The Sandoval Signpost

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Hovenweep National Monument
Hovenweep National Monument  

The 800-year-old structures at Hovenweep National Monument represent the peak of stone masonry by the ancestors of today's Pueblo Indians. Originally covered with stucco, the buildings still stand on their own aided by minimal restoration.

Exploring the past in Utah

Among the many mysteries of southeastern Utah stand the stone castles of Hovenweep National Monument and the rock art of Butler Wash.

Both are the work of Pueblo ancestors often called the Anasazi, but their purpose remains lost to history, perhaps forever. And both are within a few hours’ drive of Sandoval County.

Hovenweep, among the less-visited national monuments, sits fifteen miles north of Aneth, Utah, well off the heavily beaten tourist trail running from the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park past the Four Corners monument and through Indian Country to the Grand Canyon country. Pavement extends to Hovenweep from the south and through the campground, offering easy access to the height of native stonework of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

From the visitor center, a gentle self-guided trail traces canyon fingers of the Square Tower Community past Hovenweep Castle, Horseshoe Tower, and other structures shorn of the stucco once covering the intricate masonry. Handicap access is limited to the beginning of the trail, and completing the loop requires traversing the eighty-foot-deep canyon.

“It reminds me of medieval Florence,” one visitor said, comparing the twin towers to that Italian center of art and commerce.

The comparison in workmanship seems appropriate, as walls still standing up to twenty feet have received minimal restoration. Many of the buildings perch atop the cliffs directly on the edge of the canyon, leading researchers to suggest they were built to protect something.

But protect what?

Themselves, perhaps, or the springs and seeps that once flowed here, as a growing population depleted forest cover and other resources. Remains of a check dam also have been found, but explanations remain elusive.

Regardless, by the late 1200s, most of the population had moved west into Hopi mesa country or south toward the Rio Grande homelands of modern Pueblo society.

West of Hovenweep, ancient dunes uplift for thirty miles creating a slickrock blockade named Comb Ridge, for its serrated profile. Its western face a sheer drop nearing a thousand feet, the ridge slopes easily to the east, rippling with parallel canyons that drain into Butler Wash.

Pueblo ancestors lived within the sun-catching cliffs, leaving behind their own intrigue for those willing to hike the sandy bottoms, talus piles, and sandstone shoulders. Atop the ridge, the belly crawl to the precipice and the straight-down look are not for the easily unnerved.

Public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management predominates, meaning development is limited to a bladed good-weather road intersecting US 191 west of Bluff and Utah 95 west of Blanding. Numerous pull-offs lead to primitive campsites; directional signing is absent; and trails to the wash descend into a tangle of cottonwoods, salt cedar, and mud.

Approaching the ridge, trails and cairns hint toward canyons hiding dwellings with modern names like Penthouse Ruin, with its perilous approach across a high cliff face, and Cold Spring Ruin where walls and a kiva protect a still-dripping spring deep within an overhang.

While simply striking cross-country promises some reward, advance research helps, as does inquiring at tourist-oriented businesses in Bluff and Blanding. Information may be general, however, as both the BLM and local residents protect historic sites from overuse.

Petroglyph panels abound, the best known being the hundreds if not thousands of images wallpapering a cliff above the San Juan River near the confluence of Butler Wash. It is a popular spot with rafters who put in at Sand Island, just upstream, near Bluff.
For hikers, a well-defined trail descends a mile and a half from a rock bench near the Bluff airport into the wash and past more ruins on a wagon road built by Mormon settlers pioneering routes through near-impassible canyon lands. Be prepared to ford the wash and forget the century from which you came.






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