Winter is a great time to visit this area. It is high desert country and nights can be bone-chilling cold. But most winter days are sunny, with mild temperatures and conditions favorable for hiking and exploring.
In ancient times, life at Hovenweep was simple, yet elegant. In these shallow canyons on the Cajon Mesa, they built a culture that beat to the rhythms of the natural cycles that surrounded them: the revolutions of the sun and moon, the harvest, the hunt. Their life has been described as "Eden lost," but it wasn't easy, nor was it as romantic as we sometimes imagine. At the height of summer, the desert sometimes swelters in a 110-degree fever of heat; on a cold night in deepest winter, it can be a frozen hell. Evidence of warfare and cannibalism add a dark twist to our conception of how these people lived.
Some wonder how they could have survived here at all: "This guy took one look around and said: 'This is God's country -- and why in God's name would anyone live out here?'" relates Darby Bramble, a park ranger.
But the Hovenweep Anasazi not only survived, they thrived. On a stormy fall morning, Bramble, a Washington native who counts her season at Hovenweep as "the best months of my life," shows us how.
A cold wind blows off the Great Sage Plain and rain clouds scud low over Sleeping Ute Mountain as Bramble leads a tour of Square Tower Group, Hovenweep's best-known cluster of ancient structures.
The Anasazi cultivated desert springs through the use of diversion dams and catch basins, enabling them to farm an area the size of 300 city blocks. "Wherever there are springs, there are ancient structures," Bramble says. "The Anasazi harvested water as well as the soil."
These shallow river valleys, inhabited by various peoples for more than 14,000 years -- from Paleoindian nomads to the Archaic or Desert Culture to the Anasazi to the Utes -- were populated by the Northern San Juan Anasazi at the time of Christ. Hovenweep, associated with the Pueblo II/Pueblo III transition (A.D. 900-1300), was the northern frontier of the Anasazi civilization; the majority of the standing structures were built in the early to mid-1200s. Evidence from masonry and architecture, as well as a predominance of Mesa Verde pottery fragments, suggest Hovenweep was part of the Montezuma Valley/Mesa Verde culture. "These little canyons were once home to as many as 500 people -- 5,000, if you include the outlying sites," says Bramble.
The distinctive Hovenweep masonry shows considerable skill in construction techniques and a careful attention to detail. Bramble points to a pinyon pine beam in a window of Hovenweep Castle. "We estimate that it took 2,000 whacks of a stone ax to cut down a pinyon pine, so you can imagine how much hard work it took to put these towers up. The masonry had to have enough give to freeze and expand in the extreme temperatures, yet be durable enough to withstand the passage of decades. The task required expert architects."
Even so, the ancient builders took a lot of artistic license in the design and construction of their towers, kivas, pueblos, room blocks and granaries. "The masonry at Hovenweep is finer, more aesthetic than at Mesa Verde," says Bramble. "The personality of the builder really shines through in the design."
If the structures at Hovenweep reflect fully developed artistic and spiritual beliefs -- opening a window into the soul of the Anasazi -- they also reflect an intimate cultural relationship with the heavens. At sunset on the summer solstice, a beam of light shines laser-like through a porthole in the western wall of Hovenweep Castle, into a chamber called the Sun Room. On the winter solstice, a beam shines through a separate porthole into a corner of the doorway to the tower. The movement of the sun's rays along the interior walls would have been tracked throughout the year; the arrangement of the solstice portholes served as a kind of virtual solar calendar.
Perhaps the most dramatic calendric site at Hovenweep is the petroglyph at the Holly Group. There, etched into the sandstone under a north-facing rock ledge, archaeologists have discovered markers consisting of a concentric circle; two spiral circles; a long, snake-like figure; and twin-like figures. Daggers of light appear on these petroglyphs as the sun rises, aligning on the three designs to mark the summer solstice and the fall and spring equinoxes. To the Anasazi, stone-age farmers eking out a living in a marginal landscape, such an understanding of the solar cycle would have been a crucial planting and harvesting tool -- and perhaps meant the difference between harvest or famine, life or death.
Bramble takes us down to the spring at the head of the canyon. Here, in a mossy grotto, the air smells of mud and wet stone. There is a feeling of quietude, even sanctity, in this place. Hovenweep remains largely unexcavated; Anasazi graves lie close by. For the past several months, Bramble has shared the passage of the seasons with these 800-year-old towers, watching the sun rise and set, the stars spiral through their orbits, the moon wax and wane. The Anasazi may have disappeared, but their unique relationship with God's country did not.
If you go
Hovenweep is open year-round. Entrance Fees: $6 per passenger vehicle, or $3 per person. The visitors center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed on winter holidays.
A small campground near the visitors center is also open year-round, first-come, first-served basis. The campground contains flush toilets and running water; sites are designed for tent camping, though a few will accommodate RVs of 25 feet or less in length. The camping fee is $10 per night.
