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