the towers of hovenweep   19 comments

canyon view of the “twin towers” in the Square Tower Group at Hovenweep

In early November, after camping a night at the Sand Island petroglylph site near Bluff, Utah, the dogs and I continued our journey, making our way onwards to Hovenweep National Monument. I chose to take Rte 262 off of Hwy 181 between Bluff and Blanding. The road was mostly paved and occasionally winding but fairly good. I recall it as being about 25 miles from the junction with 181 to Hovenweep, leading through arid range lands, narrow rocky canyons, and past the Hatch Trading Post. When driving through such country, I always take note of the odometer reading as I head off on some back road to find a place. Keeping my eye on the countdown, if I find myself running a few miles over the point where I should have reached my destination, that’s a pretty good indication that I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Although that doesn’t happen too often, it’s a good strategy when navigating through country where the maps are a little vague, or the roads not too well marked. However, for the most part, I found Utah to be quite visitor friendly – most roads, even the more remote back country routes, are fairly well signed. Certainly a lot more so than some places I’ve wandered.

“Hovenweep Castle” – the name given to the largest structure in the Square Tower group at Hovenweep

The final part of the drive is over top of the Cajon Mesa, at an elevation of about 5000 feet. Hovenweep National Monument encompasses several clusters of settlements which were situated on narrow canyons where water could be sourced from springs and seasonal run-off. The Square Tower Group located on Hovenweep Canyon, is the largest cluster of structures. The visitor center and campground are located nearby. A two mile hiking trail leads along the rim on both sides of the canyon, passing by several stone structures clinging to the edge. Most of the hike is over relatively flat rock expanses which would be easy walking for most people, with the exception of the east end of the loop nearest to the campground. It passes down through the canyon, so involves a bit of steep climbing – not particularly difficult, but some would have trouble with that section and would do better to retrace their way along the rim. Leaving Sabrina sleeping comfortably in the van parked at our campsite – blinds pulled down, but all of the windows left open to allow a good stiff breeze to blast through – Sage and I set out to hike the loop. Unlike many national parks in the U.S., Hovenweep allows leashed dogs on the trails.

Hovenweep Castle as seen from the opposite rim of the canyon

We began our hike by dropping down through the canyon, which provided some welcome shade and refuge from the heat of the midday sun. There, pinyon and juniper grow among the boulders, their tortuous roots grasping rocks and burrowing into every crack and crevice. Small lizards paused then scampered off at our approach. From the east end of the canyon floor, only the “twin towers” are visible.

round tower on south side of canyon rim, and beyond, another structure clinging to the north rim

Ascending to the south rim, we approached the “twin towers” stone structure (see top photo – click on all images to see larger views). As can be seen from these photos, one of the features that sets Hovenweep apart from most other ruin sites found throughout the region, are the tower type structures. Towers may be found not only within the Square Tower Group, but also the multi-story “Tilted Tower” in the Holly Group, and the “Horseshoe Tower” in the Horseshoe-Hackberry Group, and remains of towers at the Cajon and Cutthroat Castle Groups. I very much wished that I could visit more of the ruins beyond the Square Tower Group, but Sabrina is no longer up to extended hikes and I’m unwilling to leave her in the van alone when traveling in the southwest where daytime temperatures can make the van uncomfortable unless there is a good breeze. Some day, I hope to return to hike to all of these ruins, but on this day, Sage and I enjoyed a good walk along the Square Tower trail. Note: To view a .pdf map of the Hovenweep National Monument sites, see this link.

the “Square Tower” (center) and “Hovenweep Castle” (right), and “Hovenweep House” (left) at west end of canyon.

