When you need a break from snow and ice, try the red rock of McElmo Canyon and the Sand Canyon Trail in southwestern Colorado. The lower part of this trail in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument offers year-round hiking and a chance to explore the archaeology of the area.
The Sand Canyon trailhead offers some of the easiest access to the Canyons of the Ancients, a remote and mostly undeveloped area. Castle Rock butte looms over the trailhead, which is at 5500 feet—low enough for winter snows to melt quickly.
Make your way up a broad expanse of slick rock, staying to the left of the butte, to begin the trail proper. On the far side of the butte, a side trail leads to the site of Castle Rock Pueblo, inhabited by Ancestral Pueblo Indians from AD 1250 to 1280.
The trail narrows, winding through gentle pinyon-and-juniper terrain. Watch for marked side trails leading to closer views of cliff dwellings. Enjoy the views of eroded red rock formations on your left, and snow-covered Sleeping Ute Mountain on your right. On a chilly day in December, there was fresh snowfall in Cortez, but by midafternoon the lower Sand Canyon trail was clear and dry except for a few slick spots.
In about one mile, you’ll come to Saddlehorn Pueblo, which dates from the mid to late 1200s. It’s the star attraction of the lower part of the trail. This scenic cliff dwelling is perched in an alcove set in an equally scenic butte. In the late afternoon sun, the masonry architecture glows.
The Sand Canyon Trail actually extends 6.5 miles from the lower trailhead to the upper trailhead and the archaeological site of Sand Canyon Pueblo. In the winter, it’s best to stick to the lower parts of the trail. From the lower trailhead, you can also access the Rock Creek and East Rock Creek trails.
If you go: From Cortez, take Highway 491 south, and turn west on County Road G (You’ll see signs for the Cortez airport and Hovenweep National Monument). Take Road G about 12 miles to the trailhead on your right. Park on the slick rock. For information on trail conditions, call the Canyons of the Ancients headquarters at the Heritage Center, at 970-882-5600.