Echoes of the past – Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients


Trips on the Colorado Plateau are always interesting.

Some trips are entirely wilderness focused. Exploring the canyons, seeing the red rocks and enjoying the vast expanse of the desert.

Other trips focus on the wilderness in part, but invariably come across relics from the past. Petroglyphs telling us of events from 800 yrs ago, there are ruins crumbling and standing quiet testament to people who lived here long ago. And of course  the occasional potsherd that shows the people crafted objects that were both beautiful and practical.

Still other trips are almost entirely cultural in focus. We (for it is often someone who accompanies me on these trips) are outside in the environment in which the Ancestral Pueblos lived, but the focus is not on the terrain ahead or reading a topo, but rather simply being in a place.  We explore petroglyphs, hike among ancient ruins and take in the desert landscape from our quiet campsite. Cold, but clear nights are lit by the moonlight, a warming fire is often had to take out the chill off the night, the smell of sage and juniper is in the air and the sounds of coyotes yipping and owls hooting lull us to sleep.

Our trip to Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments was of the third type. We hiked some, but we mainly were just there to be immersed in the culture and landscape of the Ancestral Pueblos.  It was a very satisfying trip and again emphasized the allure that this area has for me when spending time outdoors.

The trip had started with us leaving Boulder in late afternoon.  We made it about half-way, grabbed a motel room and arrived at Hovenweep in the early afternoon the following day.

Once we were settled in at our campsite with a commanding view, we strolled over to  the adjacent trail to walk the two-mile or so r/t loop of the Little Ruin Canyon.

The most visited part of the park, it proved to be an excellent way to start our trip.

At one point this canyon was a teeming population center. Music echoed. People laughed, danced, ate and lived. Hundreds of years later it was only someone and I in the canyon with a pair of ravens almost seeming to stand sentry over the canyon itself.

The following day we talked to the staff at the Visitor’s Center.  In the coming days, the staff and volunteers who worked at Hovenweep were to become very well-known to us. They were a wealth of information and gladly answered all our questions.

We decided to head to some outlier ruins ~4 miles away. someone was not in the mood to hike via the trail that lead to the ruins.

Holly, Horseshoe and Hackberry are all within one mile of each other. Very easy to explore the ruins this way.

We saw more of the towers that Hovenweep is justly famous for.

On our hiking through the ruins, we saw a ranger on patrol. Over the course of our trip, we would get to know the ranger well. As with the rest of the staff, she was a wealth of knowledge and advice.  She kindly offered to take us on an impromptu tour of the painted hands below the main trail.  Normally off-limits to park visitors unless accompanied by park staff.

The hand prints were still striking. They were well-preserved in the dry desert air and in the protective alcove.

After about 3 miles or so of hiking among the ruins, someone drove back to our campsite.  I decided to walk ~1 mile up the dirt road, and take the connecting Holly trail in the canyon that lead directly to our campsite.  About five miles of hiking solo.

A short hike, but pleasant. The trail cut through BLM land before reentering the NPS lands. An unexcavated pueblo was spotted along the trail. And some granaries from afar.

I made it back to our campsite. Relaxed a bit and thought about what to do next.

someone and I decided to take advantage of the light in the earlier evening and go to the Cajon outlier for some evening shots.

Cajon stood isolated on top of the canyon and had a commanding view.  We again had this site to ourselves.


We headed back to camp and took advantage of the warm glow of the setting sun for more photo ops.

The views from our campsite continued to impress us.

The following day, we explored the nearby and larger, but less organized, Canyons of the Ancients national monument.

Administered by the BLM, Canyons of the Ancient is chock full of ruins, petroglyphs and obscure areas. Most of which are only known through the odd guidebook, website or map. It is a place for exploration.

One of the few places maintained and signed was the Lowery pueblo with its well-known and large kiva.

The site does not feel very isolated as it is surrounded by much agricultural land. But, it explains the wealth of this pueblo vs its neighbors.  This pueblo was the “rich cousins” to the other pueblos in the area. The higher elevation meant a moister climate. The bountiful agriculture present around the pueblo today only emphasizes this fact.

We drove away from Lowery and went down a somewhat rough dirt road to the Painted Tower trailhead. Another of the few signed placed in this BLM-maintained area.

The short hiking trail leads to the impressive tower.

The tower, the quiet landscape, and the serenity all contributed to a powerful moment.

We drove further down the rough road and came to a trail head. The short (~1 mile trail) seemed a much better way to get to Cutthroat Castle vs an increasingly rough dirt road.

These ruins did not disappoint either.

The canyon was lush with cottonwoods in abundance. The cottonwood leaves carpeted the canyon floor below.

