What’s the future for Sand Canyon

Print this article

Monument officials plan to seek public input on how to manage the popular area

Once upon a time, there was a sleepy little trail that wound through beautiful red-rock desert past some Ancestral Puebloan ruins on BLM land.

Few people visited the trail. Those who did were ensured a healthy dose of stillness and solitude. They could wander and explore to their hearts’ content. They could climb up into the crumbling dwellings and see ancient potsherds scattered all around. Many of them pocketed a few potsherds to display at home.

Ancestral Puebloan sites such as this draw increasing numbers of visitors to the Sand Canyon/East Rock area west of Cortez on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Monument officials are planning to ask users for feedback on how the area should be managed. Photo by Gail Binkly

The trail was so beautiful and exciting that it couldn’t stay a secret forever. Its existence spread gradually by word of mouth. Then some environmental organizations began advertising group walks through the area, drawing visitors from Durango and beyond.

It was easy to meander off the trail, so volunteers groomed it, lengthened it, and marked it with cairns. It was featured in the Los Angeles Times and national magazines. More and more people visited. To get away from the crowds, some of them began bushwhacking, creating their own side trails.

Mountain-bikers discovered that the narrow, winding course offered them an exhilarating workout. They began coming in droves. Their tires wore deep grooves in the soft sand. Some cyclists like the hikers, began cutting cross-country, leaving new trails.

Today, the Sand Canyon/East Rock trail complex west of Cortez is one of the most popular hiking areas in Montezuma County. So popular, in fact, that the parking situation at its trailhead in McElmo Canyon is something of a mess. So popular that the manager of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, in which the trail sits, has actually tossed out the idea – this is not a formal suggestion or anything, mind you – of having shuttles haul people to the trailhead from Cortez.

“The parking is really ragged where it is, and there’s no way to mark parking spaces,” said monument Manager Marietta Eaton. “People’s cars are getting scratched and oil pans dented, and in addition we have equestrian users who get trapped in there because people park behind the trailers and they can’t load their horses.”

But parking isn’t the only problem – or concern, to use a less-pejorative word – in the trail complex. There are a number of questions about overuse, conflicting uses, dogs, braided trails and more.

Monument officials had proposed improving the parking area and held an informational talk on the subject in August. But they soon decided the issues were broader than parking.

“Now we’re taking a big step back and looking at the entire Sand Canyon recreation area, and we’re going to write a plan for that entire area, because we have cyclists, horseback riders and hikers, and we want to understand what the issues are,” Eaton said.

“Once we understand that, we can talk about the parking lot.”

Visiting Sand Canyon in the heat of summer, one may not see the need for any plans or changes. Over Labor Day weekend, for instance, there were only a handful of vehicles in the “parking lot” (a rugged, uneven stretch of slickrock just off County Road G, the McElmo Canyon road) at any given time. Two intrepid joggers and their three dogs panted along a path. A couple from Connecticut raved about the area’s beauty and said they wished they’d brought a water bottle so they could take a longer walk. A cyclist from California, puzzled by the different- colored diamonds that demark trails for horses only, cyclists only, and all users, asked where she was supposed to start riding. “I don’t want to make the ancients angry!” she joked.

But for the most part, the relentless sun kept visitors to a minimum, and the trail slumbered in a silence broken only by occasional bird song.

However, visit Sand Canyon during the fall or spring and you’ll see a different picture. Vehicles crowd the parking area and spill onto the sides of the road. Dogs run amok, chasing lizards and rabbits. Cyclists zoom around curves, sometimes startling unwary pedestrians. Horseback riders struggle to get their mounts away from the fray. There is an urban-park feel to the rugged area.

Longtime visitors to Sand Canyon have noticed that the potsherds have disappeared, there seem to be fewer lizards and other small wildlife in the heavily used areas, and dog and horse poop are plentiful.

“We don’t want to get to the point that there’s so much use and so much damage that we compromise everybody’s experience,” Eaton said. “What are the thresholds of resource damage and, when you hit a threshold, what actions kick in? I would hate to see us get down the road to where we’re having to allocate use.

