Have you ever been to a place that immediately whisk you away into mystical serenity? That’s what you experience at Hovenweep National Monument. I first visited this magical spot right after my brother passed away in late May 2016. I guess a stop at a place with “weep” in the name on a trip was fitting as I shed many tears. A lot of that first visit and entire road trip is a blur, but I remember being drawn to “Hovenweep,” as it was named by pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson in 1874 “Hovenweep” is a Paiute and Ute word meaning “deserted valley.” Perhaps, that draw is what led me back there as one of my last stops on a road trip that took me to four national parks and four national monuments during National Park Week. Hovenweep was a little out of my way, but for some reason I had to go back. I got there about 5:30pm, after the visitor center had closed for the day. There were a few folks around, but as I walked down the paved path toward the canyon, I was in a world of solitude immersing myself into the spiritual lure of the landscape of this magical place.
Sitting on the Colorado-Utah line is a canyon with magnificently made stone towers perched along a canyon rim. No one has lived in the stone structures for over 700 years, which makes your imagination race wondering about the once lively canyon that now blends into the shear vastness of the desolate landscape.
I walked along the primitive trail following the rim of Little Ruin Canyon deep in thought about my brother and pondering the past of what life was like when folks lived on this mesa. W.D. Huntington first reported the stone structures after he led an 1854 Mormon expedition into southeastern Utah. J.W. Fewkes recommended the structures be protected after surveying the area for the Smithsonian Institution in 1917-18. In 1923, President Warren G. Harding proclaimed Howenweep a national monument.The intricate stonework in phenomenal, likely why the structures have weathered time. I was fascinated by the work of ancestral Pueblo masons in the architecture including finely hewn stones, sharp corners, and smooth curves. There are square towers and round ones. Archeological studies show ancestral Pueblo people began settling on Cajon Mesa, home to Hovenweep, about the year 700. The society flourished and most of the buildings still standing were constructed from 1230 to 1275 CE (Common Era), about the same time as the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park about an hour’s drive east of Hovenweep. By the late 1200s they abandoned the region, likely because of prolonged drought, overuse of natural resources and possibly internal strife.
In the late day sun, I took in the beauty of some of the stunning stone structures perched on the canyon rim. My first stop was at a structure with a fortress-like architecture, although its not clear if it was used for defense. The stone blocks are extremely well shaped. What you actually see of Stronghold House is the upper story of large pueblo, now in rubble on the slope below. People would have entered it by way of hand-to-toe holds chipped into the rock or wooden ladder. On the right side of the main structure is the Stronghold Tower, built over a crevice in the cliff. Most of the tower has now crumbled into the canyon.
Next stop was at the Unit Type House, which refers to a basic building plan archeologists noticed early on at sites in the Southwest. This one is a perfect example of a home with a few living and storage rooms along with a kiva.Across the canyon, I had a great view of Twin Towers, Eroded Boulder House, and Rim Rock House without a soul around. The one that intrigued me the most is the Eroded Boulder House. It incorporates a huge rock as part of its roof and walls. On top of the boulder are a few shaped stones from what was one a tower.I decided to do the Tower Point Loop. Having the stunning view looking down Little Ruin Canyon all to myself was reason enough, even though I was watching time since it was after 6pm and I still had to drive to Cortez. Ancestral Puebloans stored crops like corn, beans, and squash in the granary tower, which would have been sealed tight and secure against rodents and seeping water. You can see some of the stones that have crumbled inside the tower and others sliding into the crevasses of the rocky terrain.
From here I also noticed the great view of Sleeping Ute Mountain. The Ute Chief’s head lies to the north with the toes extending southward toward New Mexico. At the highest point, the Ute Chief’s arms are crossed. According to legend, someday the Ute Chief will rise again and return the land to its native inhabitants. In geological terms, the compact mountain range is a laccolith forming about 10-25 million years ago.
I continued on to the Hovenweep Castle. On the way, my eyes were immediately drawn to a bouquet of red. They were the most vivid red cactus flowers I’d ever seen.
The Hovenweep Castle is made up of two D-shaped towers precariously perched on the canyon rim. I took time to admire the incredible masonry technique in the stone walls, which are two and three course, or layers, thick. This castle wasn’t home to kings and queens. Instead, the people who lived here were farmers.
Normally in a place like this I would take video and pictures. At the castle I realized I was so caught up in studying the structures and that’s when it hit me that’s exactly what my brother would have done. He was an engineer and liked studying the process of how things are put together. Perhaps he was there with me looking at stone after stone completely enthralled with the craftsmanship. I certainly hope so. Admiring the castle’s eroding beauty, I had to pull myself away and retrace my steps on the 20 minute walk back to the visitor center to hit the road.
The Square Tower, Hovenweep House, along with a close up view of Rim Rock House, Eroded Boulder House, and Twin Towers will have to wait. They are reason enough I’ll be drawn back to the “Deserted Valley.”