Mysterious Towers of Hovenweep Ruins

We know a bit about the people who built the Hovenweep Towers but much of their history remains unknown

In the high desert country which straddles the border between southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado, the Hovenweep ruins with their mysterious towers induce a strange silence, something you cannot quite explain.

Walk in ancient footsteps. Soak in the silence. Marvel at a night sky overflowing with stars. Hear a lone coyote’s howl. Experience the past at Hovenweep National Monument.

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In our experience at Hovenweep (a Ute word meaning “deserted valley”), you hear nothing at all for long periods. When you see the occasional visitors, they seem to walk along the trails and among the ruins in deliberate quietness. They seem to speak with hushed voices, as though they were exploring the sanctuaries of the great old European cathedrals, many constructed at about the same time the early Pueblo people called Anasazi built the Hovenweep villages.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep is one of those out of the way destinations that are easy to miss, especially in the midst of southeastern Utah where national parks such as Canyonlands and Arches, Monument Valley, the San Juan River, and Cedar Mesa offer a myriad of recreational options.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep preserves six villages once inhabited by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. The six Hovenweep site groups are located within a 20-mile drive of each other along the Utah-Colorado border.

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These units vary greatly in size, the largest of which is the 400-acre Square Tower Group. Both this group, where the Ranger Station is located, and Cajon Ruins are located in Utah. The Colorado sites are Holly Ruins, Hackberry Canyon, Cutthroat Castle, and Goodman Point. Altogether, Hovenweep National Monument encompasses 785 acres.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor center contains exhibits and educational information for visitors. There is a small sales area with books specializing on the cultural and natural history of the area.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These structures evoke an ancient time—one filled with the sights and sounds of a vibrant and dynamic culture. Family groups built their homes at the heads of canyons, surrounding life-giving seep springs that provided water, cooler temperatures, and shade from the cottonwood and hackberry trees that grew there.

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Perched on the canyon rims, these villages have weathered the centuries, owing to their solid foundations and careful construction. The towers and rooms of Hovenweep are unique in the style and quality of their masonry. Stones are carefully shaped and small rocks and mortar fill the gaps between, keeping out sun, cold, wind, and any small creatures.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These structures at Hovenweep are numerous and varied. Some are square, some D-shaped, some round, some almost four stories tall. The exact purpose of the towers is uncertain, but possibilities include celestial observatories, defensive structures, storage facilities, civil buildings, communications towers, and ceremonial buildings. Only limited archeological work has been done at Hovenweep. None of the structures have been rebuilt and remain standing after 700 years.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Hovenweep people built increasingly larger and taller towers over time, an indication of the increasing importance of the structures. They built them (in cross section) in D-shaped, square, rectangular, circular, or irregular outlines. They located them, often with perilous entryways, on canyon ledges, canyon bottoms, even atop large boulders.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In some of them, they built viewing ports, suggesting lookout or, possibly, defensive structures. In some, they left ceramic vessels, stone tools, stone grinding basins, and food plant traces, suggesting living, working, and storage areas. In some, they incorporated wall openings which admitted shafts of sun at summer solstice, suggesting solar calendars. For some, they constructed tunnels which led from the towers to kivas, suggesting a ceremonial function.

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Why did the Hovenweep people, unlike other Anasazi, concentrate on building increasingly large towering structures with various cross-sectional shapes, in differing (even dangerous) locations, for apparently diverse functions? Why did they hold the towers in such importance? No one can say for sure.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers remain one of the enduring mysteries of Southwestern archaeology.

Worth Pondering…

I hope you dance because…

Time.

Time is a wheel.

Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along.

Tell me, who wants to look back on their years and wonder where their years have gone.

—Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers, I Hope You Dance

Mesa Verde National Park: 14 Centuries of History

Mesa Verde offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people

Most of the national parks in the Southwest are about the landscapes, but Mesa Verde in southern Colorado is more cultural than natural.

There’s still plenty of rugged scenery, but there are also more than 4,000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde’s boundaries.

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Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects these sites, some of the most notable and best preserved in the U.S.

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Fourteen centuries of history are displayed at Mesa Verde National Park, 10 miles east of Cortez off U.S. Highway 160. More than 4,000 archaeological sites have been preserved, including hundreds of homes and villages that date back to the 12th century.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These master builders constructed elaborate complexes tucked into sandstone cliffs. Some held just a few people, while others, such as the Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and could have housed up to 100 people.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde is a World Cultural Heritage Park, a designation granted by UNESCO to preserve and protect the cultural and national heritage of certain international sites. Mesa Verde has also been selected the number one historic monument in the world by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, and was chosen by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime—The World’s Greatest Destinations.”

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Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. To truly appreciate the park and to visit several of the cliff dwellings, plan to spend a minimum of two days at the park. It takes time to savor the magic of its eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture. As a vintage slogan at the park advises: “It’s a place where you can see for 100 miles and look back in time 1,000 years.”

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The intricate architecture is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888. Mesa Verde was designated as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt 18 years later, in 1906.

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From Mesa Verde’s entrance a two-lane paved road winds upward 2,000 feet through piñon-juniper forests and canyons. At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east.

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At Far View, the road divides. The west fork leads to Wetherill Mesa and a number of major cliff dwellings, including Long House, second largest at Mesa Verde. The south fork leads to Park Headquarters on lower Chapin Mesa and the major cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, largest in the park, Spruce Tree House (closed to the public), Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

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Spruce Tree House is the best preserved cliff dwelling in the park, but falling rocks from a sandstone overhang have kept the more than 700-year-old structure closed since October 2015.

Due to the complexity of the project and the significance of Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling, there is a four-phase sequential approach planned.

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In early 2017, the park service contracted with a geotechnical firm to conduct Phases One and Two. This assessment will result in recommendations for treatment that, if necessary, will use modern engineering technology to ensure that the alcove is stable and safe for public visitation.

Currently, Spruce Tree House can be seen from overlooks near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

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Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Mesa Verde is open year-round, but actual schedules vary with the season. The campground and some sites are closed during the winter. The current entry fee to visit Mesa Verde National Park is $15-25 (fee is good for 7 days); all federal lands passes are accepted.

Worth Pondering

(The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace) was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery. Who were these people, where did they go, and why?

—Diana Kappel-Smith, Desert Time