As Sage and I continued our walk along the south rim of the canyon, we met a couple coming the opposite direction along the trail. As happens so often when I’m walking with Sage, they stopped to ask what breed of dog she might be. As also happens so frequently, they asked where I was from and if I was traveling alone. I replied and that led to other questions about my reason for being on my own, and eventually to me being on the road since Don’s death. They seemed surprised and wondered how he died as they thought I looked too young to be a widow. I used to find such trailside conversations rather difficult, but time and distance seem to have made me more comfortable, although I often find myself left in an odd mood as I continue on my way – unexpectedly reminded of how and why I am so different than everyone else. In any case, Sage cut our conversation short by suddenly breaking into a bizarre fit of snapping and fllipping around at the end of her leash. I have absolutely no idea what triggered the behaviour as I’ve not seen it before or since, but she was leaping around, snapping viciously at the air as though being attacked by some invisible foe. I now wonder if she was stung by an insect. Whatever the cause, the couple hastily departed, perhaps wondering if my dog was rabid.

house inside of a great boulder perched part way down the canyon wall

Sage and I continued onward, with me now worrying over whether she was quite alright, but also feeling slightly gloomy over being reminded of my alone-ness. However, when I’m wandering about in such wonderful landscapes, studying ruins, and plants and lizards, I am soon distracted. My attention turned to the coolest dwelling built inside of a huge boulder part way down the canyon wall (see above). I mused to myself about the individual who decided to build a house inside a boulder. Was s/he something of a renegade, choosing to live inside a boulder instead of within a stone house or tower?

It occurs that I haven’t mentioned much about the use of these towers. There seems to be quite a bit of speculation about their purpose. In his book, The Towers of Hovenweep (2004), Ian Thompson discusses the findings of various archaeological investigations. It seems that the towers probably had multiple uses as dwellings, observation posts, places to process food crops, carry out ceremonies, guard the nearby canyon springs, and even to serve as astronomy calendars. He cites the research work of Ray Williamson, an astronomer who conducted research at Hovenweep and found that the D-shaped tower section of the “Hovenweep Castle” structure has openings and other details which seem to indicate purposes related to calculation of astronomical events such as solstices (Thompson, 29).

Sage taking a break in the shade of a pinyon along the canyon rim of the Square Tower trail

Completing our circuit of the Square Tower trail, Sage and I returned to the van. With the great mass of Sleeping Ute mountain looming in the distance, I cooked our dinner at a picnic table overlooking the canyon. By the time I finished washing up our plates, a typically terrific pink and glowing southwest sunset filled the sky. With the van windows open, we fell asleep to the chirping of crickets and other familiar night sounds.

Written by bev wigney on January 12th, 2011

19 Responses to 'the towers of hovenweep'

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  1. As have been all your travel pieces, that was very interesting and looks like a place I’d like to visit. I have seen it on the maps, been in many other Anasazi, Sinagua, and Hohokam sites but that was just enough off the map that we haven’t been there. Definitely I would like to. I like the energy at such sites especially if they aren’t crowded.


    12 Jan 11 at 5:56 pm

  2. I have never heard of this place or these towers, and almost can’t believe that I’ve missed such things since I have driven through and around Utah many times. Darn! What a cool and intriguing place to hike around. Not only for the sheer spectacular beauty of the landscape, but these structures are so beautiful and intriguing. Wow! Again, you make me wish I were on the road in the southwest, taking in these amazing sights.

    robin andrea

    12 Jan 11 at 6:35 pm

  3. Rain & robin – It’s interesting, but I haven’t yet actually met anyone else who has been to Hovenweep. I guess it’s just a bit too off the beaten path, so gets missed when people are visiting sites in the southwest. One bit of advice to anyone contemplating going, is that it’s actually easier to travel to Hovenweep via the road from Pleasant View, Colorado. In my next post about this autumn’s travels, I’ll be writing about Lowry Pueblo, which is just a bit west of Pleasant View and an easy drive from Hovenweep. More coming up soon!

    bev wigney

    12 Jan 11 at 8:42 pm

  4. Bev! Hello. Hello :0)
    I’ve been away too long and found it so reassuring to find you and the dogs basking in sun and evening cricket chirpping.
    It’s been an odd winter here in Ohio in many ways. It’s curious to view your sun-drenched pictures of timeless, arid, rocky outposts and look out my suburban window at gray,snow-covered suburban boxes all in a row.
    Yes, very curious.
    I hope the sun is helping to nudge the shadow times further along.
    This is a tough time of year.
    Sending a hug to you, Sabrina and Sage . . .


