Monday, December 29, 2008

Small Ruins on the Sand Canyon Trail

The Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado is probably the best hiking attraction of the this relatively new Monument. It runs for 6.5 miles north and south with the south trail head located about 12 miles west of Cortez, CO on County Road G. In 2011, there have been some management changes to the area.

There is a loop trail at the south end of Sand Canyon called the East Rock Creek Trail that connects to the main Sand Canyon Trail at 0.25 miles and about 1.8 miles. (In 2011 these connections are now called connecting trails to the renamed East Rock Creek Trail.) On the main trail there are at least two Ancestral Pueblo ruins sites to see past the Castle Rock Pueblo before the second trail junction. One of these is the Saddle Horn Ruin named for the shape of the rock formation it rests under.

Past the second junction there are at least eight more sites before the trail climbs steeply to the upper trail head. The third and fourth ruins sites are visible at the same time in adjacent alcoves. These two are about 2 miles up the trail just past the connecting trail East Rock Creek Junction.

The 5th ruin is a tower that is on a spur trail to the canyon rim. This is the only ruin site along this section of trail that is not in an alcove. From the canyon rim there are alcoves that can be scanned with binoculars away on the east side. There is at least one good site that can be seen out of at least eight that are over there. The unmarked East Sand Canyon Trail starts at the small sign that says “Sand Canyon” at about 3.3 miles. (in 2011, the side trail to east Sand Canyon is considered closed.)

The 6th and 7th ruins sites are located close together in adjacent alcoves. The spur trail for the relatively large 7th site leads right up into the alcove allowing a very close viewing. I think this is the largest of these along the trail sites. The very large Sand Canyon Pueblo is located at the north trail head and these smaller sites are strung out on both sides of the canyon.
The 8th ruin is also relatively large. All of these alcove sites are positioned facing the south and get good exposure to the sun.

The 9th is a small site to one side of a large alcove. These sites are mostly only a short distance above the trail.

The 10th small ruins site along the south end of the Sand Canyon Trail is located close to the 9th in the same side canyon.

It took me about 2:00 hours to get to the point, about 3.3 miles, where the trail gets steep ascending to the north trail head and about 1:30 to return to the trail head for a total of 3:30 hours. I skipped past the Castle Rock Pueblo and the first two sites that are also part of the old East Rock Creek Loop Trail , but if you are a first time visitor here you certainly want to stop for these also. (In 2011 most of these sites now have publicized names.)

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Painted Hand Pueblo Trail

The Painted Hand Pueblo Trail is a 0.75 mile loop trail that visits an Ancestral Pueblo Ruins site in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado near the Utah border. The trail head is down a dirt road off of paved County Road 10 about 10 miles north of the visitor center of Hovenweep National Monument.

The trail travels along the west Hovenweep Canyon rim and descends roughly down to the tower structure that has become the symbol the relatively new National Monument.

In the alcove below the tower, there are some faint blue pictographs of hands. The interpretive sign at the trail head mentions petroglyphs. There are some faint ones on the north end of the site near a large wall segment.  Past the main tower, there is another partial tower and two wall sections. The Painted Hand site is not far from the Cutthroat Castle site of Hovenweep. These structures all date from the 1200s and were abandoned by the early 1300s.
This site is surrounded by Pinon Pine and Utah Juniper forest and overlooks a basin that is mostly sagebrush. I didn't see any sign of seep springs or other water at this site.

Climbing back to the canyon rim, some wall sections perched on the top of a very large boulder are visible. These are not obvious from the area below the rim. Building on the tops of boulders is common at some of the other sites in this area.

From the Painted Hand trail head you can hike or drive about 0.5 miles to the upper trail head of the Cutthroat Castle site. From the upper trail head it is 0.8 miles down to a site that is similar to Painted Hand.
The Canyons of the Ancients has only a few official trails in a large area and the visitor is encouraged to discover these remote sites on their own.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

East McLean Basin Rim

The east rim of McLean Basin  can be accessed along a minor dirt road in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado. This road is about 0.5 miles south of the turnoff for the Painted Hand Trail or 8.5 miles north of the visitor center for Hovenweep National Monument. 

