Hovenweep National Monument is definitely a location you don’t happen upon accidentally. Located west of Cortez, CO just across the state line in Utah, it’s a ways from anything resembling civilization.
But what it lacks in nearby amenities, it makes up for with a rugged canyon dotted with Ancestral Puebloan ruins. The site gives visitors an opportunity to explore this wild landscape. Visitors will also discover how this fantastic civilization made its home in this seemingly unforgiving environment.
For intrepid visitors, Hovenweep even has a couple of remote units of the park nestled in nearby public lands which require traversing unimproved dirt roads.
And Hovenweep NM is not the only collection of Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the area. Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, a Bureau of Land Management site, preserves several ruins, including the excellent Lowry Pueblo. Yucca House National Monument preserves a completely undeveloped complex of pueblos. You can easily visit all three sites in one trip.
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Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
The main section of Hovenweep National Monument is known as the Square Tower Group. This is where you’ll find the visitor center and the only visitor services. Getting to this section from our campground in Cortez took about an hour. We elected to drive the backroads through the southern part of Canyon of the Ancients NM in order to get a feel for the area.
Once we got to Hovenweep, we made a point to stop at the visitor center to check out the exhibits and watch the video. We also spoke to a ranger about exploring the canyon. The first thing I will say is after visiting so many Ancestral Puebloan sites recently (Mesa Verde National Park and two northern Arizona national monuments) we felt the information was a bit redundant. That said, if this is your first Ancestral Puebloan site, the information is essential to understanding how these folks lived.
The other major consideration about visiting this site is it is in the desert. Temperatures can be significantly hotter than in Cortez or at Mesa Verde NP. The visitor center made a point to have a display on how hot things were in the sun. Additionally, the ranger was quite frank about the dangers of hiking the trail, which is only 1.5 miles round trip.
Hiking the Little Ruin Trail
Once you have explored the visitor center, grab your water and sun protection, then it’s time to explore the canyon. This loop follows the rim of the canyon, bringing you up close to several ruins located right along the edge.
The Ancestral Puebloans built their pueblos along the canyon rim to take advantage of breezes that blew through the canyon. It also allowed them to be close to their water source, a creek that flowed through the canyon.
It was already starting to get pretty hot and we had a long day ahead of us, so we decided not to complete the entire loop. From the visitor center, we walked out to the north end of the canyon. As we walked north, we got to see the ruins of the Unit Type House, Hovenweep Castle, Square Tower and Hovenweep house. On our way back, we made a point to head out to Tower Point to check out another ruin. We then retraced our steps back to the visitor center.
As we were walking the trail, another group reminded us how important it is to come prepared for desert hiking. They were wearing jeans and cotton shirts on a morning that was already in the mid-upper 90s. Additionally, they did not appear to be carrying sufficient water for the group. When we saw them, they were still fairly close to the visitor center, so we hoped they were not planning to stay on the trail too long. Still, even a short hike can be quite difficult if you don’t have good sun protection and water.
Thankfully, most of the folks we saw were well-prepared to be out in the desert. When hiking in the desert, we recommend wearing lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing and a long-sleeve sun shirt. It’s also important to carry more water than you think you need, even for a short hike.
Exploring the Other Units of Hovenweep National Monument
Located about four miles east of the main area of Hovenweep are two other sections of the park in Colorado: the Holly and Horseshoe & Hackberry units. Canyon of the Ancients NM surrounds these two sections. An unimproved dirt road provides vehicular access.
Note: the fourth section of Hovenweep NM, Cutthroat Castle, is currently closed to all visitors.
If you follow this blog, you know I love a good dirt road to explore. Indeed, we actually had a flat earlier in the summer on an unimproved dirt road in Dinosaur National Monument that actually was almost really bad. This road, however, had only a few spots where it got a little rough. And, honestly, most 2WD vehicles could handle the road as long as it’s dry. If these roads get wet, they can become impassible.
From the road, short trails out to the ruins of each of these units are relatively well-marked. Still, you do need to pay attention to the trail since it does wind through a good amount of scrub brush. Neither trail was difficult and we enjoyed the brief hikes. The ruins you find there are every bit as impressive as the ones at the canyon. Still, do not feel like you have to visit these sites in order to feel like you have seen the park.
Exploring Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
Exploring Canyon of the Ancients NM is a bit tough unless you are ready to head into the backcountry. The Bureau of Land Management restricts motorized vehicles on most of the roads in the monument. The roads are best explored on foot, horseback or bike.