    13 Jan 11 at 8:53 am

  5. my first thought at the description of sage’s Outburst – man, wouldn’t it be cool to train our dogs to feign being rabid at our very subtle command? We could get people away from us quite easily. Could really clear a campsite, or a trail.
    Ahem. Not that that was what was happening, or that you necessarily wanted those nice people away from you. Just where my mind goes…


    13 Jan 11 at 10:01 am

  6. Hi again Bev.
    I had to think your Sage was stung or bitten in some way…So strange for her to behave that way so suddenly..
    WOW Hovenweep looks so mysterious I can almost see and hear the people of the village going about their daily life living as a peaceful society…now wouldnt that be a good way to live?
    Its so amazing to me the knowledge of the cosmos that the ancients had as here I am I can barely point out the dippers big n small.
    I will look forward to exploring it myself!!
    I have 2 dogs and they are the exact same age, sisters…but my lovely Annie has a bad front ankle joint she can not do long hikes…Flossie her sister can go on long hikes she is not all that friendly to other dogs or people, but she would always let me know if something is stirring about. Enjoyed your post very much…look forward to learning about Lowry Pueblo.


    13 Jan 11 at 7:40 pm

  7. It makes me kind of sad to think of Sabrina not being up to long walks.

    I almost visited Hovenweep with my parents some years back. I was traveling with them when they had an Airstream trailer. The road we took was unpaved, and we had to turn back when we reached a place where a stream flowed across the road. Your pictures make me want to visit.

    I view all explanations for the uses of such structures with some suspicion. I am especially suspicious of astronomical explanations, because if you look long enough you can find some kind of feature you can associate with some kind of astronomical phenomenon. Basically, no one knows how they were used.


    14 Jan 11 at 8:35 am

  8. Mark – Yes, it makes me rather sad that Sabrina is no longer able to do long walks with us. She’s really begun to show her age this year, but did manage a couple of good walks in Utah – I’ll be writing about one of those walks sometime soon. I hate to see her getting old as she has been so much a part of my life for the past couple of years and I wonder how I will manage when she is gone. I try not to think too far ahead these days.

    I agree with your point about astronomical phenomenon. It seems to me that any building that has quite a number of openings – even if only for ventilation or peep holes, etc.. – could be found to have some shaft of light coming through this or that hole on a certain day of the year. Many of these buildings had multiple holes and I expect it was just to let in some light throughout various times a day as large windows were impractical. Small holes could have been blocked when not required for light. Also, the whole ventilation thing seems important too – especially in the days when cook fires were often built indoors. Having tried to control smoke from camp fires, I can definitely see the use of having plenty of air inlet and exit holes that could be employed depending on wind direction!

    bev wigney

    14 Jan 11 at 11:10 am

  9. I was thinking about your conversation with the people you met while hiking, and I can’t imagine getting so personal with someone in a casual meeting like that. I would probably confine myself to admiring the dog.

    Something like Sage’s fit happened to me once while hiking around Kennesaw Mountain near Atlanta. I had a dalmation/bird dog at that time. A couple of people stopped to talk about her, and suddenly she started snorting and honking. The people quickly left. She might have been trying to clear her nose of something, but I blamed it on a dog’s odd sense of humor.


