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