Hovenweep Castle



Ned Eddins

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 Holly Ruins              Cutthroat Ruins            Cajon Ruins

 Hovenweep National Monument is located in the Four Corners area of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. On Cajon Mesa, Hovenweep National Monument straddles the Utah-Colorado border.

HV-Delorme Topo Map
Four Corners Area – Delome Topo Map

A Mormon expedition led by W. D. Huntington to the Four Corners area reported the  circular towers of Hovenweep in 1854. The Anasazi structures at Hovenweep were discovered thirty years before Wetherill and Mason saw the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. The term Hovenweep was first used by western photographer William Henry Jackson in 1874. Hovenweep is a Ute Indian word meaning “Deserted Valley”.

Located in the Four Corners area, Cajon Mesa is drained by deep-cut canyons with intermittent streams. When flowing with water, the streams drain into Yellowjacket and McElmo creeks and on into the San Juan River. In the early 1200s, small isolated farming groups of Anasazi Indians living on Cajon Mesa moved near springs on canyon rims and built the villages of Hovenweep. The visible towers and stone buildings at present-day Hovenweep were constructed between 1230 and 1277.

Despite the harsh environment, the Hovenweep people foraged for edible plant, hunted animals, and in small plots of moist soil raised the Three Sisters…beans, squash, and corn. Terraced gardens were placed along the canyon walls. Watered by the runoff from the slickrock areas above, sheltered from the wind, and with added warmth from the surrounding rock surfaces, these terraced garden areas yielded the earliest spring crops. The Hovenweep farmers built check dams to hold back runoff water carrying fine soil off the bedrock. Check dams and catch basins provided water for hand watering crops in small isolated areas. The Little Canyon Rim trail guide suggests it may have required one to two acres to grow enough food to support one person per year in the Hovenweep area. In addition to the yearly food requirement, surplus food must be stored for bad crop-growing years.

HV-Little Ruin Canyon
Little Ruin Canyon

The Anasazi at Hovenweep did not build great kivas, as did the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Cedar Mesa. Some archaeologists speculate instead of great kivas, the Anasazi of Hovenweep built circular ceremonial towers. The towers of Hovenweep were constructed on the canyon floor, large boulders, and the rims of canyons. Despite many theories advanced by archaeologist, the purpose and use of the Hovenweep towers remains a mystery.

HV-Stronghold House
Stronghold House

Stronghold House was built with two distinct features…Stronghold House and Stronghold Tower. Stronghold Tower was built over a crevice in a cliff. A log bridged the crevice and supported part of the tower. When the log rotted away, most of the tower collapsed in to the canyon.

HV-Twin Towers
Twin Towers

Twin Towers was built on the bedrock with the two towers almost touching. One of the towers is oval, the other is horseshoe shaped. The two towers contained sixteen rooms. The Hovenweep Twin Towers are among the finest constructed towers in the Southwest.

HV-Tower Point
Tower Point

Tower Point is where Little Ruin Canyon splits into two canyons. The tower has a good view up and down both canyons.

HV-Boulder House
Boulder House

Near the head of Little Ruin Canyon is Square Tower with Hovenweep Castle behind it. Square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings and many kivas were built in this area. In Hovenweep Castle is a log tree-ring dated at 1277.  Square Tower was located just below a good spring.

HV-Square Tower -Hovenweep Castle
Square Tower and Hovenweep Castle
HV-Hovenweep Castle
Hovenweep Castle

Six Anasazi villages encompass the seven hundred and eighty-five acre Hovenweep National Monument. Located on Cajon Mesa, the Hovenweep National Monument villages are: Square Tower, Holly, Hackberry, Horseshoe, Cutthroat, and Cajon. Nearby Monument Valley was added to the Navajo Reservation forty years before Hovenweep was set aside as a National Monument in 1923.

