Canyons of the Ancients – July 11th to 13th, 2020

Camping two nights in Mancos State Park gave us a full day to explore the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument which was nearby. The middle of July is probably not the best time to visit the hot, arid desert, but we survived and even enjoyed our adventure.

As we approached Mancos State Park, coming down in elevation, the temperatures rose. Envisioning another exposed camp site on a reservoir, like the one we had just left at Ridgway State Park, we looked up our reservation hoping it had electric hook ups again. Nope. We were very relieved when we pulled into the campground at Mancos to find the campground nestled in a patch of pine trees. The partial shade the trees provided, along with the nice breeze passing through, made sitting outside at our campsite very comfortable. We even put our van awning out again since it was not too windy. For dinner we made an egg scramble with bacon, zucchini, green onions, a fresh tomato, and mozzarella cheese. Since we wanted to get an early start the next morning to try to beat the heat, we hit the sack early.

We got up at 7 am. We were on the road by 8 am. We dumped our gray tanks as we left the campground. As we started to leave, Left Buddy (LB) suddenly stopped the van. “I forgot to latch the bikes back up!” It’s a good thing we noticed that before we were going any faster. We’re not sure if that would have damaged anything or not. The activities for the day centered around Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a collection of ruins of structures from the Ancestral Puebloans, the ancestors of the modern day Pueblo Peoples. The ruins are dated from about A.D. 750 to A.D. 1300. There is also a wonderful museum at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center in Dolores.

We knew the Visitor Center and Museum in Delores were closed, but we had downloaded a brochure from their website. Our original plan was to see the Lowry Pueblo Ruins, the Sand Canyon Pueblo Ruins at the north end of the Sand Canyon Trail, and hike up to the Saddlehorn Pueblo Ruins from the south end of Sand Canyon Trail. However, on the way to Lowry Pueblo, we drove right by the Visitor Center, so we stopped to see if they had maps available to grab. They did, but there was also a ruin up a short trail at the Visitor Center, Escalante Pueblo, so we walked up the half mile trail to check it out. We didn’t remember that we had been there before until that point, but the surroundings were very familiar. Yes, we believe we had been there with the kids a decade or so before.

From there we headed to Lowry Pueblo. For the last couple of miles to the pueblo, the road turned to dirt, but it was in good condition. The same could not be said for the little dirt turn off into the parking lot, but we managed it OK in our van. The Lowry Pueblo has standing walls, 40 rooms, eight kivas and a Great Kiva. There is a shade structure built over it to help protect it and slow down its deterioration and the walls have been stabilized. There is also a shaded picnic area and vault toilets. There is one toilet for men and another for women, but the sign said that only one side was open as a time so they can clean and alternate between the two of them for COVID reasons.

The map we picked up at the Visitor Center showed a counter clockwise loop through the Canyons of the Ancients. The sites are rather spread out. We decided to change our route and follow the recommended one. The next point of interest on the route was Painted Hand Pueblo. We debated about stopping for this one, but it sounded interesting. There is a parking lot closer to the pueblo, but it is a mile down a high clearance 4WD road. We stopped to check it out to see if we wanted to hike down the road to it. When we got there, however, there was a sign indicating that the road was closed because there was no legal access across the private land that it crosses. We decided to move on. An SUV and truck came by before we left and they came to the same conclusion and left as well.

A little further down the road, the other two vehicles, which were 4WD, turned down road 4721, we’re guessing to see a couple of Hovenweep National Monument sites down that way. Since it looked like a 4WD road, we did not follow them. Hovenweep National Monument is a little interwoven with Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. It also protects Ancestral Puebloan ruins. We don’t know why there are two national monuments here instead of one, but it’s probably due to a complicated political history. Hovenweep National Monument is managed by the National Park Service while Canyons of the Ancients is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. We’re guessing that is because Canyons of the Ancients coordinates different uses of the land between hiking, cattle grazing, mountain biking, horseback riding, oil and gas development, hunting, and conservation.

The driving loop took us over into Utah, where we came across the Hovenweep National Monument Visitor Center. We decided to stop even though we knew the center was closed. That turned out to be a great decision. The only Hovenweep ruins accessible by 2WD vehicles are right behind the Visitor Center. There is a 1.5 mile loop trail around a small canyon with nine separate structures of ruins around the rim. A ranger was manning an information table outside who instructed us to walk counterclockwise around to the Hovenweep House, then turn around and take the Tower Point loop on the way back, about a 45 minute trip instead of about an hour, and you still can see all of the structures.

It was really hot out, perhaps in the 100’s, and there is no shade on the other side of the canyon and the full loop trail involves descending down into the canyon and back up. In fact, the ranger was shutting down the table at noon because of the heat. The ranger also explained why the Painted Hand Pueblo road was closed. The road crosses private property and the owner no longer allows the public to cross their land, so the BLM is in the process of rerouting the road around the private property. The same road is used to access the Cutthroat Castle which is part of the Hovenweep National Monument. We both put on our wide-brimmed hats and filled up our one liter water bottles at the refrigerated water fill station. We had plenty of water in our van, but it was not cold. We pretty much drank a full liter of water during our 45 minute walk. When we finished our exploration of the Little Ruin Trail, we decided to have our lunch at Hovenweep since there were flush toilets and shaded picnic tables. That also meant we could refill our water bottles with cold water again!