The ruins themselves were impressive, too

We drove back to Hovenweep, made dinner and relaxed.

Another look from Little Ruin Canyon and its view of Sleeping Ute could not be passed up.

Later that night, there was a star talk held at the Visitors Center. The Hovenweep staff, locals from Cortez, CO (about 1 hour or so away) and the few campers in the monument enjoyed the inaugural presentation by a knowledgeable local.


Photo courtesy of Hovenweep National Monument Facebook page.

We looked at nebulas, the craters of the moon and Jupiter. It was wonderful.

someone and I headed back to our camp in the light of the full moon. We looked over at the monument ruins as they stood quiet in the silver light.

Our last full day in the monument came. We decided to explore the BLM land more. We only had our map atlas to guide us, a good pair of binoculars  and some mileage markers written down on a hand drawn map.

The odometer was watched, binoculars broken out and our atlas consulted. After a few wrong turns due to not spotting our turn off, we made it onto our  road. We were able to spot petroglyphs from afar. We then scrambled up the side of the cliff.

On this road, we spotted several places to pull off and places to see. A large, reconstructed kiva (the only place signed) was visited. Granaries spotted. And even Navajo petroglyphs were seen.

The horses make this example post-Colombian 

My favorite find, though, was some old potsherds we spotted. Eight-hundred years old, but the signature black and white artistry was still very much present.

We then took a scenic route to Blanding, UT with a museum that was supposed to be excellent.  Alas, being Sunday in a small LDS town, almost everything was closed.

A local trading post was open, however, and the friendly owner gave us lots of excellent info.  He also confirmed the BLM lands we were in earlier are chock-full of more examples of what we saw. We only scratched the surface. We could easily spend a week on the jeep roads and remote areas.

We headed back to camp and enjoyed a last night. We talked to our “neighbor” who was spending a year on a southwest trip. Hiking, camping, backpacking and exploring. someone and I were both envious! His knowledge of the area was impressive.

The following morning we headed out and made out way back to Boulder slowly. We said “so longs” to our neighbor and thanked the park staff again for their excellent hospitality.

On the way back, the excellent Anasazi Vistors Center was stopped at.  someone and I had visited there when we went to Mesa Verde and it was well worth a second stop.

We made it back later that night. Gear was unloaded, showers were taken and we started getting ready for the week ahead.

As I type this report, I already miss the smells and sounds of the desert. I can still see the ruins that are colored just a bit red in the setting sun.

We already want to go back.

They will be there.

More Details

  • Visit the monuments websites for information, driving directions, things to do and camping info for Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients
  • Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients are two separate jurisdictions with different rules and are, more or less, in the same area.  The BLM unit is larger. The NPS unit is smaller, but more accessible. Both are great!
  • Speaking of camping, at $10 a night with excellent and clean facilities (and great views), the camping at Hovenweep is fantastic. Very good location as well for exploring the area.  Canyons of the Ancients has free, primitive camping but it is BLM land and has all the usual pluses and minuses associated with such.  The campground at Hovenweep had a grand total of three parties out of thirty-one sites on a Saturday night.
  • Hovenweep also has a trail that connects to the Horsehoe, Hackberry and Holly outliers. From the campground to all the outliers and back is roughly 12 mi r/t.
  • Having said that, if we were in the area longer, we would have moved on to BLM land to see more of the obscure sites that need a good map to see.
  • Lots of rough roads though. I am not an off-roader so our stock 4WD (not AWD) vehicle worked well. If it was more technical driving, it was quicker to walk anyway. A passenger vehicle with normal ground clearance may have had some difficulty in parts.
  • Speaking of which, I kept the location of the last day a little obscure on purpose. If you have a Benchmark or Delorme atlas, the area is pretty obvious. 🙂
  • As with other trips in the area, please be respectful. Don’t take home potsherds, damage the ruins and please don’t ignore the signs put in place by the NPS or BLM. They are there for a reason. In the more obscure BLM land, it is on the honor system as there is little supervision. An example of what not to do…
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Stavros Mitchelides
6 years ago

Great post, very helpful, thank you! Heading to Hovenweep tomorrow and will try to find a good backcountry campsite in the BLM land for a couple nights!

Preston C
Preston C
4 years ago

Hi there- I know this is an old post, but curious your thoughts on good dispersed camping within the BLM/Canyons of the Ancients area. Did you find any? I am heading there next week for an overnighter!.

4 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Thanks for the reply, I’ll be sure to get a map. Just curious why next week won’t be a good idea?

2 years ago

I just came upon this looking for canyons of the ancient info 🙂 I can’t wait to see you guys this fall!