Still, there are a few Ancestral Puebloan ruins located within the monument you can visit: Sand Canyon Pueblo, Painted Hand Pueblo and Lowry Pueblo. Additionally, the monument’s visitor center is located near the McPhee Reservoir near Delores, CO to the northeast of Cortez.
We decided to turn our visit into a loop, so we headed through the middle of Canyon of the Ancients from Hovenweep, stopping at Lowry Pueblo and then driving on to the visitor center.
Lowry Pueblo is a large pueblo complex that you can wander through, unlike the National Park Service-preserved ruins. Additionally, the Lowry Pueblo has a large roof over it, helping to preserve the masonry from the elements. You can walk into the pueblo to get an idea of what the kiva inside looked like when this area was home to hundreds of Ancestral Puebloans. Outside the main complex is a large kiva, one of the largest we have seen at the various ruins we visited in the Four Corners area.
From there, we continued east to the visitor center. This visitor center contains an extensive museum on the ruins found inside Canyon of the Ancients NM. There are also exhibits on the ruins lost to the creation of McPhee Reservoir. The museum documents the archeologists’ efforts made to excavate all of the ruins that would be flooded when the reservoir was created.
The exhibits in this museum are extensive and, honestly, go into far more depth about Ancestral Puebloan culture than the visitor center at Mesa Verde NP. Indeed, if you want to take a deep dive into this fascinating culture, I recommend you go here before you go to Mesa Verde.
What to Do at Yucca House National Monument
While not quite as remote as Hovenweep, Yucca House NM is still far from any development. In fact, this is the least developed National Park site we have ever visited. This site is located southwest of Cortez and is surrounded by farms and ranches. Indeed, as you approach the gate of the monument, you will feel like you are parking at someone’s farmhouse, which is just a few feet away.
Pro tip: We recommend downloading the step-by-step directions from the National Park Service before heading outside of Cortez and having them on hand. While the signage for the monument is good, having the directions was quite useful.
Yucca House NM preserves an unexcavated pueblo complex. Local landowners discovered the site in 1878. They preserved the site in 1919 as a gift to the Federal government. They continued to help the National Park Service preserve the land until 2002.
To say there is not much here is an understatement. There is a gate, a brief trail and some mound areas which have a few pueblo walls peeking out through dirt and brush. That’s it. There aren’t even any exhibit signs, so we recommend downloading the Yucca House Visitor Guide before arriving.
If you are attempting to visit all of the units of the National Park Service, this is a worthwhile stop. If not, I recommend spending your time at one of the other sites listed in this article. Were we to do it over again, I would have made a point to stop at Yucca House on our way to Hovenweep NM and incorporate it into our loop. Still, it was a quick and easy drive from Cortez.
The site does not take long to visit. Indeed, 30 minutes is plenty.
Where to Stay When Visiting Hovenweep National Monument
There is a campground at Hovenweep NM and it looked pretty good for a Park Service campground. It can accommodate RVs up to 36 feet long on nice paved pads. That said, there are no connections nor a dump station, making staying here long-term problematic, especially in the summer.
Still, if the temperatures weren’t bad, we would camp here for a day or two to enjoy being out in the middle of nowhere.
Another option is dispersed camping in Canyon of the Ancients NM. As we were driving out to the other two units, we saw a guy camping out in a camper van on BLM land. The best part about that is it is free and you have a good amount of solitude.
We opted to stay at Sundance RV Park in Cortez, which was great. Cortez is a great small town and we enjoyed our week there. Be sure to read Bonnie’s article on Mesa Verde NP for more information on the campground and where to eat in Cortez.
Final Thoughts on Hovenweep National Monument
We really enjoyed visiting this area and we got to see a lot of cool exhibits on Ancestral Puebloan life. Getting to walk amongst the ruins, see the artifacts at these sites and learn more about this impressive culture makes these sites worth the visit, especially if you are already in the area visiting Mesa Verde NP.
That said, compared to Mesa Verde NP, the ruins at these sites are not as extensive or as impressive. If you are short on time, make a point to visit the Canyon of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum, which has extensive exhibits on the ruins in the area.
Still, I think one of my favorite parts of visiting these sites was seeing the undeveloped Yucca House NM. While there wasn’t much to do, it was still really cool to see and well worth your time.
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