    14 Jan 11 at 3:03 pm

  10. Mark – I’m often surprised by how many questions people ask when I meet them on trails or around campgrounds. My theory is that it’s because I’m a woman traveling alone and that seems odd or unusual to a lot of people – or perhaps they feel less threatened by that situation. One thing I do know is that people seem to ask the kinds of questions that Don and I were never asked when we were hiking together far from home. I used to be somewhat unsettled by it – and probably would be more so if it were lone men asking me if I was hiking alone, but the people who ask tend to be couples or small groups. My own m.o. is to not approach other hikers, and usually, I step a bit off the path with my dog as I know some people are nervous of meeting a dog coming toward them on a trail. Many people keep going, but some stop and ask about the dogs and then ask other questions as well – sometimes about the trail ahead, if it’s much longer, if it gets any tougher going, etc.., but sometimes the questions go off on a tangent as above. One thing I have noticed is that this happens more in the U.S. than in Canada, or when I meet people from the U.S. who are traveling in Canada. I don’t like to generalize too much, but I would say that most Canadians tend to be more reserved and don’t ask many questions, or stop at a campsite to say hello, or whatever. One exception is when I have met other Canadians traveling off the beaten track in the southwest. If they see your Canadian license plates, some will stop and say “hi” – I suppose because we are all so far from home. That happened when I was at Bryce Canyon a couple of years ago – some people with a dog who turned out to be from a town about 80 miles from our farm. They also asked if I was much put off by how the national parks didn’t allow dogs on the hiking trails the way we do in most parks in Canada.

    That’s funny about your dog. I’m really not sure what happened to Sage. The man was petting her at the time and maybe she just got feeling nervous. The thing that upset me the most about her flipping around was that we were standing about 20 feet from the rim of a cliff and I was worried she might get the collar off over her head and go flying out of control and over the edge. Gave me quite a scare, actually.

    bev wigney

    14 Jan 11 at 3:39 pm

  11. Bev, I’ve added Hovenweep to my list of must-see places. Quite interesting! As for the people, I think sometimes people who are lonely…as even couples can be…want to reach out to people and make friends. They do it without thinking how oddly personal their comments and questions can be. While surely there are plenty of overly-personal slugs out there, I tend to think it’s likely to find more decent folks on the trails. I hope Sage has since been completely fine…very strange behavior, but I think your suggestion that it may have been a sting could well be it.


    15 Jan 11 at 10:57 am

  12. John – I agree about people who want to reach out and make friends, or at least experience some meaningful form of connection. I tend to be a little less hermit-like these days and generally allow that to happen. I don’t tend to be the person who initiates these discussions, but I’m also pretty open and free with my conversation – in a way I never was before. An additional observation on traveling alone is that others seem to feel more comfortable about approaching me and talking about themselves – particularly other lone campers. That happened a couple of times when I was camped at Kanab, and also up at Writing-on-Stone in Alberta both this year and last. These were people who came up to me at my campsite, or stopped me as I was walking through the campground. In each case, this led to a couple of more discussions, or sitting around a campfire talking. I am sure these encounters would not have played out in the same way if Don and I were traveling together. I should probably add that I am not particularly nervous of people who stop me on trails, or who talk to me in campgrounds. Although I know there is always some risk of running into someone who could be a problem, my feeling after doing as much traveling and camping as I have, is that most people that you run into are very nice, normal, courteous types who don’t infringe on my privacy too much.

    bev wigney

    15 Jan 11 at 11:14 am

  13. After the death of our first child, Elsa, and we were on the road for over a year, we found ourselves having to explain to each new acquaintance along the way, that we were indeed childless, but that it was a new condition for us… people always expressed shock and sadness, which was sometimes embarrassing for me to deal with as it was our personal issue and not theirs… but as we went along, these conversations had a cathartic effect I think, healing in a way. Only once did I carry on a conversation with one of these kind and interested people, met in the course of traveling, from whom I deliberately kept back information about our loss. “Do you have children?” “No”. She did. She had beautiful blonde children of Dutch descent – she and her husband carved and sold wooden shoes. I somehow felt guilty afterward, as if I’d pretended to be someone I wasn’t… dissembled somehow, and cheated her and myself out of something potentially significant. I felt that I’d trivialized our contact by witholding information that was central to me, and possibly somehow important to her as well. I have never forgotten that meeting, and have often puzzled over why I’d felt I was lying by deliberately sidestepping the sharing of our child – the loss of our child. I guess Elsa was still very much with us, and I’d witheld her from this woman – not reciprocated when she was sharing of herself. I felt like I’d been wearing a mask and that the woman had not really seen me – us. Like, she’d only seen half of me.


