Riding in the Canyons of the Ancients was definitely a lot more fun than hiking it. It was also a treat because we didn’t expect to be able to bike there since it’s a national monument. But that, along with the views inside the canyon and the trail itself pleasantly surprised us. What caught us off guard was the beginning part of that trail from the north trailhead.
We had stopped by the visitor center in Cortez to get some more information about the Canyons of the Ancients, specifically a map of some sort. The guy there handed us a photocopied map with the trails traced over in colored markers. With the information he gave us we decided it would be short enough of a hike to the first pueblo that Tybee could do it. But it was a bad day for Tybee and she tired out before we could find the pueblo. And since we didn’t know exactly where that ancient site was, we didn’t want to push her more than she could handle.
The first time we heard anyone mention mountain biking in the Canyons of the Ancients was through a friend’s son who lives in the area. He said the biking there was good and that it would definitely be dried out even if Phil’s World wasn’t.
The second time Canyons of the Ancients and mountain biking were mentioned in the same sentence was by the Sutcliffe Vineyard’s vintner (it is totally worth visiting: the vineyard is absolutely beautiful, the wine is delicious, and the owner is a hoot and super sweet). And the third time was from an IMBA employee that we chatted with after a ride at Phil’s World. So we decided we had to check it out or else we’d feel like dumbasses.
Well, we didn’t feel like dumbasses because we didn’t go ride it, but rather because we didn’t read our photocopied map carefully. Sand Canyon trail was the trail that was recommended to us, which was also the trail we hiked on. And since we had hiked it from the south trailhead, we decided to ride it from the north trailhead. On the photocopied map, which we noticed after we got back to the car, about 1.5 mile from the north trailhead is typed, “This ½ mile section contains 30 switchbacks with an elevation change of 700 feet.” Although to be honest, even if we had seen it ahead of time we would have still gone and ridden it. But what made us hesitate was the large sign stuck in the trail that said “Most Difficult” and “The next mile is rocky and steep. Recommended for foot traffic only.” And even that didn’t stop us.
While Jerud rode the majority of this next “rocky and steep” section, I was thrown off my game. Neither of the warnings were a joke. That section of trail was steep, rocky, narrow, and had a lot of exposure. Combine one or two of those features and I’m good. But toss them all into one trail – especially a trail that was built for hiking – and it messed me up mentally.
At this point on the trail we were a lot higher up than where we were going to be, which was inside the canyon. From where we stood we could see a narrow fissure in the earth, indicating that there was a canyon down there. It was a spectacular viewpoint that I’ve never experienced before.
At the end of that section we rode through the canyon’s namesake, a long sandpit that was the start (or end depending on where you start) of the canyon floor.
The rest of the trail through the canyon to the south trailhead was rolling, winding with occasional technical moves required. Oh, and scenic. So scenic. The trail was inundated with ancient pueblos. We had just visited Mesa Verde National Park two days beforehand and experiencing the ancient pueblos in this environment was a total dichotomy. The best way I can describe it is going to Mesa Verde National Park was like going to a zoo, while Canyons of the Ancients is like walking through herds of wildlife in the woods. (Unlike most zoos, Mesa Verde National Park is incredible and we highly encourage you to visit it.)
Biking through a canyon to see one ancient pueblo after another is not something I ever thought I would get to do. It wasn’t even something I wanted to do because I didn’t know it was possible. That 12-mile ride was one of my top riding experiences.
Not to mention that since it was an out-and-back trail, we had to hike-a-bike back up the “rocky and steep” section.
- If you’re not up for a lot of technical mountain biking we would recommend starting from the south trailhead and turn around when you get to the long sandpit (there’s a warning sign at the start of it). There are no ancient pueblos after this sandpit.
- There are two additional loops from the south trailhead that we didn’t have time to check out and don’t have any information about. We only visited a small portion of this national monument.