateway to Ancient Puebloan History

Hovenweep National Monument | Introduction

The Hovenweep National Monument is located on the border of Colorado and Utah and serves as an archaeological site. The vast desert horizon is dotted with groups of ancient stone buildings, including towers and castles, built between AD 600 and 1300, providing significant archaeological evidence of the lives and society of ancient Native Americans. Hovenweep is about a little over an hour's drive from Mesa Verde National Park, and planning a visit together with Mesa Verde National Park makes staying in the nearby town of Cortez most convenient for transportation.

Hovenweep National Monument actually encompasses several different architectural groups, including Square Tower Group, Horseshoes and Hackberry, Holly, Cutthroat Castle, and a few other areas. However, most visitors to this place only tour the Square Tower Group area, which is where the park's headquarters are located and also has well-maintained trails, making access easier. We originally wanted to visit several areas, but as we drove by, we only saw roads in very poor condition, which were mostly muddy, so in the end, we only visited the Square Tower Group.

The majority of structures at Hovenweep were built between AD 1200 and 1300 and come in various forms, including square and circular towers, living quarters, and numerous Kivas (a type of ceremonial structure used by ancient Native Americans, usually circular). The purpose of these buildings is still largely uncertain to archaeologists, but it is clear that they were constructed by the Ancestor Puebloans, who are the ancestors of the Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi Indian tribes now spread across southern Arizona and New Mexico. The Ancestor Puebloans gradually developed into an agricultural civilization around AD 900, cultivating terraced fields on the hillsides and employing irrigation systems such as Check dams along the Square Tower Trail. However, around 1300, the inhabitants abandoned the settlement due to some uncertain reasons. The most commonly theorized reason is a change in climate and a shortage of resources, leading to insufficient agricultural resources and causing the population to migrate south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona.

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Attractions | Square Tower Trail

The Square Tower Group area includes the largest Ancestor Puebloan building complexes in the vicinity of Hovenweep. These complexes are situated around Little Ruin Canyon. It was a relatively large community, and archaeologists estimate that at its peak, around 500 people lived here. The basic visiting route follows the Square Tower Trail, which starts behind the visitor center and leads to major attractions like the Canyon Overlook, Hovensweep Castle, and Square Tower. The trail, if followed in a loop, is about 2 miles long and takes only 1-2 hours to complete, with its entrance located just behind the visitor center.

If you're only interested in viewing the panoramic scene, you can simply walk a short distance to Canyon Overlook. However, this trail is not very long, and it is recommended to at least complete the first half. The first half of the trail is made accessible, providing a flat and easy walk with beautiful scenery. The final section involves descending into the canyon and then ascending back to the visitor center. Although this part is short, it is quite strenuous to climb and lacks scenic views in between. Therefore, if you're not interested in hiking, it would be more relaxing to turn back after reaching the last major structure, the Twin towers.

Eroded Boulder House

The first stop on the trail, before reaching Canyon Overlook, allows you to see the Eroded Boulder House. This is a two-story building, and the part we see at the first stop is actually the second floor of the building. The ground floor is located along the cliff's edge, and it's only visible when looking back from the trail on the opposite side. In the past, these buildings probably had some wooden components, such as outdoor stairs, to facilitate movement between floors, but, of course, those are no longer visible today.

Hovenweep National Monument

Unit Type House

The Unit Type House represents a very basic form of dwelling from that time, showing several rooms and a Kiva within the structure. If you have visited Mesa Verde National Park, you might find this type of housing quite familiar. In fact, due to the similarity in architectural styles, masonry, and pottery, archaeologists have determined that the inhabitants here were likely connected with communities at Mesa Verde National Park and other sites. However, the structure of the masonry buildings indicates that the construction techniques were quite advanced. Stone towers built on irregular boulders have stood for over 700 years, and in terms of architectural details, they are even more sophisticated than the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.

Tower Point

Walking along the Square Tower Trail and turning into a small path in the middle leads to Tower Point in the center of the canyon. Here, we can see a circular tower, which was likely used for storing surplus crops at that time. The Ancestor Puebloans, an agricultural society between the 11th and 13th centuries, had a village with at least 100-150 people. Therefore, they also built granaries along the canyon edges to store crops, such as corn, beans, and squash, for future use.

Hovenweep Castle

Hovenweep Castle is the iconic structure of Hovenweep National Monument. In reality, it is not a castle but rather a particularly large building; we might as well call it an ancient mansion. This building also appears relatively intact; in fact, it has been under restoration continuously. Looking at photos from 1935 can show us this.

Hovenweep House

Not far from Hovenweep Castle, this cylindrical tower-like structure is Hovenweep House, which was originally the center of the village. This area is home to numerous buildings hidden along the edge of the cliff below, which can be seen more clearly from the trail on the opposite side.

Square Tower

Square Tower is a three-story tower built on the edge of Canyon. Its location is quite unique, as it can be clearly seen from a distance to be one story lower compared to Hovenweep Castle and Hovenweep House, and unlike other round towers, it is a square tower. The function of this tower has not been definitively determined, but it is generally speculated that it may be a structure of religious or spiritual significance.

Rim Rock House

Although Rim Rock House is called a "house," it probably isn't meant for living in since it has no rooms. The walls have many holes, leading some to speculate that they might have been used for observational purposes.

Twin Towers

The Twin Towers are two connected towers, one of which is square-shaped, containing actually 16 rooms inside. It's very likely that a considerable number of people resided there, similar to today's concept of an apartment. It is said that this is actually the best-constructed building within the complex, and we can also observe that it has been quite well-preserved.

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