    15 Jan 11 at 11:16 pm

  14. aleta – Thanks for writing of your own experiences. Most times, I answer questions posed by those that I meet, but from time to time, I don’t tell all. I think it happens when I feel tired of thinking about what has happened in my life, or perhaps of being defined as a widow – which definitely becomes part of one’s identity. Sometimes, it seems easier to be simply a loner. However, on those occasions, I do feel odd — as though I have not been entirely truthful about who I am. Feeling as though you were “wearing a mask” describes the feeling very well — to only allow people to see one side of who I am, and not all. I experience some of that feeling which you have also described — I feel that Don is still such a part of who I am — and sometimes I just don’t feel like sharing that part of me with others. To do so, is yet another acknowledgment that he is gone now. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like experiencing my loss over again. The loss of someone very close is such a complex thing – so many associated feelings and all being wrapped up with who we are.

    bev wigney

    16 Jan 11 at 2:58 am

  15. How I loved Hovenweep, and the sunset shot was sublime.


    29 Jan 11 at 8:05 am

  16. Hi Bev. A moving post and photos. Interesting, all that a day can hold. I’ve stopped here at this post several times without commenting, just listening and looking, feeling comfortable, appreciating the light you share.


    2 Feb 11 at 12:44 pm

  17. Your pictures had a strangely familiar feel to me this time. I can’t quite put my finger on where they remind me of – possibly Central Anatolia, possibly Northern Cyprus. I’m not sure.
    It is quite unimaginable how that house in the rock came about. Who possibly thought that hacking into a rock up there would be a good place to live? What was going on down below that made it necessary? What sort of precarious existence did they have up there? What did they live on?
    So many questions.

    It is also odd what triggers that feeling of aloneness. Just when you feel you have established a satisfactory low-level OKness, something comes along quite unexpectedly to topple it all over again. It is still a very precarious edifice, isn’t it?


    4 Feb 11 at 8:51 pm

  18. Cate – I wish you could have been there to watch the sun go down. It was wonderful.

    am – You’re so right about all that a day can hold. Sometimes I will look through my photos and think, “Oh, that felt like it happened over two or three days” but the photo dates prove that it was all over the space of just a day. My mind can travel to so many places between sunrise and sunset.

    J – There are many of these stone structures that suggest other parts of the world. I found that when visiting the beehive-shaped charcoal kilns at Wildrose Peak in Death Valley. I suppose that there are certain forms that just evolve when working with stone of a certain type.
    Yes, weird about the house in the rock, isn’t it? I suppose a person might have begun living in the hollow first, and then gradually began turning it into something more structured. Still, how strange.
    Aloneness. I am never very far from it. The past couple of days have been strange for me once more. More triggers that have set it off. I wonder how long they will continue to happen, but am quite sure they never really go away – but perhaps that is okay.

    bev wigney

    5 Feb 11 at 1:19 pm

  19. Wow!!! Triple wow!!! Bev, this monument looks marvellous, and is a place I could happily spend hours at drawing and filling sketch books. Everything in your photographs rings my bells. The monument, the landscape, the vegetation… all of them beautiful and evocative. (I’ve not been getting out much over the past year, my rambles confined mostly to the grounds because I have so much work on. I’m not complaining… we have nearly four acres here at Ty Isaf, which should be enough for anyone… but I miss exploring and finding wonderful ruins to sketch! Later this year maybe, when the exhibition has opened and the book has been published!)

    Your description of Sage doing her rabid act made me laugh. I think maybe she’d got bored with all that standing about and talking, and decided to invent her own unique method of moving things along, most successfully so by your account! I think you should encourage her. This could be your future way out of all sorts of uncomfortable encounters with strangers! (-;

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