If you asked most people about Native American ruins in southwestern Colorado, they would expect you to talk about Mesa Verde National Park. However, back in the 1920s, Hovenweep National Monument was created to protect five prehistoric ancestral Pueblo villages on the Colorado-Utah border. (A sixth village was added later.)
The most popular place to visit in the monument is the Square Tower Group in Little Ruin Canyon outside the Visitor Center (directions below). A two-mile loop hiking trail here takes visitors past several ruins.
At the Visitor Center, pay the admission fee and pick up a brochure for the walk. The trail starts just outside the back of the Visitor Center.
Walk the paved path about 300 yards to the canyon rim. As you walk the path, signs give visitors the name and uses for some of the plants growing here. At the overlook, you’ll see several structures on both sides of the canyon. Most of the structures you can see will have signs on the main path.
At the overlook, you’ll see Stronghold House just a few feet away. In the canyon, look for a strangely-shaped boulder with ruins inside it. That’s called Eroded Boulder House. Across the way, that’s the Twin Towers. See if you can the building’s D-shape.
Turn right on the now dirt trail and start the loop trail passing a Unit Type House and more views of the canyon. As you look ahead, you may notice a tower on the end of a mesa in the middle of the canyon – we’re heading there. About a half mile from the parking lot, you’ll come to a turnoff. Turn right for the main trail, but I recommend turning left for the Tower Point Loop. That’s the tower at the end of a mesa.
It’s a short walk out to the end of that mesa and that tower. This is also a good view of the canyon. After a photo or two, follow the loop trail back out.
At the end of the loop trail is my favorite ruin – Hovenweep Castle. This is a large structure with multiple buildings. Stop at the metal post/box before the structure and open the lid. Inside you’ll find a photo of the “castle” taken in 1935. Take a moment to look at the changes made to the buildings to fortify the structures. Then it’s time to get closer and walk around the buildings. There are three structures still standing. While the chains keep you from entering the buildings, you will get another good at them from the other side of the canyon.
When you’re done taking pictures of this structure, continue back on the main trail. Just a few feet away, in the canyon is a fascinating building. That’s Square Tower – the structure this canyon is named for. It’s not perfectly square anymore, but it’s impressive. A nearby spring is why experts think the structures were built here.
The building above Square Tower, on the canyon rim, is Hovenweep House. That’s the next building you’ll walk by. As you pass Hovenweep House, you should get a good view of Hovenweep Castle on the other side of the rim.
Why so many buildings here? It’s believed some 500 people may have lived in this area between 1200 and 1300.
As you continue to walk this rim, you’ll see Round Tower out on that mesa we walked to earlier, plus Rim Rock House and the Twin Towers. As you pass the Twin Towers, you may notice the ruins on the other side of the canyon, where the loop trail started. This is a chance to see a better view of those first structures.
Soon after Twin Towers, the trail drops from the rim into the canyon. Of course, that means you have to hike up the canyon on the other side. Take your time and enjoy the scenery as you make this 100-foot or so climb.
On the other side, follow the trail past the campground turnoff, back to the paved path that you hiked in. Before you turn on the paved path, take one more look at the canyon now that you can identify many of the structures after seeing them up close.
Details: The hike around the Square Tower Unit is about 1.9 miles with about 150 feet of elevation gain.
In the area, don’t miss Cutthroat Castle and the Horseshoe, Hackberry, Holly 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: Officials recommend that you do NOT use GPS directions. The directions on the National Park Service website say: 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. My directions? Drive south of Cortez on Highway 491 and follow the brown signs for Hovenweep National Monument. Be aware many of the County Roads out here are not marked, but there are Hovenweep National Monument signs at each of the turnoffs you need.