East Rock Creek Loop

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 7.3 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 5439 - 5919 feet
Cellphone: 0-3 bars
Time: 4 hrs.
Trailhead: Lower Sand Canyon
Fee: none
Attractions: Scenic arch and cliff dwellings




The East Rock Creek trail is located in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument east of Cortez, Colorado. Designed with mountain bikes in mind the trail makes a 5 mile loop around East Rock Creek Canyon. There are 4 connector trails that provide routes to the East Rock Creek trail from the Sand Canyon trail and trailhead. The shortest of the routes will add 2 miles to the round trip distance. Hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders on the trail are treated to views of a scenic arch and several ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.


The Lower Sand Canyon trailhead is located 12 miles east of Cortez on County Road G. Plans are in the works to move the current trailhead a little to the east on some newly acquired land.


For this post we followed the route past the Castle Rock Pueblo area and took the 1.2 mile slickrock trail to the left to get over to the lower end of the East Rock Creek trail. All of the trail junctions have signs with maps that show your current location which makes way finding a cinch.


The trails in the area have diamond markers that are color coded. The connector trails are blue, Sand Canyon's color is orange, Rock Creek is yellow and East Rock Creek is green.


The slickrock connector has a lot of little hills and washes to go through. It is a little more demanding and almost a mile longer than the lower trail. The connector trail by itself is only a couple tenths longer but you have to hike over a quarter mile from the trailhead before you get to where it starts.


The lower connector and the slickrock connector join up about 50 feet before the beginning of the East Rock Creek trail.


Mountain bikers that we observed were riding the loop in the counter clockwise direction by following the right hand side of the loop from this point. We opted to hike the trail going the other way so from here we took the left fork towards the Rock Creek trail.


Following the green diamonds the trail continues up the west side of the canyon. The trail goes in and back out of several washes and gradually gains elevation as it heads toward the back of the canyon where the trail crosses the now shallow wash and heads back out of the canyon on the east side.


Heading south out of the canyon Ute Mountain dominates the distant horizon.


There is a tall arch on the left side of the cliff in this photo that looks somewhat like the high ceiling of a cathedral. We liked the overall view of the surrounding area of cliffs with its arcing horn and other features that pack a lot of scenic character into a single view. We were unable to find a common name for the arch other than the East Rock Creek Arch. If we were to make a suggestion it would be Cathedral Arch.


Continuing out of the canyon the trail comes to the pass between East Rock Creek and Sand Canyon. Be sure to stay to the right and follow the old mine road to stay on the East Rock Creek trail.


Many of the alcoves in East Rock Creek Canyon have cliff dwellings in them.


Some of them are on the opposite side of the canyon and a bit far away to see well.


An interesting circular wall below a spillover is a bit puzzling. We thought that maybe pottery vessels were put inside of it to catch the runoff and the wall would have kept them from being washed over the side or tipped over and broken. As we said it was puzzling.


With all of these cliff dwellings and pueblos the impression is that the area must have been bustling with activity at one time.


Another trail 1 mile in length comes up that connects the East Rock Creek and Sand Canyon trails.


At the end of the loop the option is to return to the trailhead via the slickrock trail, which is the route we followed to get to this point, or take the shorter and easier trail on the right. If you are on a mountain bike then you have to take the slickrock trail and if you are on horseback then you have to follow the other route.


The East Rock Creek trail has a lot to offer visitors whether on foot, horseback or pedaling a mountain bike. The various connecting trails create numerous options to explore different routes. Add to that all of the cliff dwellings, the scenic arch and other unique geological features and most people probably won't leave disappointed. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.