Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients

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March 15th 2009
Published: March 15th 2009
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The Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southeast Colorado is probably the best hiking attraction of the this relatively new Monument. It runs for 6.5 miles north and south with the south trail head located about 12 miles west of Cortez, CO on County Road G. There is also the 5.0 mile East Rock Creek Loop Trail and two unnamed long loop trails plus the east Sand Canyon area to explore. There are at least 35 small Ancestral Pueblo ruins sites in this area.

Castle Rock Pueblo

The Castle Rock Pueblo Trail is the first spur off of the Sand Canyon Trail. From the front side of Castle Rock a small arch is visible to the left. Below the arch are the rubble remains of some of the estimated 40 to 60 rooms that served 75 to 100 residents. In the notch at the top right, there appears to be a log floor with two courses of stone bricks.

Getting up closer, the log floor looks like it could have been a lookout post, or maybe for signaling. On the south side of Road G and a little to the west is another large rock formation called Battle Rock. From a high enough vantage point there appears to be a structure on top of there also.

Just to the left of the lookout notch, behind a large slab of rock is a section of preserved wall. It is possible to view this oddly placed structure from the opposite side also. Hiking past Castle Rock on the west side there is a spur trail that leads around the back side to a large section of preserved wall. This seems to be a particularly thick wall section.

There is water in McElmo Creek slightly to the south but there doesn't appear to be permanent water in the vicinity of Castle Rock. This is the largest village at this end of the Sand Canyon Trail system.

Sand Canyon Main Trail

There is a loop trail at the south end of Sand Canyon called the East Rock Creek Trail that connects to the main Sand Canyon Trail at 0.25 miles and about 1.8 miles. On the main trail there are at least two Ancestral Pueblo ruins sites to see past the Castle Rock Pueblo before the second trail junction.

One of these is the Saddle Horn Ruin named for the shape of the rock formation it rests under. Past the second junction there are at least eight more sites before the trail climbs steeply to the upper trail head. The third and fourth ruins sites are visible at the same time in adjacent alcoves. These two are about 2 miles up the trail just past the East Rock Creek Junction.

The 5th ruin is a tower that is on a spur trail to the canyon rim. This is the only ruin site along this section of trail that is not in an alcove. From the canyon rim there are alcoves that can be scanned with binoculars away on the east side. There aren't any official trails going over there.

The 6th and 7th ruins sites are located close together in adjacent alcoves. The spur trail for the relatively large 7th site leads right up into the alcove allowing a very close viewing. I think this is the largest of these along the trail sites. The very large Sand Canyon Pueblo is located at the north trail head and these smaller sites are strung out on both sides of the canyon.

The 8th ruin is also relatively large. All of these alcove sites are positioned facing the south and get good exposure to the sun. The 9th is a small site to one side of a large alcove. These sites are mostly only a short distance above the trail. The 10th and 11th small ruins sites along the south end of the Sand Canyon Trail are located close together in the same side canyon.

It took me about 2:00 hours to get to the point where the trail gets steep ascending to the north trail head.

East Rock Creek Loop Trail

The East Rock Creek Trail is a 5 mile loop off of the west side of the Sand Canyon Trail. About half way between the 1.5 and 2.5 mile posts clockwise around the loop, there are at least seven small Ancestral Pueblo Ruins visible from the trail west across the Rock Creek Canyon.

In the early sections of the trail the geologic layer, Entrada Sandstone, that forms good alcoves is above the trail, but this layer descends below the trail in the middle part of the hike. In the first 1.5 miles there are four small sites to see. Further on there is a pair of structures is about .25 miles before 2.5 mile post. They are in the northern of two side canyons off of the Rock Creek Canyon. Below these two alcove structures there are the rubble piles of a pueblo.

Two more small sites are in southern east pointing side canyon. The East Rock Creek Trail skirts along the edge of this side canyon, but the sites are somewhat obscured by the Pinon Pine and Juniper forest and are off to the west, not easily noticed when hiking and looking straight ahead. The site to the left looks like a good granary.