The scattered dead Juniper trees in this mesa top area mostly show burn marks and they appear to have experienced a recent forest fire. The road extends for about a mile to a lookout point overlooking the McLean Basin.

Rather than follow the road, I hiked to the left into the Pinon Pine and Juniper forest and tried to follow a drainage down into McLean Basin. There are Ancestral Pueblo tower structures in McLean Basin, but they are not well known. The drainage I followed eventually dropped steeply over a cliff and I hiked back to the rim, and back along the road.
From the lookout point at the end of the dirt road I scanned the basin for the elusive towers but I didn't see them. I continued scanning along the north rim of this area and enjoyed the good views, but still didn't discover any ancient sites. (The Towers are visible at an overlook near the beginning of the Pedro Point Road, the next road south. They are in the northeast part of McLean Basin.)
Cutting back across the scorched Juniper fields I tripped over a ruins site that was only about 200 yards from where I parked. This site appeared to be circular and has a deep depression in the center. At other locations, similar looking sites are usually identified as Great Kivas.

The Scorched Juniper Great Kiva (my unofficial name) is very close to the dirt road and can  be seen from the paved road if you know to look for it. Unlike many of the other sites in the Hovenweep area, it is not located right at the rim of a canyon.

Scanning around the vicinity of the Great Kiva with binoculars, there appeared to be a similar site about 0.3 miles to the north. The second site was a little larger and appeared to be more of a village, with a small kiva and several other structures, all collapsed. The village site was on a high spot and had good views toward both Sleeping Ute Mountain and the Blue Mountains near Monticello, Utah. My hike in this area was about 3:00 hours, much of the time scanning and exploring.

Getting to Know Canyons of the Ancient National Monument

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ismay Petroglyph Trail and Lower Yellowjacket Canyon

From the old Ismay Trading Post, along the south edge of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado, the dirt Yellow Jacket Canyon Road turns north. This site is west of Cortez, CO about 26 miles along County Road G.

Only about 0.2 miles north of the old trading post, a large boulder is the foundation of a ruins site, and has an extensive petroglyph panel.

Around the left side of the boulder are some small wall sections and petroglyphs are visible on the side and back of a piece broken off the main rock.

The inside of the boulder has the most works of rock art. The ages probably vary as there are some horse figures and some English letters, but also many drawings of sheep and geometric figures.

It is easy to climb up on the broken piece and get a good look at the figures inside. Around the boulder there is a lot of rubble scattered and some intact wall sections. There is a probable kiva on the back side of the boulder.

Not all the rock art is ancient. The JW initials look like the work of John Wetherill, one of the famous brothers associated with Mesa Verde and other Four Corners ruins sites.

This site is at the junction of McElmo and Yellowjacket Canyons, both having water for most of the year. The area is otherwise very dry with very few trees growing except along the streams.

The top of the large boulder has some ruined wall sections also. It seems to be common in this area to build on the tops of boulders.

The Yellowjacket Canyon dirt road continues north for about 1.5 miles along the wide canyon mouth. Just before reaching the small farm area, there is an elevated rocky area that looks like a possible ruins area.

There are a number of large boulders and flat areas overlooking the farming area and many rock surfaces that looked like good places for petroglyphs, but I didn't see anything that I was sure was a ruins.

There was a locked gate in the farm area and it didn't appear that any road or trail continued further up the canyons. This area is near the junction of Yellow Jacket Canyon coming from the east and Hovenweep Canyon from the north.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a large area with a high concentration of Ancestral Pueblo ruins sites but it doesn't have many official trails and there aren't very many easy to find access points. It is a discover things on your own park.

The wash in the center of the canyon is deep and wide and probably has year round water. The Yellow Jacket Canyon is a favorite among birders for the lush riparian habitat it provides. They have been having luck spotting Lucy's Warbler, a rare sighting in this area. Visiting the Isamy Petroglyphs and continuing up Yellow Jacket Canyon provides about 2:00 hours of hiking and maybe more if you linger.