Holly Ruins:

Whatever it takes to reach the Holly ruins are well worth the effort. I have been to Holly on three separate occasions and have never seen anyone else there. There is an eight mile round-trip hiking trail from the Square Tower campground, or you can drive…the last couple of miles is on a dirt road…to the Holly towers. The turnoff from the oiled road onto the dirt road is not well marked, so be sure and get the mileage from a cattle guard to the turnoff from the Hovenweep Visitor Center.

Holly Canyon
Holly Sliding House
HV-Holly House
Holly House
HV-Holly Rock Tower
Holly Tower
HV-Holly Tower on a Rock
Holly Tower on a Rock

Holly Tower is built on top of a huge boulder. The blending of the tower walls with the boulder is an incredible sight, especially, when you consider it was done with no scaffolding stone tools hand hand labor. This stonewall is as good as could be done today.

Cutthroat Group:

The Cutthroat Ruins are about ten miles east of the Hovenweep Visitor Center. Follow the marked Painted Hand sign on CR 10 for about 2 miles to the upper trailhead. There is an 0.8 mile hike to the ruins.

HV-Cutthroat Group
Cutthroat Group Area
HV-Cutthroat Tower
Cutthroat Tower
HV-Cutthroat Castle
Cutthroat Castle

A kiva was a ceremonial area that connected its people with other worlds. Kivas were usually built below ground with an entrance to the underworld. According to archaeologists, a unique feature of the Cutthroat Castle is an above-ground kiva on top a boulder. The underground entrance, or Sipapu, is a slit in the boulder (center of picture). Another unusual feature is a square room adjoining the circular kiva.

Cajon Ruins:

The Cajon site is west of the visitor center on the Navajo Reservation. Get directions from the visitor center to find these ruins.The construction at the Cajon site incorporated three large boulders in a tower.

Cajon Village
Cajon Village
Cajon Castle

The round tower in front of the Cajon Castle is incorporated into three boulders.

Cajon Overhang Dwellings

There are several small cliff dwelling along the streambed.

Why did the people build these structures in such an inhospitable land and then abandon them within less than a hundred years? Why will never be known for certain, but we are privileged to see some of the how part. The intriguing question is how did these people…highest estimate is twenty-five hundred…live in such a harsh environment and manage to build all of these structures in less than a hundred years? Tree ring dating established the approximate date of Hovenweep Castle, but there is no evidence as to when the stone work started on the simple houses like Boulder House in Little Ruin Canyon and sliding house in Holly. The masonry work on the circular Hovenweep towers is amazing. The masonry work is as good as it is today, and these people shaped and fit the rock walls with no metal tools.

Horseshoe Wall
Horseshoe Ruin Wall ~ 1250 A.D.

By the early 14th century, the inhabitants of Hovenweep, along with the Mesa Verde and the Kayenta people, migrated south to join the Pueblo people of the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Hopi Mesa villages in Arizona.

Minimal archaeological work and Park Ranger scrutiny makes Hovenweep the most interesting of the Anasazi Indian dwelling sites. Pre-historic Indian sites and petroglyphs are treated with reverence by Native Americans…visitors should do the same. The freedom to observe these spectacular structures does not mean anyone should climb on, touch, damage the stone buildings, or disrespect the sites in any manner.

The Hovenweep National Monument article was written by O. Ned Eddins of Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this site to be used for school research papers.

Citation: Eddins, Ned. (article name) Thefurtrapper.com. Afton, Wyoming. 2002.

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Noble. David Grant. Archeology Guide to Ancient Ruins of the Southwest. Northland Publishing, Flagstaff, AZ, 2000.

Roberts, David, In Search of the Old Ones Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY. 1996

Schaafsma, Polly. The Rock Art of Utah. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah. 2004.

Stone, Tammy. The Prehistory of Colorado and Adjacent Areas. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah. 1999.

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Internet Sources:

Anasazi Cultural Center, Dolores, Colorado


Anna Sofaer


Hopi Indians


Harrison Lapahie


James Q. Jacobs


Jay W. Sharp


Southwest Indian Relief Council