Binoculars are handy to view these somewhat distant sites. There is a site on the far canyon wall in the middle of this view. The rock outcrop in the middle of the canyon floor is also a ruins site, but not easy to see from the rim. It is good strategy to spot these sites before hiking down into the canyon for closer views, so you know what you are looking for and where they are in relation to each other.

A little to the north of the previous two sites there is another alcove site. This alcove is visible a long distance away from the south and was the first one visible approaching from the south. The officially unnamed Rock Creek Trail passes above these sites but they aren't visible from the trail.

Down in Rock Creek Canyon

There are horse trails down in the canyon to follow to visit these sites that are difficult to see from the rim. I followed the East Rock Creek Trail to the 1.5 mile post near the canyon rim, then turned south along the horse trail for a few hundred yards until I found a path that leads down into the canyon.

In the area of the trail post there is a steep drop off. In the canyon bottom there are horse trails that follow along the creek bed. Following north for about 0.7 miles, there are two minor sites in the first side canyon to the right. There is a good granary here and a wall section. I had to look around to find the notch to climb up on the shelf to see the sites.

Back at the creek, look for a horse trail that heads west across the canyon toward a rock outcrop in the center, there are some wall sections on top of the outcrop and rubble piles around the base. This site is somewhat like the Castle Rock site at the Sand Canyon Trail Head. Around the north side someone has leaned a log that looks like a primitive ladder.

A short distance further west, directly toward the west wall in another small site with tall walls forming an odd narrow room, with a lower walled room to the left.

The horse trail then follows north along the west canyon wall to a larger alcove ruins. This one is visible a mile away when approaching from the south. The horse trail continues further north but I only followed it about 100 yards and then retraced my steps. Between this site and the narrow wall site, there is another castle rock type site that is mostly rubble piles.

From the west wall sites, I retraced my steps back to the creek bed along the east wall and then continued north along the creek bed. Past a barbed wire fence there is a horse trail leading east up the south side of another side canyon. A spur trail leads across to this site on the north side of the side canyon. This site is more than just the alcove cliff dwelling.

Below the cliff dwelling, there are large rubble piles and the remains of a circular structure. Returning to back to the horse trail it continued further east and climbed back up to make an obscure junction with the East Rock Creek Trail, making a loop hike possible. This junction is barely noticeable and is before the 2.5 mile post, so it is shorter to hike back counter clockwise around the East Rock Creek Trail, though clockwise will work also.

Sand Canyon North Trail Head

At the North Trail Head, to the west side, there is the short interpretive trail to the mostly unexcavated and large Sand Canyon Pueblo. There is also an unpublicized site on the east side of the canyon rim near the trail head, that spills over the rim into some of the alcoves just below the rim. This site is only 100 yards or so off the trail but is not visible from the trail. It is fairly easy to hike over an view this site. The sites at the trail head rest on the Dakota Sandstone layer.

The second mile from the North Trail Head is steep with many switchbacks and descends 680 feet to the canyon bottom. Visible to the east are two drill holes with a service road connecting them. Just north of the drill hole site there are two small side canyons that are options for climbing out of the lower canyon and getting up to the drill hole level.

There are five sites off the main trail that are spaced out along the first large side canyon on the south facing canyon wall, all associated with alcoves. From the main Sand Canyon Trail, there are more side canyons with ruins sites visible to the south of this one. These alcoves are in the Entrada Sandstone. The trail guide helps identify the numerous geologic layers visible here. Some of these sites can be vaguely seen with binoculars from the main Sand Canyon Trail but it takes some exploring to get over to them.

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Four Corners Hikes-Canyons of the Ancients


26th July 2009

Excellent resource material
I am going to Cortez this August and it is extremely difficult to get detailed information about this hike. I am really grateful for people like the author who take the time out to describe thier hikes in-depth so others can use it as a reference. I plan on doing at least some of the hike described here depending on how hot it actually gets when I am our there. The pictures will serve as a nice checklist so I know what to look for.

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