hovenweep national monument

A half day or more trip to some of the finest and most accessible collections of Anasazi ruins in the area.

 

Spread over 5 different locations on the Utah/Colorado border, some accessed on fairly good dirt roads, this is not a place that attracts crowds. There are a couple of reasons for this, I believe. One is the proximity of Mesa Verde, just an hour’s drive away which soaks up much of the ‘Anasazi’ tourist traffic. The other is a lack of a major town in the immediate vicinity. Cortez and Blanding are some miles distant. Also Hovenweep is not on a route  to anywhere. You have to make a special visit here. All of which makes visiting it a very pleasant experience.

 

It was once home to some 2500 people from around 900-1400AD, although nomadic people were in the area for over 10,000 years. Most of the structures built here date from 1200AD. The feature of Hovenweep are the square and round multi-storey towers. They’re not uncommon but I’ve never seen so many in a single place. We won’t know why they were built but recent research favours a defensive use. There are plenty of other structures to see of many different shapes and sizes.

 

Start off at the visitor centre and hike the Square Towers Group trail around and in Little Ruin Canyon. This is the centrepiece of Hovenweep and is the busiest due to being the only section accessible via a paved road. That’ll take you 1-2 hours.

 

Next take the paved road north-east just over the Colorado border and turn south to the Horseshoe, Hackberry and Holly sections. The unimproveds dirt roads were in good condition when I was last there. It won’t take you more than a couple of hours to visit all three. Horseshoe Tower is built on a great vantage point over the canyon. Further along the rim are a collection of structures built in a horseshoe shape. Check out the quality of the building. A little further on is Hackberry. At Holly you can see the remains of the large, square Holly Tower (look out for the moki steps below it) and Tilted Tower, built on a huge boulder that has slipped to the canyon bottom from the rim. Look around the site for rock art, some of which may be related to the summer solstice. Holly, in particular, is a magical place.

 

If you have time you can continue north on the paved road to a turn off to the Cuthroat Castle section, or if you’re bedding down at Bluff or Blanding, visit the Cajon section on the way back. (I’ve not visited either of these.)

 

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monument valley navajo tribal park

Explore one of the natural wonders of the world, by car or horse.

 

Along with Zion, Bryce, Arches and Grand Canyon National Parks, Monument valley, which straddles the Utah and Arizona border, is a destination that’s on just about everyone’s southwest tour itinerary. And it’s easy to see why. A single glimpse over the 150 sq miles Valley is a memory that will remain with you forever: 3 huge buttes towering 1000 feet over the valley. We’ve all seen them countless times on TV, in movie theatres and in magazines and it’s what many people around the world imagine what the American West looks like. And, apart from the twisting dirt road that snakes around the buttes, there’s nothing to mar the natural beauty of the view. However, there’s a lot more to the valley than the section you can see from the huge visitor center parking lot. If there is a problem with Monument Valley it’s that it’s too popular. By midday the lot is very busy and the Scenic Drive speckled with cars, so best to arrive early or late to avoid the tour buses. The sunsets here can be magical, with a deep red glow on the buttes in contrast to the valley floor in shadow. Pray for a cloudless evening.

 

Even as you approach the park you get the feeling that something special is up ahead. Driving northeast on Highway 163 through Arizona, near the state line, you’ll pass by the gigantic volcanic plug of Agathla Peak, with the great sandstone mesas around Monument Valley in the distance. From the north, south of Mexican Hat the road takes you a spot that is one of the most photographed in the USA: the long straight highway seemingly disappearing into the rock escarpments on the northern side of the valley. It’s worth pausing here just to take it all in.

 

Do take a look at the Navajo craft stalls at the start of the Valley access road. Whilst there’s a lot of cheap tourist merchandise, some of the items are of very high quality and it’s often cheaper here than in a gift shop in a local town. You’ll be directly helping the artists too.

 

Once you’re parked up at the visitor center you have a choice of things to do. Naturally you’ll first want to stretch your legs and check out the view of the buttes. Then maybe you want to take a dirt road tour of the valley, including parts that are inaccessible to the public including arches, windows and rock art, with a Navajo guide. Or, if you’d like to see the park ‘Navajo-style’ then perhaps arrange to do a morning or sunset guided horseback ride into the Valley. The horses know which way to go and you don’t need any riding experience. All of these can be quite expensive but your guide will point out features to you and, if you get a good one, will be happy to discuss the history of the Valley. Booking in advance for the horseback rides is advisable.

 

What many visitors do, though, is drive the 17 mile Scenic Drive which is free of charge. The road is graded dirt, a little bumpy in places but generally good for any passenger car. Not only will you get a new perspective on the landscape (those buttes are really huge!) but you can visit places that can’t be seen from the rim. The drive takes 2-3 hours with stops and is highly recommended. You’ll pass the Mittens, the Three Sisters, the Totem Pole and huge sand dunes.

 

There’s enough to keep you here for a half day or more. The facilities are good, some may say too good now. A hotel and restaurant was built on the rim in 2008, the parking lot was paved and lighting installed. It’s a lot busier now with a very different atmosphere, though nothing can spoil those views.

 

 

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valley of the gods
This scenic valley contains similar rock formations as Monument Valley but on a smaller scale. A 17 mile dirt road winds across it, with numerous wash crossings (usually dry). At the southern end take a trip up to the top of the Moki Dugway for unbelievable views over the valley and beyond.

 

 

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muley point
Near the top of the Moki Dugway is a good road that takes you to fantastic views over the entrenched meanders of the San Juan River. In the distance you can make out the buttes of Monument Valley.

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goosenecks state park

1000 feet lower that Muley Point is another view of the the meanders of the San Juan River. Here the river flows 5 miles while only progressing 1 linear mile.

 

 

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sand island petroglyphs
Just a few miles from Bluff, and beside the banks of the San Juan River, is a 50 yard panel of rock art with hundreds of petroglyphs, including 5 examples of the legendary Kokopelli (hump-backed flute player) figure.

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bluff historic loop
Bordering the Navajo Reservation, the town of Bluff was founded in 1880. Drive or walk the historic loop past mostly Victorian buildings, the old fort and fascinating cemetery which contains graves of many of the first settlers from the famous Hole in the Rock expedition.

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edge of cedars state park

This is well worth a few hours of your time. It contains the remains of an Anasazi Pueblo as well as a museum housing an excellent collection of local Indian artifacts and cultural information.

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north cottonwood wash - hill ruins

The structures have long since fallen but climb this small hill and you’ll see lots of depressions in the ground along – the remains of an ancient settlement. Look under your feet and you’ll find many pot sherds. From the top you can also make out a large depression below which is the remains of a great kiva.

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westwater ruins

A few minutes from Edge of Cedars SP down a paved road is a large overhang containing some ancient structures. Check out the old drive-in movie theater on the way.

 

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whiskers draw double stack ruins

You start on a old Jeep trail which ends at a cliff edge near a single cairn. And that’s the last cairn you'll see. There are no well-worn trails here down into this tributary of Whiskers Draw but there are quite a few ruins to see in the many alcoves here. The best can even be viewed from the clifftop before you freestyle your way into the canyon.

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montezuma canyon / three kiva pueblo

This is a road that has everything: numerous Anasazi cliff ruins, a kiva you can enter, rock art, homes blasted into the rock, a shady creek, a vineyard and some really scenic views. There are no services along the road so make sure you have plenty of gas.

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© 2016 Bob Palmer