(On a later visit I noticed a cow trail that leads to the top of Cannonball Mesa about 1.4 miles northeast along the rough dirt road. Following the cow trail, there are good hikes up above that I call Cannonball Cliffs and Cannonball Point. There are at least four other ruins sites to find in this immediate area. There is also a small site on the west side of the Yellow Jacket Creek. Use the labels for more on these hikes.)


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rock Creek Trail (West)

The Rock Creek Trail was formerly one of two long officially unnamed loops off of the Sand Canyon Trail system in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado. In 2011 the western loop has been named the Rock Creek Trail. The trail head is 12 miles west of Cortez, CO on County Road G. These two long loops explore the two forks of Rock Creek to the west of Sand Canyon.

The starting point for the Rock Creek loop trail is the inconspicuous "Horses not Recommended" segment that is just past the Castle Rock spur, only about 250 yards from the trail head on the left. You have to keep an eye out or you'll miss the otherwise well marked trail. The junction for the East Rock Creek loop is within sight a little further on.

The "Horses not Recommended" segment passes through Pinon Pine and Utah Juniper high desert habitat, along cliffs and over large sandstone outcrops, before reaching a trail post. Stay to the left. This segment is part of the officially renamed East Rock Creek loop trail, that explores the East Fork canyon.

Stay left at either of the next two trail junctions that arrive after a few more minutes. There are no signs to help but you want the canyon that is more to the west. I turned at the second trail junction for a counter clockwise tour, but either way will work.

There is good desert scenery and rock formations in the West Fork canyon, but I didn't see any Ancestral Pueblo ruins along this route, or any large arches.

This trail appears to get use from mountain bikers and a few horse riders but not very many hikers. Crossing Rock Creek at the far extent of the trail, there is no riparian habitat in this creek. No cottonwoods, no willows, the desert plants extend right to the banks of the creek. I suppose that without water no one could live here.

I spent about 3:20 hours on this route, for about a 6 mile hike. I was going slowly and scanning with binoculars for ruins sites and perhaps a large arch as there is in the nearby East Rock Creek loop.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

East Rock Creek Loop Trail (Old System)

The East Rock Creek Trail is a 5.0 mile loop off of the South Trail Head of the 6.5 mile Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado. The main trail head is 12 miles west of Cortez, CO on County Road G.

The trail junctions of the East Rock Creek Trail are at the 0.25 point and about 1.8 miles on the Sand Canyon Trail and are clearly marked. This is just past the large Castle Rock formation and ruins site that looms above the slickrock near the trail head. (In 2011 the formerly unnamed loop into the east fork of Rock Creek Canyon is now the East Rock Creek Trail. The segments mentioned here are now called Connecting Trails.)

This trail has scenery typical of the high desert country seen in the Four Corners area, lots of Pinon Pines and Utah Juniper trees with eroded layers of rock stacked together and mountains or canyons in the distance. Turning at the 0.25 mile mark and heading west there are at least four small ruins sites in the first 1.5 miles. (This segment is the south Connecting Trail.)

Three of the four ruins that are obvious are associated with rock alcoves that face the south. This one is the most extensive.

The trail continues north along the east side of the Rock Creek Canyon. There are two trail posts indicating trail junctions with unnamed trails that explore the two forks of Rock Creek Canyon. At the second trail post at 2.5 miles, the 2011 Connecting East Rock Creek Trail turns east and climbs to the mesa area between Rock Creek Canyon and Sand Canyon.  (The 2011 East Rock Creek Trail stays north. )

There are at least seven ruins visible between the 1.5 and 2.5 mile trail posts. They are down in Rock Creek Canyon to the west and are easy to miss as they are not right along the trail. It is helpful to have binoculars to view them. There is a large arch that I've called Rock Creek Arch another 20 minutes along the formenrly unnamed trail (the 2011 East Rock Creek Trail) that continues north.

Just above the trail junction there is an odd small hole in the side of the hill that appears to be a mining effort. The views are good from the elevated area with a spur trail leading to the edge of the mesa.

