Modern Mysteries: The Prehistoric Towers of Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument

On the border between Colorado and Utah lie some of North America's most ancient and remarkable ruins.

The towers of Hovenweep National Monument have stood for more than 700 years, yet we know very little about them.

Stumbling upon a mystery
The first historical reports of the abandoned structures of Hovenweep date back to 1854, when they were discovered by W.D. Huntington, the leader of a Mormon expedition into southeast Utah. Huntington's Ute guides were already familiar with the area, but they considered it haunted and warned the expedition to keep away. As is the case with many visitors to this day, the mystery of the towers proved too powerful to resist, and word of their existence quickly spread. 

The name "Hovenweep" comes from the Ute/Paiute word meaning "deserted valley." Fearing the site would be lost to vandalism and theft, J.W. Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institution surveyed the structures in 1917 and recommended they be protected. President Warren G. Harding dedicated Hovenweep National Monument on March 2, 1923. 

Ancient Puebloans ruins

Uncovering the monument's past
We know a bit about the people who built the Hovenweep Towers, but much of their history remains unknown. The towers were built by ancestral Puebloans who inhabited the region from around A.D. 500 to A.D. 1300. The ancestral Puebloans were farmers who cultivated the land, created terraces on hillsides, and formed catch basins to hold water. It is believed that they built the towers sometime between the years 1200 and 1300, but the structures’ use is unclear. 

The towers and other remaining brick structures at Hovenweep display surprising craftsmanship and architectural dexterity. The masonry is beautifully and skillfully designed, allowing the towers to have stood on the irregular boulders of the desert floor for more than 700 years. Some towers are square, while others are round or D-shaped. Archaeologists speculate that they may have been used for storage, defense, celestial observation, or as homes and civil buildings. 

For reasons unknown — perhaps drought, food shortage, or warfare — the ancestral Puebloans abandoned the area sometime around the end of the 13th century. They migrated south to the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico and the Little Colorado River Basin in Arizona, where many of their descendants (the Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people) still reside.

Ancient Puebloans ruins

Visiting Hovenweep
The towers and other structures at Hovenweep National Monument can be viewed by the public. Most are located near the visitor center, and a series of roads and hiking trails lead to various ancient structures throughout the monument. The trails cover mostly easy, flat terrain, but hikers should come prepared with sunscreen and plenty of water, especially during the hot summer months. Ranger-led talks, tours, and interpretive programs are available spring through fall. 

Hovenweep National Monument is a popular destination for photography, not just because of the towers, but also its vibrant desert landscape and rich plant and animal life. Camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis. You can choose among more than 30 tent and RV sites with picnic tables, fire rings, shade structures, and access to modern restrooms. Light pollution is nearly nonexistent at Hovenweep, giving it some of the darkest night skies in the country — it's a perfect place for stargazing. 

Hovenweep National Monument is one of the over 400 national parks protected by the National Park Service. It is home to a modern mystery that has stood the test of time and continues to capture the imaginations of visitors from all over the country.

Check out the Hovenweep National Monument Visitor Guide for details about visiting this unique place. And for more information on other national parks off the beaten path, download your FREE copy of “The Places Nobody Knows” Owner’s Guide!

Photo credits: NPS images courtesy of Andrew Kuhn and Jacob W. Frank

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