“It feels pretty good right now, but we have a lot of use, and it feels like we could hit the threshold in the future. I think these studies will give us a good feel. It will be a very thoughtful process. ”

Eaton said the colored diamonds, a fairly recent addition, were installed to try to separate equestrians from cyclists and better mark the trail route, but not everyone likes them. “Some feel they’re aesthetically unpleasing, but others feel they’re helpful because it’s a complex trail system and easy to get lost.

“We’re encouraging people to stay on the trail and we’re having pretty good luck.”

One problem was that people were climbing up into alcoves to see ancient cliff dwellings and using the dwelling walls to pull themselves up into the structures.

“They didn’t see there’s no mortar in the walls and those rocks could fall. We would like those small cliff dwellings to stay intact as long as possible.”

Other concerns to be addressed include the extensive network of braided, unofficial trails – “we’re getting rid of a lot of social trails,” Eaton said – and dogs. “We’re going to encourage people to keep control of their dogs so they’re not running everywhere.”

Parking – the problem that sparked the initial informational meeting – remains a thorny issue. The Montezuma County commissioners have voiced concern about the traffic hazard posed by all those eager hikers and cyclists parking willy-nilly just off (and sometimes on) the narrow road.

“We have an average of 35 vehicles there at a time, and we would like to be able to accommodate a few more but we aren’t sure we’ll be able to,” Eaton said.

Prior to Eaton’s arrival in April 2011, the monument purchased the historic Lamb house just east of the Sand Canyon trailhead. The home was built by the Baxtrom family, which built other houses in McElmo Canyon in their trademark style of red sandstone on the corners and lintels, blonde sandstone for the remainder, Eaton said.

There has been talk of creating a formal parking lot at the house, but there are concerns that it would be too small. Carving a level parking area out of the bedrock at the current trailhead would take an enormous amount of work and money. So Eaton is looking for ideas.

“Is there someone in town who would want to run a business running shuttles from a hotel? If there was a daily shuttle, perhaps we could accommodate more users. We want to hear things like that.”

Of course, a bigger lot or a daily shuttle raises the “build it and they will come” issue. Would such measures just draw more visitors to the fragile area? Has there, in fact, already been too much promotion by the monument, which touts Sand Canyon on its website and in brochures?

“It was sort of already happening when the monument was designated,” Eaton said. “It’s off a paved road, close to town. It’s got great biking.”

And the trail is now promoted on countless travel websites and user blogs that delineate every step one can take along the sandy path and every site one will see.

“There are a lot of businesspeople in town that promote this area too,” she said, “and it’s their right to do that. Our responsibility is to maintain it and hopefully give a quality experience that keeps people coming back.”

Eaton said all visitors to the monument are encouraged to come first to the Anasazi Heritage Center, the monument’s official headquarters, where they can watch a video called “Visit with Respect” that gives ethical messages about not harming cultural or natural resources.

“I used to work in Sedona [Ariz.],” Eaton said. “Now they have a good handle on their use, but at the time it was very hard because there were so many people in the area, everybody was loving it to death. It’s a fine balance.”

So monument officials are going to be working on the Sand Canyon Recreation Management Area through the coming winter. They will be talking with the community starting in late winter about what should be done with the Lamb house – it could provide a contact station for the monument, housing for the BLM, or something else entirely – how to handle parking at the trailhead, and how to manage recreation.

“I think we need to know what’s going on with our visitors and not assume what’s going on,” Eaton said. “We need to be able to say, ‘Here’s who our visitors are and what they want to do and this is their expectation and can we meet it and, if not, is there some place we can?’ We just want to try to maintain that balance between multiple uses.”

This process won’t involve a formal study under federal law, she said; however, there will have to be such a process if any actions are eventually planned, such as building a new parking lot. But for now the discussion will remain informal.

“We want to talk to stakeholders to create a quality experience there. If we don’t do that, we’re just going to end up with more people coming and more people whose expectations of a good experience may not be met.”

Print this article

From September 2012.