The canyon and mesa country north of the San Juan River in the four corners region holds many archaelogical sites where ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indian tribes lived. Round, square, and D-shaped towers grouped at canyon heads most vividly mark once thriving communities. Many dwellings stood right on the canyon rim, and some structures were built atop isolated or irregular boulders, for protection. The Little Ruin Trail at Hovenweep loops around Little Ruin Canyon with an opportunity to view several of the 700-year-old stone block structures. My brother and I enjoyed this walk through history on Saturday, October 18, 2014 beginning at 5:30PM and ending about 6:30PM.
Hike Length: 1.5 miles Hike Duration: 1 hour
Hike Configuration: Canyon rim loop. Blaze: None needed, paved.
Hike Rating: Easy. Wheelchair access. Paved pathway.
Trail Condition: Excellent. Paved sidewalk.
Starting Point: Little Ruin trailhead at Visitor Center.
Trail Traffic: We encountered about 10 others.
How to Get There: From Blanding, Utah (45 miles) – Travel south on Highway 191 approximately 15 miles, turn left off Hwy 191 to Hwy 262 for 8 miles, turn left off Hwy 262 to Hwy 401 for 16 miles (passes Hatch Trading Post), turn left at Hovenweep sign for 6 miles and turn right to enter the park. Trailhead is at the Visitor Center.
Our goal was to get from the San Rafael Swell area in south central Utah to Monticello in the southeast corner. We did this on Utah Scenic Byway 95. Along the way we passed by Lake Powell at the confluence of the Dirty Devil and Colorado Rivers, then took a trip through time down in the four corners region to Hovenweep National Monument.
Hovenweep is truly out in the middle of nowhere. It seemed with each turn on country roads we went further and further from civilization. When we finally arrived at this tiny unit of the National Park Service, we were quite impressed with the modern Visitor Center and the care taken to preserve the ancestral Puebloan archaeology found along Little Ruin Canyon.
It was quite late in the day, nearly dark, so we didn’t have much time to do any hiking. Fortunately for us, the primary trail only takes an hour to complete. There are other, longer hikes available within the national monument, but this loop to see the ruins was perfect for our situation.
Throughout the loop, a large mountain known as Sleeping Ute is always visible far in the distance. It is appropriately named, as it looks just like someone lying on their back in repose. It doesn’t take long to reach the first of the ruins, one called the Stronghold House. Named for its fortress-like appearance, what you see is actually the 2nd story of a large pueblo built on the slope below the rim of the canyon.
Next is the eroded Boulder House, visible within the canyon. This one was actually constructed on and around a very large boulder that was incorporated in the floor and walls of the structure. Near Boulder House, on the rim, is a Unit Type House, a name that archaeologists gave to a basic building plan they noticed at sites in the desert Southwest. This one is a prime example, with a few living and storage rooms and a kiva. Most larger pueblos were usually expanded by simply repeating this plan.
On our way to Tower Point, I happened to catch sight of a tarantula scurrying across the terrain. It was really fast and hard to photograph, but I did get a fuzzy shot that you can see in the gallery below. There were some visitors from France in close proximity to where we were. The yelp and leap from the females in the group was a good indicator that they too had seen the large arachnid.
Tower Point has the best view along this hike. In fact, that’s the photo at the top of this post. There is a commanding view up and down the full length of Little Ruin Canyon, as well as a great shot of Sleeping Ute Mountain far in the distance. In the alcoves just below the canyon rim are rooms where crops were stored. The granaries had to be built tight and secure against rodents and seeping water.
At the western end of the canyon are Hovenweep House, Hovenweep Castle, and Square Tower. The castle consists of two D-shaped towers perched on the rim. Growth rings on a wooden beam in one tower indicated the log was cut in 1277 A.D., one of the latest dates in this region. While we were there, a professional photographer was setting up a time-lapse rail to do some star shooting later in the night. Down in the canyon is Square Tower, situated on top of a large boulder, and built in a slightly spiral shape. There is a seep that trickles under the alcove.
A short distance beyond Hovenweep Castle is a checkdam, originally built by the ancestral Puebloans, but reconstructed in 1974 by archaeologists. These checkdams were constructed all over the mesa to irrigate the crops and to conserve silt to use as top soil. Hovenweep House was the center of one of the largest villages within the Square Tower group. What still stands was built on solid sandstone bedrock.
Rimrock House may not have been a home, but instead used more for storage because there are no sub-divided rooms. However, together Twin Towers has 16 rooms. Two buildings rise side-by-side from the bedrock with their walls nearly touching. One is oval, the other in a horseshoe shape. These two towers were among the most carefully constructed buildings in all of the Southwest.
A short distance after passing Twin Towers the trail drops 80 feet into the canyon. You will pass weathered coal and the two layers of sandstone and shale found in the canyon, before climbing back to the canyon rim to complete the loop.
The unique stone towers and other relic buildings at Hovenweep are extremely fragile, so while you are visiting please observe proper site etiquette by remaining on the marked trails. Please don’t climb on any of the rock walls or disturb any of the artifacts. Remember these treasures are preserved by the Antiquities Act for many generations to come.