Hovenweep National Monument is not a place where you see the sights from your car windows – you have to get out and walk. While most visitors at Hovenweep walk at least part of the path at the Square Tower Unit outside the Visitor Center, very few venture to the outlying units. However, if you’re going to take the time to drive to Hovenweep National Monument, then take the time to explore at least a couple of the other areas.
Three of the units are on the same backcountry, dirt road – Horseshoe, Hackberry and Holly (directions below). The dirt road can be a bit rough and it’s not recommended after rain storms. Check with the rangers at the Visitor Center for an update on conditions before you go.
Once on the road, we decided to drive to the end of the road and explore each unit on our way out.
Holly Unit: The Holly Group was named for Jim Holley, a rancher and trader in the area in the late 1800s. As you walk here, you want to look for three main sites – Holy Tower, Tilted Tower and Holly House.
It’s a fairly short walk on the dirt path to Tilted Tower. While there’s no signs here, you’ll know you’re at Tilted Tower when you see the first ruins on your left. While you may not think there’s much here because the ruins are just a few feet high, look closely. The ruins are actually split. It appears Tilted Tower was built was a large sandstone boulder. A boulder that split from the canyon wall. The upper stories of the tower collapsed, leaving just the foundation on the now tilted boulder and the rim it broke off from.
A few steps away you’ll see a tower that is mostly intact. This is Holly Tower. It, too, was built on a large sandstone boulder, but it’s foundation boulder is still in good shape. Look at the boulder and see if you can spot small steps/handholds pecked into the rock. The Hovenweep website says it appears Holly Tower was built after 1200. It’s thought the tower was built up from the inside, one floor at a time, going up. Holly Tower was likely built in this spot because there is a seep/spring nearby.
The next structure is a Holly House. From Tilting Tower and Holly Tower, Holly House looks pretty impressive, but when you get closer, it is surprising small, but I didn’t find any information about how large this building was 800 years ago.
Just past Holly House is a sign for the trail back to Square Tower campground. It also says, “Petroglyph View.” We followed the path to its end, then looked at the rocks below. We spotted two spiral drawings in the rocks and possibly a sun and possibly some other lines, but it’s hard to see from the mesa top and it didn’t appear the trail went below.
Roundtrip hike: About a half mile
The next stop on the way back was the trailhead for the Horseshoe and Hackberry units. Two different “neighborhoods.” However, you have to hike to Horseshoe and beyond to get to Hackberry. So let’s start with…
Horseshoe Unit: There are two main structures remaining in the Horseshoe Unit – Horseshoe Tower and Horseshoe House. Walk the dirt path about 0.2 miles to the first structure – a tower at the head of a canyon. Continue walking the rim of the canyon another 0.1 miles or so to Horseshoe House. A sign at the trailhead explains the remaining wall at Horseshoe House forms what looks like a horseshoe shape, thus the name. The sign explains the original structure was actually a D-shape with a circular center. There were three chambers, but no exterior entry, so it’s thought maybe the entrance was through the roof. As you arrive, you may notice the remnants of what may have been a dam wall next to the structure.
Hackberry: Now it’s decision time, continue on to Hackberry or turn around. While signs say it’s just another 0.2 miles to Hackberry, my GPS registered it as closer to a half mile. While I didn’t think there was much to see at Hackberry, I figured I wanted to see as much as I could so I went to Hackberry.
At you get close to the Hackberry site, you’ll come to a trail split – to the right is an overlook, to the left, the trail goes to the actually site. I started with the site. As we walked the main path, we walked by the remnants/foundations of several rooms. It appears this site takes your imagination to think about what might have stood here. At the end of the trail was the structure with the highest walls and the trail was far enough away that it wasn’t very impressive. So, I backtracked to the overlook on the other side of the canyon and looking back, I saw the walls of maybe 1 and a half rooms still standing. That was all I spotted. There appeared to be another foundation on a boulder near the overlook. Again, this is a site where you can to imagine what might have been. The Hovenweep website says archeologist speculate that the Hackberry site may have had 250 to 350 people living here.
Details: The hike to both Horseshoe and Hackberry was about 1.5 miles roundtrip.
In the area, don’t miss Cutthroat Castle and the Square Tower 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: Travel 2 miles south of Cortez on Highway 491 to County Road G / McElmo Canyon Road for 30 miles, turn right on County Road 401 for 4 miles, turn right on County Road 413/213 for 6 miles, turn right to enter park. (Note, I found many of these streets were not labeled, but had signs that said Hovenweep National Monument. Leaving the Visitor Center, turn right and drive about four miles to the marked turnoff for Horseshoe/Hackberry/Holly. It’s about 1.1 miles to the Horseshoe/Hackberry trailhead, but I recommend driving to the end of the road (another 0.8 miles) to the Holly Unit first. Before driving any of this dirt road, check on conditions at the Visitor Center.