Sand Canyon
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
  • loads of hiking tips
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    Distance: 6.7 miles
       (plus 29.6 miles by car)

    Walking time:  4 1/2 hours

    : 1,400 ft. gain
      Lower Sand Canyon Trailhead (start): 5,470 ft.
      Upper Sand Canyon Trailhead: 6,870 ft.

    Trail: Generally well marked and easy to follow

    Season: Spring, summer, fall. The trail is very hot in the summer and there is no water, so be sure to carry plenty. The upper part of the trail is usually covered with snow from late November until mid-May.

    Vicinity: Near Cortez

    Sand CanyonSand Canyon


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    Sand Canyon contains one of the most interesting and accessible collections of Anasazi cliff dwellings outside Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. There must have been tens of thousands of Anasazis living in the Four Corners area before they abandoned their settlements 700 years ago, but prior to the thirteenth century most of them lived on the mesa tops. Then in the early 1200s the Anasazis began building their houses in the sandstone cliffs of the canyon country, and it is the presence of these ancient cliff dwellings that make Sand Canyon so interesting today. The prehistoric shelters are priceless treasures from our past, waiting to be discovered by anyone willing to walk a few miles. All along the lower reaches of the canyon they lie like precious jewels set in the alcoves of the Entrada Sandstone. Some are obvious, others are hidden by the surrounding forest of pinion and juniper.

    The trail passes by at least eight ruins within just the first 3.5 miles. You will not see anymore cliff dwellings once the trail begins to climb out of the canyon, but this part of the hike is interesting for two other reasons. First, the views looking back into the canyon from above are quite nice, especially since the Sleeping Ute Mountain lies just four miles south of the trailhead. Second, Sand Pueblo, a large unexcavated Anasazi ruin, is located near the upper trailhead. In fact the upper section of the trail was built in 1993 specifically to give hikers access to Sand Pueblo.

    This hike can be done in either direction. Normally I would suggest you start at the top to avoid the uphill climb out of Sand Canyon. But I think in this case it is better to start from the lower trailhead and walk north. This is because the Anasazis almost always built their homes in south-facing alcoves where they could catch more of the winter sunshine, and if you are facing south while you walk you may miss some of them.

    From the trailhead on McElmo Road the trail starts out by climbing gradually up the slickrock past the west side of a prominent sandstone outcropping called Castle Rock. After 0.2 mile it reaches the north side of Castle Rock and begins to swing east toward Sand Canyon. Before leaving Castle Rock, however, you should walk off the trail for a short distance to the right and explore the north side of the outcropping. This area was also inhabited by the Anasazis, and there is at least one obvious ruin only 150 feet from the trail. Castle Rock was the location of an archeological excavation in the early 1990s, but the work is now finished and the site has been restored to its natural condition.

    About twenty minutes from the trailhead the path levels out and begins following a narrow bench along the base of the Entrada Sandstone cliffs on your left. It is along this bench that most of the Anasazi ruins of Sand Canyon are located. Watch the base of the cliffs as you walk, and within 1.1 miles you will see your first ruin peering through the pinion and juniper forest. It lies at the end of a short spur trail, about 100 yards off the main path.

    The first ruin contains the stone walls of one room and the rubble from what was once several other rooms. But most interesting are the remains of a small, partially buried circular kiva. We donít really know what the significance of the kiva was in the Anasazi culture, but they donít appear to have been ordinary family dwellings. It is more likely that they were used as community meeting places or for religious purposes. Notice the seep, or spring, at the base of the cliff just to the right of the ruin. This water source was undoubtedly an important factor in the choice of this particular alcove by the Indian family that once lived here.

    The next ruin, a particularly picturesque one, is barely 0.1 mile beyond the first one. Notice at this ruin how the Indians filled in the floor of the alcove behind the retaining wall in order to level the floor of their dwelling. As the trail meanders northward the bench gets progressively narrower and narrower. Watch for other short trails branching off to the rim on the right, where you can look about 200 feet down into the bottom of the Sand Canyon drainage. There is seldom running water in Sand Canyon, but the streambed is almost never completely dry either. The series of springs in the bottom of the canyon would have provided a reliable source of water for the many Indians who lived here.

    1.9 miles from the trailhead you will come to a junction where another well used trail comes in from the East Fork of Rock Canyon on the left. I will say more about this trail later, but for now bear right toward the bottom of Sand Canyon. Just 0.1 mile beyond the junction, you will come to point where the path drops about 100 feet into a small side canyon west of Sand Canyon. Notice the three exquisite cliff dwellings directly in front of you on the other side of the side canyon. They are probably the most photogenic of all the ruins you will pass on this hike. One of them, located in an odd onion-shaped alcove with colorful streaks of desert varnish, is particularly appealing. After dropping into the side canyon the trail bends around in front of the ruins and onto a lower bench. Take the time to climb up into one of the alcoves and you will see an impressive landscape dominated by the nearby Sleeping Ute Mountain, just as the original residents of the alcove saw it 700 years ago

    Be sure also to watch the other side of the canyon for ruins as you walk. Another particularly large ruin is clearly visible on the east side of the canyon 0.4 mile upcanyon from the onion-shaped alcove. On the west side the path passes by at least two more easily accessible ruin sites before it reaches the bottom of the Sand Canyon drainage 3.8 miles from the trailhead. There is a trail junction in the bottom of the drainage with one trail staying in the bottom of the canyon and the other climbing up the other side. The trail up on the east side of Sand Canyon passes by three more ruins before joining a private road that leads back to the McElmo Road.

