Canyons of the Ancient National Monument - Sand Canyon Trail
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
October 12th, 2019
Stacia and I are always searching out scenic weekend adventures. From our current location in Albuquerque, New Mexico, there are a multitude of destinations for some fun weekend adventures. For an overnight stay, I like to keep our one-way travel time to 4 1/2 hours or under, that way we’re not spending more time in the car than on the trail!
In October, we made a trip up to Cortez, Colorado, which is a little more than a 4 hour drive from Albuquerque. That southwestern corner of Colorado is saturated with remnants of ancient puebloan cultures. We’d been up in this area during a previous summer to visit Mesa Verde National Park, but the summer months are too hot to be hiking in areas with little shade, especially with dogs. October, on the other hand, seems ideal: no snowfall yet, cooler nights and mornings, but the days still warm up into the 50s and 60s. Also of note--dogs are not allowed on most trails in Mesa Verde, but that’s not the case at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument!
Sand Canyon Trail - North End
The Sand Canyon Trail is 6 miles in length and runs from Country Road G at its southern terminus to Country Road N at its northern terminus.
This is a point-to-point trail, and as much as I would have loved to explore the entire trail, that’s just not possible for me, even on a good day. The day we explored the Sand Canyon Trail was a relatively good day for me, which likely had more to do with my excitement and motivation than it did restfulness. The 4 hour drive on Friday night was enough irritate my lower back, and I only managed to get 5 hours of sleep at the hotel, which typically portends a day of moderate fatigue and joint pain.
Instead of tackling the entire trail--a nearly impossible feat anyway--we decided to do two shorter hikes on each end of the trail, therefore book-ending it!
The northern end of Sand Canyon Trail has considerably less traffic than the southern end, which is immediately evident by the smaller parking lot. The parking lot itself is off a dirt road and there are no signs leading up to it. Instead, I relied on Google Maps to find my way there! We did not see anyone on the north end of the trail, but did notice one other vehicle in the parking lot.
Though this end of the trail sees less traffic, it's still well worth the visit. Very close to the parking lot is the site of Sand Canyon Pueblo, a 13th century village. There’s an interpretive trail to follow with signs pointing out significant features of the pueblo ruins, but most of these features were re-buried after excavation and therefore hard to identify. Regardless, the pueblo looks like it was enormous. Stacia and I had fun trying to identify a wall here or part of a structure there. What can still be identified is the outer wall of the pueblo, along with some remnants of walls for inner structures. What's more, there’s a spectacular view of the McElmo Canyon beyond, and Ute Peak in the distance!
We wandered around this area for a while exploring, but not racking up many exercise minutes on my Apple watch. In the meantime, Texie, our 85 lb American Bulldog mix, provided some entertainment! At one point, she took a nap on a trail incline, head pointed down-slope (pictured above). On another occasion, Texie managed to get a piece of a cactus stuck to her face, which is becoming a more frequent occurrence lately! We dared not let her close the the cliff overlooking the canyon--she's a clumsy girl and no one wants to take that chance. We've concluded that she's not well-suited to life in the southwest, at least not with cacti all about!
Sand Canyon Trail - South End
I can see why the southern end of the Sand Canyon Trail is more popular. The red rock cliffs lead into the canyon and the appearance of the mountains just south is breathtaking. On top of that, there are more archeological sites to explore on this end of the trail.
There are two parking lots at this end of the trail now, and in mid-October both lots were close to full. The beginning of the trail follows rock trail markers set on the sandstone floor. There are remnants of the Castle Rock Pueblo up by the first sandstone butte, but the trail does not travel that way so the site may remain preserved. Instead, there’s an offshoot of the trail just behind the butte that leads to two walls of an ancient stone building.
These walls were enough to spark my interest! I imagine the Castle Rock Pueblo contains more walls and remnants partway up the butte, where as Willa Cather says, a “village sat looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity.”
The trail continues across a sandy floor (another reason why summer hikes are ill-advised with dogs), along the edge of the red and yellow canyon walls. We followed this trail for a little over a mile, since the Sand Canyon and Rock Creek Trails guide indicates the Saddlehorn Pueblo cliff-dwelling ruins is located about a mile from the southern parking lot.
Unfortunately, we had to turn around before reaching the next ruin site, since we had already hiked nearly 3 miles that day and it was another mile back to the parking lot. I was already experiencing some significant pain in my feet and back, and was wearing my knee brace for support. I knew the further we hiked, the more likely I was to trigger a flare (the PA at my rheumatology clinic was mildly shocked when I suggested my flares are sometimes triggered by increased physical activity, but those of us with rheumatic diseases know all too well how true that is!).
With that said, the Canyons of the Ancients trail guide shows several other ‘self-discovery’ sites further along the Sand Canyon Trail. If we had decided to skip the northern end of the trail, we may have made it to some of these other sites. There’s always next time!