It is 0.75 miles across the mesa area to the connection with the Sand Canyon Trail. Along the return route to the trail head there are several spur trails to at least two small ruins sites along the south end of this scenic trail.

One of the two sites is known as Saddle Horn Ruins, the only one with a well known name. (In 2011 several of the other sites on the Sand Canyon Trail have publicized names.) I usually spend about 3:00 hours on this loop with stops to view the ruins.

Castle Rock Pueblo Trail at Sand Canyon

The Castle Rock Pueblo Trail is a spur off of the Sand Canyon Trail in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument in southwest Colorado. The Castle Rock formation is visible from the slickrock parking area at the trail head, about 12 miles west of Cortez, CO on County Road G.

From the front side of Castle Rock a small arch is visible to the left. Below the arch are the rubble remains of some of the estimated 40 to 60 rooms that served 75 to 100 residents. In the notch at the top right, there appears to be a log floor with two courses of stone bricks.
Getting up closer, the log floor looks like it could have been a lookout post, or maybe for signaling. On the south side of Road G and a little to the west is another large rock formation called Battle Rock. From a high enough vantage point there appears to be a structure on top of there also.
Just to the left of the lookout notch, behind a large slab of rock is a section of preserved wall. It is possible to view this oddly placed structure from the opposite side also.
Hiking past Castle Rock on the west side there the spur trail leads around the back side to a large section of preserved wall. This seems to be a particularly thick wall section.
The habitat here is Pinon Pine and Utah Juniper forest. There is water in McElmo Creek slightly to the south but there doesn't appear to be permanent water in the vicinity of Castle Rock.

This is the largest village at this end of the Sand Canyon Trail system, though there are several smaller sites nearby on the Sand Canyon Trail and the East Rock Creek Trail. The very large Sand Canyon Pueblo is 6.5 miles up the Sand Canyon trail near the north trailhead.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

East Rock Creek Trail near Sand Canyon

At the lower trail head for the 6.5 mile Sand Canyon Trail in Canyons of the Ancients NM in southwest Colorado, there are connectiong trails for East Rock Creek Trail  at 0.25 miles and about 2.0 miles. There is a 5.0 mile loop hike using both connections. In 2011 there has been some reorganization of the trail system.

This trail head is about 12 miles west of Cortez, CO on County Road G. The old East Rock Creek loop  has a renamed side loop that is the new East Rock Creek Trail. It circles around the East Fork Canyon and connects back to the Sand Canyon trail head for about a 7.0 mile hike.

At the trail head, the Castle Rock formation towers over the area. There is a large Ancestral Pueblo ruins site arrayed around Castle Rock and a small arch in the upper west corner. A large section of intact wall is visible on the back side of Castle Rock.

The south connecting trail segment features at least four small ruins sites. Three are associated with alcoves but one wall section appears to be sitting on top of the mesa, something of a penthouse location. At the 2.5 mile post the new East Rock Creek Trail continues north while the old route connecting trail turns back east. (Pictures of the ruins along the connection loop are on the Old System post.)

About one mile further down the East Rock Creek loop, a large arch appears on the right. It is possible to climb up closer and see blue sky through the arch. This large arch doesn't seem to get much attention despite being a major feature.

The Rock Creek trail appears to get use from mountain bikers and horse riders but less from hikers. The trail circles around this short but deep canyon. I didn't see any more ruins sites up this otherwise scenic canyon. (I saw more sites on a later hike but there are in the canyon floor area below the trail and easy to miss.)

Toward the last segments of the hike there is another formenrly unnamed side loop, in 2011 named the  Rock Creek Trail, that goes around the West Fork of Rock Creek. This is another option in the Sand Canyon Trail system.
There is one more option on this route. The trail splits about one mile from the end and one can choose the "Horses not Recommended" trail or the Ok for Horses route. The not for horses segment passes over several segments of slickrock and along some sandstone cliffs with Castle Rock coming back into view.

The slick rock option is more interesting for hikers, giving better views and variety of terrain. It took me 3:30 hours to walk the East Rock Creek Trail route.