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Cortez, Colorado

Hike Sand Canyon in Canyons of the Ancients

13 Miles Total - 1390 ft gain - Out-and-Back Trail

Originally added by Brittany Weber

Weave in and out of canyons scattered with ancient ruins and gorgeous views. By the end of this 13 mile hike you'll have a greater appreciation for the shade, red clay, and the fact that Cortez and a shower are only a short drive away.

The Sand Canyon trail in Canyons of the Ancients has two trailheads. The lower trailhead (off of County Road G) begins at 5,472-ft., while the upper trailhead (off of Country Road N) begins at 6,862-ft. If you are doing the 13 mile out-and-back hike as I did, begin at the lower trailhead and work your way to the upper. If you are looking to do the 6.5 miles one way, I suggest beginning at the upper trailhead and having a second vehicle or someone to pick you up at the lower - that way you are largely losing elevation as you work your way down the trail.

The trail is easy to follow, but with the almost constant exposure to the elements, especially the sun in the summer, it makes the hike a bit more grueling and your pack that much heavier for the extra water you will definitely need to carry.

Starting from the lower trailhead, at around mile 1 you will come to the first of many ruin sites scattered here throughout the canyon. There are several dead-end spurs that lead you to different Ancestral Puebloan ruin sites as you make your way up the trail. This entire area is protected by the Bureau of Land Management for its high concentration of ruins and ruin remains. It's important not to disturb these sites or to take anything you may find, such as pottery sherds or other archeologically significant pieces, as they help archeologists piece together the history behind these sites. As always, Leave No Trace.

At around the 4.5 mile mark there is a 1/2 mile section of trail that contains 30 switchbacks (yes 30) with an elevation change of 700-ft. This section is very rocky, steep, and strenuous and is not a good choice for many folks. The exposure to the elements here is high, so you may want to take a break and grab a snack before you attempt this section to increase your stamina (I know I did - but I also went on one of the hottest days of the summer, oops).

After 6.5 miles you will reach the upper trailhead and also the largest ruin site in the greater four corners region - Sand Canyon Pueblo. It's an interesting site and is one of the few places on the trail that is shaded, so I recommend that you hang around here for a bit if you need a reprieve from the sun before you begin to work your way back down the trail.

Be prepared in advance and check the weather for any possible thunderstorms passing through the area if you are attempting this during the summer. Flash flooding is common here and is a serious threat to hikers. Also be prepared with water, snacks, and a lunch as well as a hat and sunscreen because you will definitely need it. This is rugged country so wear proper hiking boots or shoes and bring plenty of water. I definitely do not recommend wearing street shoes or entering the trail without water - regardless of the season.

There is a visitor center for Canyons of the Ancients that is located off-site called the Anasazi Heritage Center. It's located off of Highway 184 in Dolores, CO and has some cools exhibits for any of you interested in the Ancestral Puebloan history in the area. It does cost $3 for adults, but with air conditioning and it's proximity to some good food in Cortez and Dolores it sure is hard to pass up.

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Dog Friendly
Easy Parking
Family Friendly


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Overall rating: 

Hot, but worth it.

This is a gorgeous hike and I highly recommend it for anyone in the Cortez or greater four corners region. You don't have to do the entire 6.5 (or 13 miles) to see some ruins if that's what you're after. Just start at the lower trailhead and go in about 3 miles and you will have seen most of them at that point. I do recommend completing the hike though - those red canyon walls streaked with juniper and pinyon are definitely something worth working for.

Leave No Trace

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on.

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