Sand Canyon

Cave dwelling

Getting There

Brooke and I drove to Durango for a long Memorial Day Weekend. We left Thursday afternoon and got back to Denver Monday evening. We had a lot of fun on the way and on the way back, but had an especially big day on Saturday May 25, 2019. That was the day we visited Sand Canyon, which I’m about to tell you about.

Sand Canyon is a canyon in the far southwest corner of Colorado, located in the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. It’s a tributary of McElmo Creek, which is a famous drainage containing hundreds of ruins where ancestral puebloans once lived, around 800 years ago. I’d never been there before, but Brooke’s father Whitey had hiked the canyon about 20 years ago and recommended it. So we made a day trip from Durango.

Ute Peak as seen from the Sand Canyon trail

The area where we hiked is just to the north of the small mountain range that make up what people generally call Sleeping Ute Mountain. In the photo above, the highest peak is Ute Peak (also sometimes called Ute Mountain, and also sometimes called Sleeping Ute Mountain). That makes up the shoulders of the sleeping Ute


There is a trail that goes from one end of Sand Canyon to the other, and both an upper and a lower trailhead. The whole thing is about 6 miles each way, but I knew I didn’t have a 12 mile (round trip) hike in me, especially one with a big elevation gain at the end. So we parked at the lower trailhead, hiked about 2.5 miles in, had lunch, hiked back out, and then drove to the upper trailhead.

The lower trailhead is by far the most popular, and they’ve recently had to add a second parking area down the road some, but we got there early enough to get a parking space in the original parking area. The hike follows a bench along the rim of Sand Canyon where there are a number of ruins.

Whitey near the remains of Castle Rock Pueblo

The first ruins we saw was the high wall above. At the time, I just thought it was out there all by itself, but I later learned there’s much more to the story. This was just part of a small village that was abandoned all at once after its people were massacred.

After those ruins, it’s another mile or so before the next one, then there are several more tucked into alcoves on a bench that the trail follows.

Brooke and me, posing by a ruin in the shade (photo by Brooke Powers)
Lower Sand Canyon as seen from the canyon view overlook
I thought this was a strange alcove to build in
Whitey and Brooke relaxing on a rock – they like to rest in the sun, I like to rest in the shade
The last ruin we saw before turning around
Whitey and me under a very bright blue sky (photo by Brooke Powers)

That night, I did some reading online about where we’d just been, and I learned that there was once a pueblo where a few dozen people lived very near the lower trailhead. They call it Castle Rock Pueblo. It had even been excavated by the Crow Canyon Research Institute back in the 80s and 90s. We were right there and didn’t realize we were in the middle of a little village. Some photos from the 1890s still exist of the ruins, and you can see that in the 100 years between when the photos were taken and when the research started, most of the building blocks had disappeared. The researchers say they were used as easy building material by the early white farmers who settled in McElmo creek to build houses and other buildings from, and many of those buildings still exist today.

On the whole day hike, I didn’t hear a single canyon wren. That was weird, I thought. Where are they?


That afternoon, on the way to and from the Sand Canyon Pueblo site at the upper part of the canyon, we did some geocaching. It was Whitey’s first time.

Brooke found this one, I think
Whitey’s first geocache find
The geocache was a lovely margarine tub covered in camouflage duct tape, shown here near a pretty flower
Categorized as Travel


  1. Great photos. Thanks for the mini-travelogue. Looks like a nice hike before it gets too hot. Where were the canyon wrens? I love their call. Maybe delayed by the snow.

    1. Yeah, the temperature was perfect. It was between 68 and 72 all day. If the desert was like that all the time, I’d do a lot more hiking. Maybe the wrens were delayed, I don’t know. I don’t know what they even eat, so if they eat bugs, the problem may be that there weren’t many bugs yet.

  2. Beautiful this time of year before it gets too hot. Did you see many gnats – it’s that time of year? Horny toads, Gila monsters, tarantulas, or snakes? Many birds?

    1. We didn’t have any issues with bugs at all – no gnats, mosquitos, or even flies. The only reptiles we saw were lizards, none of the other things. There were a few birds, but mostly ravens, magpies, and LBBs. There was a lot of beautiful cactus flower blooms, and all the plants – especially the Mormon tea – are flourishing from all the moisture the area has had this spring so far.

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