The absolute silence struck me as I stepped out of the van. Looking around I saw nothing but desert. And more desert. The desert even swallowed up the Native American ruins Dad and I sought.
Dad and I drove, literally, to the middle of nowhere. After a busy art festival in Ridgeway, Colorado we were really ready to have fun shooting pictures. We eagerly set off on our desert adventure.
A stiff breeze and a distant rumble of thunder were the only things to break the silence. A summer monsoon storm threatened to cut short our exploration of Hovenweep National Monument in Utah.
Little Ruin Canyon
We took the Little Ruin Canyon trail, a 1.5-mile hike around and through the ruins of an ancient village. The stifling 100-plus degree heat ensured we didn’t dawdle.
The remains of Hovenweep’s Square Tower Group rose up out of the desert floor, soaring along the edge of Little Ruin Canyon. Some buildings even perched on top of large boulders. The builders’ skills impressed us. Ancestral Puebloans created most of the structures about 1200 A.D. At one time about 500 people lived in this village.
In 1874 photographer William Henry Jackson first named the collection of abandoned villages along the Cajon Mesa “Hovenweep”. That’s Ute for “deserted valley”. It’s an apt name because civilization–and a hotel–is about 55 minutes away.
But 700 years ago, the villages bustled with activity. In addition to hunting, the residents also gathered plants and eventually grew corn, beans, squash and amaranth. They created stone dams to trap sediment and water during storms. They terraced the hillsides for planting crops. It’s a little hard to imagine all that looking at this rugged, parched landscape today. Multiple granaries suggest the ancestral Puebloans succeeded, though.
These ancient people built the pueblos, kivas, storage buildings and towers that dominate Little Ruin Canyon. The towers are particularly interesting because their windows allowed shafts of light inside perhaps to mark the solstices and equinoxes. These shafts of light would have served as a calendar, letting the people know when to plant and harvest their crops. It’s possible they also used the towers for line-of-sight signaling or for defense.
But this community of skilled masons wasn’t alone. Six villages including the Square Tower Group dotted the Cajon Mesa. The mesa’s canyons and their streams that emptied into the San Juan River provided water for each of the farming villages. Each settlement laid just a day’s walk away.
For some reason, perhaps a drought or due to warfare, around 1300 A.D. the ancestral Puebloan people left the Cajon Mesa and moved south to New Mexico and Arizona. Their amazing buildings at Hovenweep gradually fell into disrepair and returned to the desert.
I took pictures quickly knowing that the monsoon storm drew closer by the minute. Unfortunately we had just one day for exploration at Hovenweep. So it was now or never shooting the Square Tower Group.
I looked for wide-angle shots showing the girth of the structures as well as detail shots. The builders used meticulous masonry in construction. Local rocks formed the main walls and were surrounded by small, flat rocks to fill the mortar joints. If the light is soft enough, the masonry in the walls makes for interesting close-up photo, as do the doors and windows.
We took about two hours at Square Tower, walking and shooting. Cutthroat Castle and the Horseshoe Group, nearby settlements, were also on our shooting list, but that storm I mentioned loomed overhead. After taking a look at the dirt road that led to the next village, we decided to skedaddle. A van loaded to the gills with art and a rough, muddy road were a bad combination. Monsoon storms pack a pretty serious punch in the desert even if you have 4-wheel drive.
Despite interference from the storm, we saw great potential for fantastic photos at Hovenweep National Monument. We just needed a dry day and more time to explore.
If You Go
Hovenweep patiently waits in the desert, ready to share its secrets. If you decide to go, you’ll need to know a few things:
- You’re headed to the middle of nowhere. Fill up the gas tank; take plenty of food and water. There are no stores for miles.
- Do not use a GPS to find Hovenweep. Instead, follow the directions on the National Park’s site at https://www.nps.gov/hove/planyourvisit/directions.htm .
- Hovenweep is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Nonetheless, you should check for any closures before heading out.
- Trails open at sunrise and close at sunset.
- Entry is free. Camping costs $10 per night.
- Desert temperatures can range 40 degrees within a single day. Summers heat up quickly (think 100 degrees or higher) with monsoon storms. Winters temperatures plunge, with lows averaging 0 to 20 degrees. Occasional ice may make roads impassable.
- The road to the Square Tower Group and the visitor center is paved. All other roads are dirt. It is best to travel the dirt roads with 4-wheel drive. Pay attention to storms (summer or winter) that may make these road and trails treacherous.
- If you’re looking for some place to crash after exploring, you can stay at the campground near the visitor center. Check https://www.nps.gov/hove/planyourvisit/eatingsleeping.htm for details. Otherwise you’ll need to travel to Bluff or Blanding, Utah or Cortez, Colorado for a hotel.
- Cell phone coverage is spotty to non-existent. Plan accordingly.
- Dogs may explore Hovenweep but must be kept on a leash at all times.
- Take a variety of lenses. You could easily shoot wide angles of the buildings as well as close up masonry details.
- Sunrise and sunset provide warm light on the ruins. However, you may get interesting photos before and after storms (summer and winter) that blow through the area as well as shots showing good detail mid-morning. Look for unique clouds to add interest to your image.
- The park occasionally holds special star gazing events. Check with the rangers for times and dates. Participants must stay in the visitor center parking lot and campgrounds. Unfortunately you can’t see the ruins from either location.
You can, however, request a special photography permit. Apply several weeks in advance and expect to pay a minimum of $180 application fee and then additional fees depending on what you plan to shoot. For complete details visit https://www.nps.gov/hove/planyourvisit/night-photography.htm .