Although visitors can easily find striking sandstone formations punctuated with Ancestral Puebloan sites when they visit Sand Canyon south of Cortez, finding adequate parking is often another matter.
During the spring and fall, vehicles crowd onto an uneven slickrock area at the trailhead just off the McElmo Canyon Road, often spilling into the right of way. Hikers, cyclists, dogs, and horses mill about as they prepare to set forth on the scenic trail system.
So improving parking at the trailhead is a top priority for the Montezuma County commissioners because of safety concerns.
“You have horse trailers parked on the road unloading on the asphalt,” said James Dietrich, the county’s federal-lands coordinator. “Sooner or later somebody’s going to get killed down there.”
Montezuma County and BLM officials are investigating the possibility of applying for grant funds to improve access to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument both at the Sand Canyon trailhead and perhaps on Road 10, the Hovenweep Road.
Dietrich said he is working on a proposal for monies from the Federal Lands Access Program, which is related to the federal ISTEA program. The amount of the request has not yet been determined.
“We have potentially a source of revenue to team up with the BLM for a solution to parking at Sand Canyon,” he said.
Monument Manager Marietta Eaton agreed. “Some folks were encouraging the commissioners to see if they would be interested in doing anything with us in McElmo and on Road 10, because those are the main paved access points to the monument,” she said.
“We have a lot of issues at Sand Canyon. When the current informal parking lot gets full, people just park wherever, and that’s not the kind of situation we want to see on that county road.”
In peak seasons – spring and fall – an average of 35 cars are crowded at the trailhead, according to monument officials.
Prior to Eaton’s appointment as manager in April 2011, the monument purchased the historic sandstone Lamb house just east of the trailhead. Officials have talked about using the house as a contact site and interpretation center for the monument, among other possibilities. The idea of using the rest of that private property for parking has also been broached; however, it wouldn’t provide a great deal of space, and there are Ancestral Puebloan sites there, complicating the situation.
“You could put down a textile and cover everything up so people don’t disturb it,” Dietrich said, “or you could find money to excavate the sites and utilize what we find as part of the interpretation for the monument.
“Part of the reason we’re going after this grant is the planning aspect, to study the situation.”
On April 15, BLM officials took the county commissioners on a field trip to Sand Canyon and Road 10 to view some of the areas of concern.
On Road 10, access to surrounding monument and other BLM lands has become more difficult since the county chip-sealed the narrow road years ago. The project raised the road well above the adjacent land and there are no shoulders, so it’s nearly impossible to pull off the road and park.
Dietrich said the county is negotiating with the BLM over delineated parking areas and designated dispersed camping off Road 10. Eaton said some minor routes off Road 10 have been closed, sometimes a short distance from Road 10 rather than right at it, in order to provide a place for vehicles to pull off the main road.
She said the field trip was partly to show the commissioners the route closures and the way they were done. “Our methodology [of closing a route] is more like landscaping, so if they ever want to do an assertion under RS 2477 [a statute establishing rights of way on historic routes], we are not doing anything that would preclude them from reopening any of those routes.”
Another concern is the turnoff from Road 10 to Pedro Point, a remote site, because it’s on a hill and there is insufficient line of sight.
“It’s a really dangerous access point if somebody were coming from the north,” Eaton said. “I wanted to see if there were opportunities to reroute it. We will likely eventually close that [turnoff] and put in some trailheads and have places for people with horses to turn their trailers around – make it safer and give space for people to get safely off that narrow county road.
“We’re looking for those safe opportunities for access. We want to make sure people know about them, so we’ll need good signage. It might be that, rather than pull off on a shoulder, you could turn on a road and have a pull-off in a little bit.
“We need to be able to have places where people can get into the monument off the pavement. We know there’s a fair number of hunters that use the area.”
Since the monument’s creation in 2000, managers of the sprawling, 164,000-acre area have struggled to balance the need for public access with the desire to protect the numerous ancient sites and artifacts that prompted the monument’s designation in the first place. Visitors are encouraged to stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores to learn about the monument before setting forth to explore it. Developed trails and sites are very few.
The idea of creating highly visible parking areas for access onto the monument, particularly at Sand Canyon, raises the question of whether those sites will attract even more visitors, prompting the need for even bigger parking areas.
Dietrich said that is one concern of the county commissioners.
“That’s been the argument against this monument from the beginning,” he said. “’If you build it, they will come.’ And it’s come true.
“But since it has been designated a monument, the commissioners’ position is the BLM is going to have to provide some parking for the areas that are getting heavy use, especially since the BLM’s policy seems to be to send people only to certain areas.”
Dietrich said there is no guarantee the county will receive any FLAP grant funds, since the grants are competitive, but the commissioners would very much like to see a parking area established at Sand Canyon this year.
Eaton agreed that she would like to see something done soon. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” she said.