Visitors to Hovenweep National Monument rarely venture past the Visitor Center and the nearby trail to the Square Tower group. However, a visit to Cutthroat Castle will give you a great opportunity to find peace and quiet and take you back in time.
Cutthroat Castle is on the far north side of the Hovenweep protection area (directions below). The road to the site is a dirt road with three trailheads. Before venturing out, check with rangers at the Visitor Center to ask about conditions.
Once on the road, the first trailhead you’ll pass is for another protected site called Painted Hands. We’ll visit that site on the way out. For now, continue on. The second trailhead is the “upper” parking lot for Cutthroat Castle. Park here if you don’t have a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive. From here, the hike is about 0.8 miles to the site. If you have a high-clearance vehicle, continue on the road to the “lower” trailhead at Cutthroat Castle.
At Cutthroat Castle, you’ll drop down to the canyon where at least 5 structures are still partially standing. You can hike to three of these structures. As you walk down the trail, look carefully at the piles of rock, you may spot the foundations of other structures that have collapsed. At the canyon’s edge, you’ll come to a tower on your right and a large structure, the “castle,” on your left.
Spend some time looking at the Cutthroat Castle. You can see walls and a circular structure – it’s believed this is a kiva. It’s rare because most kivas were built underground. While access to most kivas was from the top, experts think access to this kiva may have been from below, in a crack in the boulder/foundation.
Hovenweeop’s website says the Cutthroat area appeared to have a large number of kivas relative to the other buildings.
Walk below the castle and you’ll see more structures, maybe storage areas, under the foundation boulder.
There’s also another tower here and if you look past the castle you should see at least two more standing towers.
This area was discovered years after the other units of Hovenweep National Monument and it wasn’t added to the monument until 1956. The park’s website says, “Unlike the other Hovenweep pueblos, the structures at Cutthroat Castle are not located immediately at the head of a canyon, but further downstream.”
Because it is so remote, few visitors make the trek to Cutthroat Castle, but I like it because it is quiet and peaceful here. Take the time to imagine how many people lived here. The park says that while this area appears isolated, “the population at Cutthroat Castle was quite large. Natural resources in the area, particularly the forest of piñon and juniper trees, provided the Puebloans with a variety of useful materials. Piñon seeds were a food source rich in calories and protein. Piñon sap or pitch was used as a waterproof sealant for baskets. Shredded juniper bark was used for clothing and sandals. Trees were burned in fires and used as building material.”
As you sit, look around and imagine where you would have cut down the trees, where you would have built a dam to collect water, where you would have put your garden. Where would your kids have played so you could keep an eye on them as you worked in the garden or sewed? What hill would you have sat on to watch the moon, stars and sun? This is a great spot to sit and imagine life in this remote place.
When you’re done exploring, return up the road. At the Painted Hand sign turnoff and drive a short distance to the trailhead. Near the sign and trail register is a view of the canyon. Look out and slightly left to see if you can spot a tower. You’re heading that way.
The trail here is an old road that curves through the trees. Less than 0.2 miles from the trailhead, you’ll come to a post with a hand on it. Turn here and follow the posts and faint trail to the Tower.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) describes this as, “Painted Hand Pueblo has a beautiful standing tower perched on a boulder. The site has never been excavated, but stone rubble shows where rooms were built against the cliff face and on boulders.”
Walk around the tower, underneath it and you’ll see more walls here. Look carefully under the boulder for at least two pictographs of hands painted on a boulder. Please don’t touch these fragile paintings because the oil and dirt from your hands can ruin them. A sign also warns visitors not to make rubbings of them.
After exploring around Painted Hand Pueblo, follow the trail markers through part of the canyon. This section of the trail has great rock formations and a few more remnants of previous towers/pueblos/etc. The trail eventually winds back up to the place where you dropped down initially. Climb back up to the main trail and return the way you came.
Details: The hike to the tower and around the trail and back is about 0.75 miles.
In the area, don’t miss the Square Tower group and the Holly, Hackberry and Horseshoe group. Find more hikes across the state in this list of 200+ hikes. Don’t miss any of my trip reports, sign up for an email alert by clicking on subscribe at the top of this page.
Directions: From the Hovenweep website: Drive north from Cortez on Highway 491 (formerly 666). Turn left (west) from the highway on County Road BB and travel 6 miles to the intersection with County Road 10. Turn south (left) and go 11.3 miles. Turn left onto a rocky, high-clearance dirt road (# 4531). Go about 1 mile and turn left into the small parking area for Painted Canyon. Continue on the main road for the Cutthroat Castle trailheads. High-clearance vehicles are recommended for the Cutthroat Castle site. Stop by the visitor center for directions and road condition updates before visiting the site.