Hiking is limited to established trails. Backpacking is not allowed.
To get to Hovenweep, drive U.S. 191 south from Blanding toward Bluff. Watch for the signed turnoff onto the Hovenweep Road, then just follow the signs. Contact information: Phone: (970)562-4282; Web site: www.nps.gov/hove.
Other canyons in this area also shelter ruins and relics, and are not protected by the National Park System. Remember that it is illegal to remove, deface or destroy ancient relics. You are not even allowed to bring home an arrowhead or pottery shard.
Square Tower Group is spread along the sides of Ruin Canyon, a Y-shaped tributary of McElmo Creek. Thirty kivas were scattered along the slopes between stone masonry housing units; as many as 500 people lived here. Hovenweep Castle is what remains of a large pueblo that stood along the canyon rim. The eponymous Square Tower is a three-story high spire built on the sandstone bedrock below Hovenweep Castle. Its location near the spring at the head of canyon suggests it was some kind of ceremonial structure.
Hovenweep House is a horseshoe-shaped building located near the remains of a check dam on the rim above the spring. Check dams held water and allowed for percolation through the soft sandstone to an impervious layer of shale beneath; the concentrated flow was shunted over the shale into a sheltered alcove.
Tower Point, at the center of the Y of the canyon, holds a single round tower that offers a commanding view of the surrounding area. The canyon below it was filled with dwellings that made up a pueblo-like structure. Across from Tower Point is Eroded Boulder House, a dwelling built entirely within a large boulder. Above that, on the canyon rim, are the Twin Towers, a pair of two-story apartment-type buildings containing 16 rooms. Across and down the canyon are Stronghold House and Stronghold Tower, which were once connected by a log that bridged a crevice in canyon. Beyond Stronghold House is Unit-Type House, a dwelling similar to unit pueblos of Mesa Verde. Openings on the east wall of Unit-Type House were arranged to allow a determination of solstices, equinoxes -- perhaps even moon cycles.
Holly Group was called home by 150 or more people. Holly contains five named buildings: Tilted Tower, Holly Tower, Curved Wall House, Great House and Isolated Boulder House. Most spectacular is Holly Tower, a graceful two-story structure that was skillfully built on a tall, narrow boulder. The Tower has a single entrance and could be accessed only by hand- and toeholds carved into the rock.
Hackberry: The medium-sized village in Hackberry was probably as large as Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, with 300-350 inhabitants. A cluster of room blocks is located around the spring at the head of the canyon. A unique feature of Hackberry is the amount of vegetation in the canyon due to a very productive spring. It seems water was available here when other springs slowed to a trickle. Large hackberry trees provide a refreshing contrast to the sagebrush-juniper plant zone on the mesa top just a few yards away.
The Anasazi terraced the slopes inside the canyon for the planting of crops. The terraced plots and the abundant water and shelter would have extended the growing season to later in the fall and earlier in spring than would have been possible on the mesa top.
Horseshoe Ruin was a small village that housed 50 to 60 people. Groups of unit houses are located within the canyon, with ceremonial structures located to the east and west of the main pueblo.
Isolated Tower stands on the sandstone point to the west of the main dwellings; in spite of its seemingly defensive position, it was probably used for domestic or ceremonial purposes. The most significant structure is Horseshoe House itself, a D-shaped building with a curved wall on one side and subdivided into compartments in the same general pattern of Sun Temple at Mesa Verde. The canyon-head beneath Horseshoe House contains a small cliff dwelling and a kiva; well-preserved hand prints can be found in the grotto that holds the spring.
Cutthroat Castle Group
Cutthroat, a Pueblo III village that may have had a population of over 200, differs from the other site groups in that it was built on a streambed rather than clustered around a canyonhead spring. The S-shaped stream on which Cutthroat was built was dammed to form a small reservoir between the two sections of the village. Another interesting feature at Cutthroat is the lack of visible entrances to several of its towers. Entrances could have been below ground, or the towers could have been entered from the top via ladders. Cutthroat sits at the highest elevation of all the Hovenweep group, where it has higher annual precipitation, cooler temperatures, and deeper soils than the other sites.
The Cajon Group consists of the ruins of a small village built in the same configuration as Hackberry, Horseshoe and Holly. The surviving structures are situated about the head of a small canyon, and the rubble of other room blocks at the site indicate that about 80 to 100 people lived here. Under the ledge of one canyon wall are small cliff dwellings and pictographs painted in Mesa Verde pottery style, and remnants of a good-sized earthen dam built in the wash above the spring remain visible today.
On the western slope of the canyon stands an exotic circular tower whose walls follow the undulations of three large boulders. The builders of this tower carefully fitted their masonry stones to the rocks to produce a round building on a remarkably uneven surface. It is a prime example of the skill and determination of the architects and masons of Hovenweep.