The picture on the wall caught my attention immediately. Of all the places we could visit at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, I knew this spot shot to the top of our list. The rock looked just like a monster-sized horn on a cowboy’s saddle. I’d never seen anything like it! The rock sheltered Native American ruins under its ledge. Bonus. Major bonus.
Dad and I continued our photographic exploration of Colorado after wrapping up an art festival in Ridgway. Two days of exploring the Canyon of the Ancients, a relatively new park founded in June of 2000, awaited us. First, though, we stopped at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.
Canyon of the Ancients contains 176,000 acres of high desert and more than 6,000 Native American sites. These include cliff dwellings, kivas, dams, entire villages and rock art. Visiting the park allowed us to hunt for these treasured vestiges of the past. Many of these gems hide in plain sight, blending into the arid desert landscape and cliff walls.
While these jewels abound, the rugged landscape makes exploration challenging if you aren’t familiar with the land. So our stop at the Heritage Center helped us nail down what to see and how to get there. In addition to information, we found their exhibits top notch.
On the Trail
But we chomped at the bit to reach our destination, the Saddlehorn Pueblo. A sweltering, 100-plus degree August day sidelined us until the next morning, though.
We loaded our gear in the van at first light and headed for the southern end of the Sand Canyon Trail. The path traverses 6 miles of parched desert landscape. Twelve miles makes a round trip.
Our interest stopped at the first mile because that’s where the Saddlehorn Pueblo stands. More ruins waited on the next five miles of the trail, but the unique rock formation combined with ruins really made Saddlehorn stand out.
The Sand Canyon Trail starts out on an uphill slickrock sheet. Actually three trails split off shortly after leaving the parking lot, so pay attention and stay to the right. As far as hikes go, the one-mile jaunt to Saddlehorn is easy. But a lot of nifty things pop up along the way.
Erosion shaped the rocks along the trail into unique and curious shapes. I saw mushrooms, castles, pointy-hat gnomes and the aforementioned saddlehorn. Sand Canyon begs you to let your imagination loose to play for a day.
After the short hike, we spent some time just staring at the rock. Wow. It was cool. And big. Plus other rocky cones crowded around the formation. They might just erode into another saddlehorn one day. Looking at the site, it’s clear ancestral Puebloans mastered using geology to their advantage.
I wondered about the people who lived all along the Sand Canyon Trail, but especially the ones who built the structures in the saddlehorn. Archeologists determined that the Puebloans used the two buildings under the horn from about 1250 A.D. to 1285 A.D. The rooms may have been used for cooking or sleeping. Other buildings may have served as a lookout.
Archeologists also found the remnants of a kiva on the slope below the saddlehorn. Ancestral Puebloans used kivas for ceremonies and religious events. They partially submerged these circular structures. Participants entered the kiva by a ladder in the roof.
In the 1980s the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center excavated part of the kiva and then backfilled it to preserve the structure for future generations. The backfill makes it difficult to see the kiva, but there’s plenty of visible architecture to see at Saddlehorn.
Shooting the Scene
Once we finished gawking, we got to work capturing this unique treasure in photographs. As you can imagine, these ruins are not only fragile, but also sacred to modern Native Americans. That somewhat limits where you can photograph. We didn’t have any trouble abiding by the rules and getting nice images, though.
Using a variety of lenses, I explored Saddlehorn visually. I especially enjoyed using the wide-angle lens to include some of the other formations adjacent to the actual saddlehorn. Additionally I used a Singh-Ray polarizing filter to enrich the colors in the rocks and sky.
We spent most of our time waiting for the light to break through the clouds. Early morning light bathes the entire scene with a nice glow, assuming the cloud cover is lighter than our morning. Our patience paid off, though. We took home our photographic treasure of this gem.
If You Go
- Unlike many national parks, Canyon of the Ancients is largely undeveloped. There are no restrooms, trash cans, gas, services or interpretive signs outside of the Anasazi Heritage Center. Visit their website at: https://www.blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/colorado/canyons-of-the-ancients to get details.
- Start your trip at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores. Rangers and volunteers dole out maps, advice and tips for hiking, biking and riding the trails. They can also bring you up to speed on camping possibilities.
- To actually see the treasures of Canyon of the Ancients, you really need to get out on the trails. Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are allowed. Ask the rangers for specifics.
- All of the hiking trails are remote and rugged. Wear clothes for hiking, not a casual stroll. Take plenty of water and snacks. Wear a hat and sunscreen. Watch out for wild animals like snakes and mountain lions as well as creepy crawlies like scorpions.
- Temperatures easily soar over 100 degrees in the summer and snow accumulates in the winter. Spring, fall or early in the day make for the best hikes.
- Directions to the Sand Canyon Trail: From Cortez, hop on US 491 south and turn west on County Road G. Go 12 miles and look for the parking area on the right hand side of the road.
- Slickrock covers the entire unmarked parking lot. Park where you can, but do not park along the highway or on private property.
- If you happen to be on the trail or in the parking lot during a rainstorm be careful around the slickrock. It was appropriately named.
- Pay attention to the trail markers when you start out at Sand Canyon. The footpath disappers thanks to the slickrock.
- You must stay on the trail in Sand Canyon. Off trail use is prohibited. Respect the cultural importance of this area to the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.
- Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail. Clean up after your pet.