The Little Ruin Canyon of Hovenweep

Hovenweep National Monument doesn’t get much fanfare. It’s hard to live in the shadow—almost literally—of nearby world-famous Mesa Verde National Park. It’s also hard to compete with the sheer number of cultural sites protected by Bears Ears National Monument and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, both next door neighbors to Hovenweep. At only 784 acres, it’s among the smallest national parks in the West, and a little bit out of the way for many travelers.

But it’s the quaint nature of Hovenweep’s aptly-named Little Ruin Canyon that really shines for visitors.

Behind the visitor center, an easy 2-mile loop brings you close to each of the canyon’s major ruins: Tower Point, Hovenweep Castle, Square Tower, Hovenweep House, Rim Rock House, Twin Towers, Stronghold House, and Unit Type House. The canyon is small and feels homely—you can easily see across to the structures on the opposing rim. And the scale of the ruins here, known as the Square Tower Group, really makes it easy to imagine each as its own house on an ancient neighborhood block.

hovenweep trail guide

The Ancestral Puebloan people (often called the Anasazi until recently) who inhabited this canyon left behind countless ruins, rock art, and other artifacts in the Four Corners region. While the stunning Mesa Verde and Chaco Culture are among the best known parks preserving the remains of this culture, Hovenweep provides visitors with a different experience.

Whereas the sheer scale of Chaco’s sprawling Pueblo Bonito or the massive Cliff Palace of Mesa Verde tell the story of great cultural centers, Hovenweep’s story seems far more intimate. In some ways, it’s like comparing Manhattan with a sleepy suburban neighborhood. One has the glitz and glamour, but the other excels at its relatability.

hovenweep campsite

That even holds true with Hovenweep’s small campground. Featuring just 31 sites—but equipped with curved shade structures and graveled tent pads—the small campsites give off a comfy, yet cozy vibe. There are even delineated trails thoughtfully placed from each campsite to the central restroom facility, which features flush toilets and running water. Not bad for a $10 stay.

When we camped there on a Friday night in March 2017, only three of the sites were occupied. And the occupants of each were fast asleep not long after dark.

That’s too bad really, because the night sky is one of the best features of the park. In 2014, Hovenweep was designated as an International Dark Sky Park, a testament in part to the park unit’s remoteness.

There’s more to Hovenweep than just the canyon and campground, however. The national monument also boasts four outlying parcels—Cajon, Cutthroat Castle, Holly, and Horseshoe/Hackberry—each containing additional related ruins.

In short, Hovenweep is a great destination for avoiding the park crowds, visualizing what life might have been like for this community of Ancestral Puebloans, and enjoying an interesting and intimate little slice of the Four Corners region.

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