The Sand Canyon trail system is located in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument just outside of Cortez. This area was designated as a monument in the year 2000, because of the rich cultural history that still exists. There are so many archaeological sites that this area is often referred to as an “outdoor museum”. While most of the trail system was constructed in an area with very few ruins, the main Sand Canyon trail has a variety of cliff dwellings and rock structures. The system connects county road N and county road G, and has a series of three loops that wind through some of McElmo Canyon’s most scenic vantage points.
What Makes It Great
I love everything about this trail. It is well maintained, unique, and absolutely gorgeous. Cortez is very lucky to have yet another great trail system so close to town. The views from Sand Canyon are just stunning. Located in the northern shadow of Sleeping Ute, you get a great view of the mountain, as well as the red rock canyon country in McElmo Canyon. The loops themselves are all fairly well maintained, and cover a variety of terrain. From sections following cairns over slickrock, to curving tracks through thick patches of pinyon pine and juniper, to winding through sandy washes, this trail has it all. The West Rock trail loops through easy, evenly graded terrain following Rock Creek. The sandy washes provide the only real challenge on this loop. Slightly harder is the Sand Canyon main trail, with some hairpin turns and one very steep ascent up a canyon wall. Here you have the best opportunity to view cliff dwellings and other ruins scattered along the side of the trail. The East Rock trail is probably the most challenging of the trails, with several sections so treacherous that they may need to be walked depending on your skill level. It also has some very fun terraced rocks that are sure to test your bike’s suspension.
Who is Going to Love It
Anyone who enjoys desert style mountain biking will love Sand Canyon. If you love slickrock, technical riding, and huge canyon country scenery, then Sand Canyon will be your new favorite trail. It’s probably some of the best riding in this style outside of the Moab area. Sitting at about 5000 feet, this trail system is low and dry, making it accessible for most of the year, and very popular with the locals in Cortez. If you are a local and haven’t heard about this trail yet, get in your car right now and go to Sand Canyon, you can thank me later. Along with being popular locally, visitors from different climates will be amazed with this trail. Those who aren’t familiar with this style of riding, and are interested in trying it out, will thoroughly enjoy this idyllic introduction.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
From Cortez, take highway 160 west to highway 491 heading southwest. After 3.1 miles turn right on county road G. Follow scenic county road G 12.4 miles down into McElmo Canyon. The trail head will and parking lot will be well marked on the right side of the road. The parking lot is basically on a rock, so if you have a low clearance vehicle there are additional spots on the same side of the road, beside the parking lot. Head up the rock north of the parking lot to find the beginning of the trail, just left of the Canyon of the Ancients sign. There are also excellent maps at all the trail intersections.