    To reach Sand Pueblo, where your shuttle car is parked, you must bear left when the trail reaches the streambed and continue walking northeast along the bottom of the sandy wash. After 0.4 mile you will see a wooden trail marker, where the trail turns left to begin climbing out of the canyon. From this point on the trail becomes much steeper, as you must gain 950 feet before reaching the upper trailhead at the top of the mesa. You can monitor your progress by watching the radio towers on the other side of the canyon; they are about 200 feet higher in elevation than the upper trailhead. Most of the route out of the canyon is immersed in a forest of pinion pine and juniper, but occasionally the forest opens up to a nice view of Sleeping Ute Mountain with Sand Canyon in the foreground. You may also hear noises like motors running. Unfortunately there are several carbon dioxide wells on the east side of the canyon, and the pumps often interrupt the serenity-reminding us that ownership of Sand Canyon has already passed from the Anasazis to the white man.

    About 1.0 mile after leaving the canyon bottom the trail starts to level out. Then, after another 0.7 mile it briefly reenters the upper reaches of Sand Canyon drainage once again before finally leaving the ravine near the upper trailhead.

    Sand Canyon Pueblo

    Before leaving the upper Sand Canyon Trailhead be sure to check out the Sand Canyon Pueblo. It lies at the end of a short, well marked, 0.1 mile spur trail that departs on the west side of the Sand Canyon trailhead. This site is currently being excavated by the Crow Canyon Archeological Center, but the work is progressing very slowly and to the untrained eye the site looks more like a scattered pile of rocks than an ancient Indian pueblo. Probably the most impressive thing about the Sand Canyon Pueblo is its size. The ancient city is spread over an area of about four acres and contains some 84 kivas. During the late 1200s, at the peak of the Mesa Verde Anasazi culture, it must have been one of the largest settlements in the region. More information about the Sand Canyon Pueblo can be obtained from the Crow Canyon Archeological Center in Cortez at (970) 565-8975.

    East Fork Rock Canyon

    If it is inconvenient for you to place a shuttle car at the upper Sand Canyon trailhead you will be interested to know there is another trail in the lower part of Sand Canyon that can be used as a connecting trail back to the lower trailhead. This alternative route also passes by several Anasazi ruins as well as a large natural arch. The total length of the loop, including a short side trip to see the arch, is 6.4 miles.

    After you have walked 1.9 miles from the lower Sand Canyon trailhead you will come to a trail junction where you must turn left on a trail leading to the East Fork of Rock Canyon. This trail proceeds in a northwesterly direction toward a large promontory of Dakota Sandstone that rises between Sand Canyon and East Fork. The trail rises slightly as it winds across the intervening layers of shale until it reaches the base of the sandstone cliffs 1.0 mile later. Near the base of the cliffs the trail passes just below an old mine that was dug a short distance into a yellowish deposit of siltstone, probably in search of uranium.

    A few hundred yards beyond the mine the trail forks again. You must take the left fork to return to the trailhead, but first bear right for short side trip to see the natural arch. The arch is located at the base of the Dakota Sandstone about 0.4 mile beyond the trail junction, but you wonít be able to see it until you are almost under it. After you have walked 0.3 miles you will see a fainter trail leaving on the right. This trail angles uphill, roughly parallel to the lower trail, to a point directly under the arch. If you want to get close enough to the arch to see daylight through it you will have to take this trail. The arch is about 100 feet across, but it is very close to the cliff. If you want to photograph it you should plan to be under it in the afternoon, as it is in the shade earlier in the day.

    You can explore further by staying on the lower trail and continuing on past the arch. The trail arrives at the bottom of East Fork Rock Canyon after another 0.7 mile, then crosses the bottom of the drainage and turns south to follow the west side of the canyon. Otherwise, return to the trail junction near the mine and take the south fork back to the trailhead.

    From the junction the trail immediately drops about 100 feet and proceeds in a southwesterly direction for 1.1 miles along a bench at the base of the Entrada Sandstone. This section of the trail is actually an old jeep road, but it doesnít appear to have been used in many years. After 1.1 miles the trail leaves the road and turns southeast, then climbs up to the base of the Entrada cliffs. Soon you will encounter the first of another four alcoves containing ruins. Most of them are very well preserved and easy to spot; the path passes just below them as it meanders along the base of the cliffs. Finally, 1.1 miles after leaving the jeep road, you will intersect the Sand Canyon trail again, and from there it is only 0.3 mile back to the trailhead.


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