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Day Trip: Hiking Canyons of the Ancients


When the snow is sparse, it’s time to lace up those hiking boots and set out on a trek

By Brittany Cupp

canyons of the ancients
Ruins are visible from various spots along the trail. Photos by Brittany Cupp.

With warm days and signs of an early spring upon us, my boyfriend and I decided to give our ski legs a break and head to the desert. Dusting off our hiking shoes, we packed up the car and headed southwest from Durango, Colorado to Canyons of the Ancients.

The national monument is a semi-secret area in southwest Colorado that is home to more than 6,000 archaeological sites. Tucked among rolling hills, almost hidden and dropping just out of sight, these canyons have provided the perfect setting for preserving ancient architecture through the years, while today, they’re the ideal destination for beating the lack-of-snow blues.

canyons of the ancientsThanks to its well-established hiking trail and large ancient pueblo, Sand Canyon is one of the more popular sites within Canyons of the Ancients. The 6.5-mile hike through Sand Canyon is technically a one-way and because of the need for a car shuttle, we opted to head to the southern trail entrance at McElmo Canyon instead. From here, we knew we could explore some of the lesser-traveled loops, off of the main route.

Arriving at the McElmo trailhead, we walked up the cairn-lined slick rock face and made our way into the lush pinion and yucca lined single track. With a blanket of winter still on the north slopes, the warm sun was balanced by a faint cool breeze — perfect for desert hiking. We chose a variation of the East Rock Creek trail. The loop allowed us to catch the Saddlehorn Pueblo, see some hoodoo-like rock formations, and take in vast views of the valley with the snow-covered Sleeping Ute Mountain as a backdrop.

canyons of the ancientsSomething about sun and sand can really ground a restless winter mind; thankfully the Southern Rockies offer quick access. It may be the energy of the place or just traveling along paths that have been hewn for thousands of years, but after visiting Canyon of the Ancients, you leave with an appreciation for the moment and the vast and unexplored area in our backyards.

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