We continued our drive around the loop, crossing back into Colorado. A few times we saw what we believe were wild horses, so Right Buddy (RB) snapped a few pictures. Later we saw some horses in a corral so LB teased RB and asked why she wasn’t taking pictures of those horses as well. It was about 2 pm by the time we reached the Sand Canyon Trailhead. We reached it about a mile before Google Maps said we should. It turns out there are two trailheads along county road G. Stopping at the western most one was a good choice. There is a small ruin, called Castle Rock Pueblo, near the trailhead that we would have missed if we had gone to the eastern trailhead. The Sand Canyon Trail is about six miles long and runs up to the Sand Canyon Pueblo Ruin. We got the feeling from some informational signs we were reading earlier that the Sand Canyon Pueblo Ruin is not excavated, so we already removed that from our itinerary for the day.

The temperature was about 100 degrees when we started our hike. Who hikes in the desert in the heat of the day? Of course, we do! Again we donned our hats and took two liters of water each. We only planned on hiking about a mile in to see the Saddlehorn Ruin. We took a couple short spur trails along the way. The first spur, just behind the sandstone butte near the trail head, was to the Castle Rock Pueblo. The second spur made a short loop into a side canyon with pretty rock formations with alcoves. It looked like a perfect place for cliff dwellings, but we didn’t see any. It is possible we needed to climb up some rocks to see something, as it looked like there was a path up some rocks, but we didn’t venture up. The third spur was a lollipop trail into the next side canyon. The trail at the lollipop end was one way and did take us up to an alcove with some ruins. Just around the next bend back on the main trail was the Saddlehorn Pueblo ruins up in an alcove. You could see it from the main trail, but there was a short spur trail that got us a little closer.

OK, time to turn around and head back. We had been on the trail about 50 minutes. There wasn’t much shade on this trail, we had already gone through a liter of water each, and RB was starting to get a headache from the heat. The way back was a little shorter since we didn’t take any of the spur trails on the way back and it was downhill. RB was taking sips of water about every minute until she started feeling better. She already was carrying one of her water bottles in her hand instead of storing it in her daypack to make sure she was drinking it often. In her other hand she was carrying her camera because it was getting hot to the touch when she was carrying it on the clip on her daypack on her chest. Carrying her camera in her hand meant it got a little bit of a breeze as she swung her arms while she walked and it got a little bit of shade from her body. That seemed to help with keeping her camera from overheating. We made it back to the van in about 35 to 40 minutes from where we turned around. LB beat RB back to the van and started the engine to crank the air conditioner, both the front and rear. We also turned on our two little DC vans and stood inside in front of the cool breeze while drinking two cold Cokes from the fridge. Ahhh, that felt good!

We were done touring and hiking for the day. It was less than an hour drive back to our camp site at Mancos State Park. The temperature at Mancos was in the low 90’s, but we were in the shade and there was a strong breeze. We pulled out our chairs and table and sat there eating half a large bag of tortilla chips along with half a jar of salsa to replenish our salts. They hit the spot! With our bellies full of chips, we didn’t feel like making a heavy dinner nor did we have the energy to cook, so we had chicken salad sandwiches.

After dinner, RB felt refreshed and decided to take a walk over to the reservoir to explore the area. LB decided to stay behind. Our campground was located below the dam, so we couldn’t see the reservoir from our campsite, but it was not far away. A short walk brought RB to a nice picnic shelter and volleyball court overlooking the lake. The beautiful mountain peaks were to the east and she was standing on the southeast side of the lake. So, in order to get some nice pictures of the lake with the mountains in the background, she walked across the dam to the west side of the lake.

On the other side of the dam, a trail led off through the trees following the shoreline of the lake. By the time she made it to the other side of the dam, the sun went behind a large cloud. Now that she lost the good lighting for her pictures, she had some time to kill to wait for the sun to come back out. In the meantime, she headed up the trail to the parking lot for the Chicken Creek Trailhead. The Chicken Creek Trail is only within the state park for a mile or two, but it continues for miles outside of the park and connects to other trails. There are also a handful of other short hiking trails around the lake. It was getting late and RB was concerned that LB might start to worry, so she turned around at the Chicken Creek Trailhead and headed back. The sun never did come back out for RB to get the shot she had envisioned in her mind, but she had an enjoyable walk anyway.

The next day we took a well-needed day off from touring. When rain drops started falling on us during our leisurely breakfast, we decided it was time to pack up and get moving. We drove into the town of Cortez for groceries and gas. On the way to the Mesa Verde entrance, our next destination, we stopped at a point of interest, the McElmo Creek Flume, that we noticed on the way to Cortez. The McElmo Creek Flume is the last remaining example of 104 wooden flumes used to carry water diverted from the Dolores River to irrigate crops and domestic water to the Montezuma Valley. The McElmo Creek Flume was in use from the 1890’s to the 1990’s.

Attitude makes all the difference in the world. We could have complained about how hot it was and wallowed in self pity. Instead we made the most of it, took appropriate safety precautions, found ways to stay cool, and enjoyed ourselves. There are always obstacles and problems to overcome. Many times it’s those obstacles that make an experience memorable. What difficult experiences have you had that you now look fondly back on?

Check out our related video: Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

(RB)