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Length: 6.2 miles round trip
Why we love it: This trail has plenty of sunshine, smooth sandstone, gorgeous views, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins along the way
When to go: May through November, as long as the temperatures are moderate
Pre-hike buzz: Stop
Dogs: Allowed on leash
Established in 2000, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado’s far southwestern corner is a relatively untouched wilderness of flat-topped mesas and twisting canyons whose colorful pink, red, and white walls harbor the largest concentration of archaeological sites in the country. Most of these are Ancestral Puebloan ruins that were built and inhabited between about the 10th and 12th centuries AD.
A great way to see some of the ruins and experience the beauty of this landscape is to hike some or all of the Sand Canyon Trail, which connects Roads N and G in the sparsely populated region southwest of Cortez. Logistically, it’s easiest to drive to one of the trailheads and explore a section as an out-and-back adventure, but if you have access to two vehicles, you can enjoy hiking or mountain biking the entire trail as a one-way route. Although much of the trail is relatively easy to walk, there is one very steep section of switchbacks along the trail’s northern half that descends about 700 feet (from north to south) in just half a mile.
I drove to the southern McElmo trailhead on Road G, from where it’s just a one-mile walk from the rough trailhead parking area to the Saddlehorn Pueblo, a two-room cliff dwelling tucked into a natural alcove in a large rock that looks like the horn of a saddle. This walk begins by ascending a steep slickrock slope up to a large sandstone block that towers above the national monument sign. From the top of this slope, the trail bends left around this block and soon passes a spur trail on the right. From here, continue straight on the Sand Canyon Trail, marked by large cairns on the slickrock, through two trail junctions marked with maps that are encountered in quick succession.
As you climb, you’ll pass more sandstone cliffs and red slopes dotted with dark green pinyon and juniper trees, as well as several spur trails. After a mile, on the left-hand side, you’ll see the distinctive saddlehorn rock formation. There another spur trail leads a few steps into a small amphitheater, from which there is a nice view of the small cliff dwelling. From the beams of a kiva ruin excavated here in the late 1980s (and later backfilled), archaeologists have dated its occupation to about 1250-1285AD.
From the Saddlehorn Pueblo, you can continue north along the Sand Canyon Trail or retrace your steps back to the start. Regardless of how far you hike, be sure to carry plenty of water, obtain a detailed route description, and follow all BLM hiking or biking tips and regulations.
Getting there: To reach the southern trailhead in McElmo Canyon from downtown Cortez, head south on Highway 491. At the signs for the airport, turn right (west) on County Road G. Drive 12 miles west on this paved road to the trailhead parking on a rough, slickrock surface on the north (right) side of the road, directly across the street from a sign for Sutcliffe Vineyards. If you reach a small charter school, you’ve gone too far.