Tucked away in the extreme southeastern corner of Utah there is a fascinating area which draws considerable attention from tourists from around the world, but which is virtually unknown and unappreciated by Utahns. Called Hovenweep National Monument, the site shelters a multitude of impressive rock structures built by native Americans during the Anasazi civilization, some 1,000 years ago.
The rockwork is remarkable: D-shaped multi-room stone castles which apparently sheltered several prominent families, tall, narrow square stone towers, rock granaries and other structures. A small visitors' center at the national monument displays Anasazi artifacts, provides information about the people who lived at the site, and sells informational material.
In the parking lot at the visitors' center you will probably see a couple cars with license plates from Colorado, one or two from California and New York, along with a tour bus full of people from Germany or Japan. But you probably won't see a single car from Utah. Unfortunately, Utahns seem to ignore this monument, flocking instead to more famous southern Utah attractions like Zion, Bryce, Arches, Lake Powell and now the new Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
The monument is open year-round and makes a great destination for a mid-winter family vacation. Winter days are usually sunny and mild, but can be nippy when a cold front blows through. Winter nights are usually very cold. The campground is open during the winter but camping is not recommended unless you are equipped with good cold-weather gear. At least you need a camper or good winter-duty tent and sleeping bags rated for temperatures down to 10 degrees.
To really see Hovenweep you need to take the loop hike which starts at the visitor center. Several options are available as you hike the loop, allowing the difficult of the hike to range from easy to moderately strenuous. This is a great spot to let kids get out and go. The trail is not dangerous and a person would have to work at it to get lost at the monument. Of course, hikers should always use the buddy system - always hike with someone and let the rest of your party know where you are going.
Hiking during the winter can be enjoyable. The cool temperatures make movement feel invigorating and pleasant. Dress in layers and add or remove clothing to maintain comfort. Some falls occasionally at the monument, but usually melts quickly. If there is snow on the trail then don't try to hike into the canyon. View the structures from the canyon rim - and don't venture out to the edge of any ledges.
Spring and fall are ideal times to visit the monument. Daytime temperatures are ideal for hiking and exploring. Nights are cool during the spring and fall, but cold temperatures are not usually a problem.
The monument can be enjoyed during the summer but daytime temperatures are often very hot. Summer hiking is most pleasant during the hours just after sun-up and just before dark. If you hike during the evening remember to give yourself plenty of time to get back to camp before dark.
The area around Hovenweep provides a wonderful opportunity to explore. Roads are rough, mostly dirt, and the area is deceptively big and rugged. When you look southeast from the town of Blanding it looks like the country is relatively flat and not remarkable. Wrong! The area is cut by deep, rugged canyons. You can drive for hours are never see another person. If your vehicle breaks down it may be days before someone finds you.
If you will remember your history, Indiana Jones was born in Moab and learned to love ancient civilizations as he explored the Anasazi canyons of southern Utah. That setting is appropriate. Some scholars estimate that there is a higher concentration of ancient relics in the canyons of southeastern Utah than in any other place on earth. The canyons along the Utah/Colorado border north of Hovenweep are rich in archaeological treasure. Some of the canyons have yet to be studied in detail. Some of the canyons have artifacts lying on the ground - arrowheads, pottery shards - perhaps even whole pots.
The Ansazi are well know for their cliff dwellings and rock structures, and also for their pottery and weaving. It is not uncommon to find artifacts in the canyons in this area, just laying there out in the open. In some spots the pottery shards are so thick you have to walk carefully to avoid stepping on them.
It is vitally important to leave artifacts where you find them. The relics belong to all of us. If you take something, even if it is just a piece of broken pottery, the rest of us won't be able to enjoy that relic. Worse yet, the piece you take may provide an important clue to help scientists learn more about the fascinating people that inhabited this land. The study of ancient pottery is complex, and can reveal a considerable amount of information about the craftsman and his society. The style of the pot, the type of clay, the pigments use to color the pot, the type of glaze, the way it was fired, all tell about the craftsman.
An archaeologist can look at a shard which lies at the base of a structure and the shard will provide clues about the people who lived there, including the approximate date and the sub-group to which the people belonged. Lift the shard out of this context and its clues lose much of their value.
It's tempting to fill your pockets with shards and arrowheads, but don't do it.
Several canyons in this area make interesting side trips. Montezuma Creek Canyon runs north-south between Monticello and Hatch Trading Post, on the Hovenweep Road. A dirt road provides access to the canyon. The road is rough and a high-clearance vehicle is needed, but it does not generally require four-wheel drive. There is considerable ranching activity in the canyon. The canyon features a good number of impressive cliff dwellings. Some have been restored. There is also a restored Kiva - a circular underground structure which was used for religious ceremonies. The Kiva is open for public inspection - you can actually climb down into it.
You can drive a distance into Cross and Squaw canyons, then you have to park and hike. The hike is rewarding though, because these canyons are in near-natural condition and offer views of impressive structures and artifacts.
How to get there: Drive south from Blanding on US Highway 191 for about 15 miles until you come to the Hovenweep Road. Signs identify the turnoff. Drive east on the Hovenweep Road for about 24 miles to the monument. The road is paved most of the way, but becomes gravel near the monument. It is maintained for year-round travel.
You can also drive west from Cortez. From Cortez to the monument it is about 44 miles, via Road 10.
Where to stay: At the campground at the monument, or in a motel in Blanding, Mexican Hat, Monument Valley, or Cortez.
What to do: Hike the loop around the monument. Explore other canyons in the area. (From Monument Valley you can take Jeep or plane tours of the area.)