Path of the Month: Hike into history in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
June 1, 2017
Cortez is near the home of Mesa Verde National Park, a chance to see the ruins of the ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home from 600 to 1300 AD.
I loved the park. But I have to admit, I loved running a nearby trail even more.
I had no idea the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument had a fun surprise waiting for me. I just wanted to run a cool trail.
The national monument seems to be one of the best places for that in Cortez, and the best trail, from what I've heard, is Sand Canyon.
“These ruins give you some insider access and feel wilder than Mesa Verde and the thousands of visitors that pass by every summer. But in order for it to stay that way, hikers need to leave them alone.”
It's an easy drive from the many motels that rest on the edge of the city. There's an upper trailhead and a lower. I started from the lower.
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Sand Canyon is the major one of three trails that leave from the lower trailhead at a stop called Castle Rock.
It's appropriate, as you start your hike, or your run, as the case may be, on a slab of slickrock. You also park there.
The hike features the red clay and beautiful desert scenery that you see in southern Colorado, and that's enough. But the surprise (unless you've done your research) comes almost right away, when you see the first cliff dwelling.
The trail passes at least eight of them within the first four miles of the canyon. If you search hard, you can look for some side trails that will lead to the ruins. Make sure when you're taking a spur that it's intended to be a spur and not a beaten-down shortcut from hikers.
When you get there, you'll get some pretty close access to the ruins, which you shouldn't abuse by doing something stupid like touching them or taking a rock away. These ruins give you some insider access and feel wilder than Mesa Verde and the thousands of visitors that pass by every summer. But in order for it to stay that way, hikers need to leave them alone.
As you make your way, look left and right for the dwellings. They blend it well with the rock, but they're easy to spot.
The trail itself isn't too difficult. It is a long way to the end, but it is not too steep, and though it is sandy, not too technical either. It's either an all-day hike or a two-to-three-hour run.
I turned around before the point where the trail make its steep climb up to the Sand Canyon Pueblo. When you hike all the spurs, you'll do 10 miles there and back.
This place is a good second-day visit after you've seen Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde is worth visiting. It's a beautiful national park. But if you want something that harkens back to the Pueblo people and the thirst for exploration in the early days, the Sand Canyon trail is a better option.
— Dan England has climbed more than 150 peaks, including all of the state's 54 14ers, and logged thousands of miles on Colorado's great trails. He is the Adventure and NextNC editor for The Tribune. He also occasionally guides hikes and snowshoes, mostly 14ers. He can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 392-4418. Follow him on Twitter @ DanEngland.