Sand Canyon Trail

Rating: 
Round Trip Distance: 9 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 5477 - 5917 feet
Cellphone: 0-5 bars
Time: 5 hrs.
Trailhead: South Sand Canyon
Fee: none
Attractions: Cliff dwellings, pueblo




View Sand Canyon in a larger map

The Sand Canyon trail is located in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument east of Cortez, Colorado. Two trailheads provide access to the canyon. The upper trailhead can be found near the Sand Canyon Pueblo on top of the mesa off of N Road. The lower trailhead, where this post begins, is off of G Road along McElmo Creek about 12 miles west of the town of Cortez. This post begins at the lower trailhead and follows the Sand Canyon trail up the canyon where it passes at least 8 significant cliff dwellings and pueblos within just the first 4 miles of the canyon.


Sand Canyon is the major 1 of 3 trails that leave from the lower trailhead at a spot called Castle Rock. The other two trails are the Rock Creek trail and the East Rock Creek trail. Currently the parking area is a very rough expanse of slickrock. The Park Service has purchased land just to the east of this point, which includes a historic home, and is working on plans to relocate the trailhead to that spot.


The trail is well marked and easy to follow. Each of the trails junctions have a sign showing the current map location. The trail varies from slickrock to sand with some areas of loose rock.


Sand Canyon is best known for its numerous archaeological sites that vary from pueblos and towers to cliff dwellings. The remains of the first pueblo is right near the trailhead at Castle Rock. The location in this picture is along the trail a short distance past that.


As you continue up the canyon there are trail markers that point out spur trails that lead to closeby ruins.


Little 'museums' of pottery can be spotted on rocks and stumps at some of the sites. Be sure to leave all specimens for others to enjoy and remember that it is illegal to collect, dig, vandalize or disturb any archaeological site. The fine for doing so is $250,000 plus 5 years in jail. Be sure to report any suspicious activities that you come across.


The next significant cliff dwelling is the quaint and picturesque Saddlehorn Pueblo also referred to by the BLM as the Saddlehorn Hamlet.


As the trail continues up Sand Canyon there are several spur trails that lead to viewpoints and such. Around the 2.5 mile point a trail that leads over to East Rock Creek connects to the Sand Canyon trail. A popular hike is to travel up the East Rock Creek trail to the connector and follow it over to the Sand Canyon trail and back to the trailhead. Continuing up Sand Canyon for about another quarter mile the trail makes a descent down several switchbacks and comes to a spot where a short stubby side canyon houses several more cliff dwellings. The one in the above photo is the Corncob House.


This one is called the Double Cliff House. More photos are included in the slideshow at the end of this post.


After the Double Cliff House the trail offers some very easy hiking as it continues up the canyon. Around the 3.25 mile point of the trail another cliff dwelling can be spied across the canyon to the east neatly tucked within a large alcove. We don't happen to know the name of the cliff dwelling but from this distance it appears to be very well preserved. Archaeologist typically refer to sites by a number designation rather than by a common name. Native Americans often give sites names that are meaningful to themselves.


Another quarter mile or so up the canyon is a very short spur trail that leads over to the canyon's rim to the site of a tower. This tower has a good view both looking down the canyon towards Ute Mountain and up the canyon towards the Sand Canyon Pueblo. It probably played an important role as a communication link between various points in the canyon.


The Sunny Alcove site is right above the trail a little past the tower site.


A little further up the trail is another very short side canyon where the Tucked Away Two Story House can be found nestled within a shallow alcove.


Also close by is the Wall Curves with Bedrock House.


The last cliff dwelling that we know about is around the 4.75 mile point and it is called the House with Standing Curved Wall.


We turned around just before the point where the trail makes its steep climb up to the Sand Canyon Pueblo. Our GPS was showing just over 5 miles at this point. That distance includes hiking each of the short spur trails that we passed along the way. Since the official trail map shows the distance to this point to be 4 miles all of the short spur trails must come out to be about 1 mile.


Each of the cliff dwelling sites in Sand Canyon have signs posted that limit how close visitors are allowed to each of the ruins. If hikers would like a closer look then we recommend bringing a pair of binoculars and a telephoto lens. They really aren't necessary though as the trail comes close enough to each of the sites for a good look at them. The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument contains thousands of archaeological sites. The Sand Canyon trail is probably the best place to see a good variety of them in close proximity to each other. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.