The Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients is a hike that meanders through a juniper and pinion pine forest past multiple ruins of the ancestral Puebloans. The hike offers spurs with viewpoints of the ruins, a sandy and shady wash, and a series of steep switchbacks. There are two parking lots, which allows Sand Canyon Trail to be hiked in either direction.
What Makes It Great
First thing’s first. The parking lot on the south side is hard to find. It’s more a big slab of slickrock than an actual lot. The hike from this side is a 6.5 mile climb starting at 5,472 feet, boasting a half-mile section with a 700 foot ascent. The continuous zigzags on this part of the trail, offer vista after vista of juniper-covered Black Mountain to the south.
The first four miles are relatively flat, undulating over slickrock and red dirt. Trail spurs, marked by white diamonds, lead to scenic views of ancient ruins. The ruins are typically cubicle-like constructions built from rocks and hardened mud, placed in giant cavities of red rock. Be sure to have a camera handy, as the spurs come often and do not add much mileage to the hike. Along this section of the trail, cactus and yucca guard the ground while flowers of yellow, red, and purple hide beneath the shade of junipers trees.
After rambling along the ancestral ruins, the trail continues into a sandy wash, which can feel like a maze of multicolored rocks. Don’t worry: keep following the footsteps and the wash until a sign marked “Most Difficult” signals the start of the intense ascent.
The trail winds along the side of hill, occasionally opening up for more camera snaps along the way. Once the switchbacks are finished, the hike continues about two more miles through a shaded forest to the north side of the trail. Here, a picnic bench and a kiosk about the ancestral Puebloans wait.
Walk an additional quarter of a mile to the west and explore the ruins of Sand Canyon Pueblo, which housed a community of several hundred people in the 13th century.
You will not soon forget the strenuous half-mile section with over 30 switchbacks accompanied by breathtaking views of mountains that look like they could have been featured in Lord of the Rings.
You will be happy for the times when you left the main trail and ventured to look at one of the dozen or so ancestral ruins. Or when you walked to the Sand Canyon Pueblo and imagined what it would be like to live nearly 800 years ago in a community positioned around a spiritual spring.
Who is Going to Love It
Hikers looking for a challenging day-hike, people interested in the history of the region and the Pueblo people, or those who enjoy walking dogs while snapping pictures will find Sand Canyon trail to be an charming and challenging hike.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
To get to the south entrance of Sand Canyon trail, follow County Road G for 12.4 miles from 491-S in Cortez. Look for a relatively flat hunk of slickrock on your right. To get to the north entrance, go north of Cortez for 4.9 miles on 491-N, turn left following Goodman Point Road, turn left again on Road 17, and then right on County Road N. It will be about 9 miles from 491-N. There is parking at both ends of the trail, each with a kiosk directing you towards the opposite trailhead. Follow cairns which will clearly lead you to the main trail. Bikes are allowed. Dogs must be kept on leashes. The trail is open to the public all the time, but remember it does get rugged and steep, so proceed with caution, take plenty of water, and make sure to bring a camera.