Officials of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument are making plans to relocate the Sand Canyon trailhead and parking lot because of cultural concerns of Native American tribes.
The southern trailhead begins off Road G, about 12 miles down McElmo Canyon. The uneven, slickrock parking area has become a well-known hassle during weekend crowds.
But a lesser-known problem is the cultural sensitivity of where the parking lot and trailhead are located, said monument manager Marietta Eaton.
The slickrock plain includes Castle Rock Pueblo, a large, ancient village, and the site of a terrible attack in Ancestral Puebloan history. Around 1280, regional civil strife, likely made worse by severe drought, ended in a massacre of 41 women, men and children at the pueblo.
“We prefer not to discuss that because it is so sensitive,” Eaton said. “To respect the cultural significance of the site, we worked with our consulting tribes on a plan to relocate the trailhead so that everyone is not walking through there.”
To help facilitate a new location, the Monument purchased the historic Lamb house, just east of the trailhead. The stone building was built by the Baxtrom family and may be turned into a visitors center. The property also includes room for a parking lot.
“We are studying the cultural and natural resource impacts of moving the parking lot to that area,” Eaton said. “It’s an opportunity.”
A trail realignment from the proposed new parking area has been analyzed and mapped out, she said. It would still provide visitors with a spur trail to Castle Rock Pueblo and then loop around to join up with the Sand Canyon trail system.
Manny Pino is a tribal member of the Acoma Pueblo, one of the tribes with an ancestral heritage to the Sand Canyon. In an interview he said the decision to move the trailhead and parking lot is the right one.
“I feel it is a positive outcome that works to protect the sacred and historic lands of the Acoma people,” Pino said. “Sand Canyon and the Crow Canyon area have a direct significance to the cultural province of the Acoma.”
Pino is a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona’s Prescott Community College, and as a tribal member advocates for sacred-site protection.
“The whole area there has sacred significance to numerous tribes,” he said. “We have oral tradition including migration stories from there, and it is a positive step that the BLM is moving to respect those sacred sites to prevent desecration.”
After the move, the current parking area at Sand Canyon would “likely not” be used for overflow parking, Eaton said, because leaving the area in relative peace is a main goal of the relocation.
In a paper titled The Final Days of Castle Rock Pueblo published by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, archaeologist Kristin Kuckelman documents the site’s troubled past.
Evidence at Castle Rock suggests the village residents had been victims of violence more than once. “The defensible location for the village and the construction of defensive buildings were not prompted by imagined threats or groundless fears,” Kuckelman writes.
During the middle to late 1200s, many villages in the Mesa Verde and neighboring Kayenta region were situated and constructed with defense in mind, she explains, and it coincides with a general exodus from the area.
The presence of a Bull Creek projectile point at Castle Rock suggests contact from tribes to the West. “One possibility is that people came from that area to raid, possibly for food,” according to Kuckelman.
Two of the victims may not have been Puebloan, because their skulls did not have the cradleboard flattening, an omnipresent trait of Ancestral Puebloan people.
But without more substantial evidence that the attack was from invaders, Kuckelman concludes, “It is likely that the attackers at Castle Rock were Puebloans from within the region. Possibly the violence was an outgrowth of competition for food, water, or both.”
More than 720 years later, the scene at the current Sand Canyon is mostly recreational, and the parking lot can become chaotic on weekends. During hiking season, 50 vehicles, including horse trailers, may pack the limited space.
Users have taken to parking along the narrow shoulder of County Road G when the lot overflows, a significant hazard that has monument officials and the Montezuma County commission concerned.
“That is an unsafe situation for drivers and the person parked there,” commissioner Larry Don Suckla said during a previous meeting. “We’re working with the monument to find a solution.”
Officials discourage parking along the road, and ask Sand Canyon trail users to find alternative recreation opportunities if the parking lot is too full.
“It is a hodge-podge right now, and so we are focusing on a solution,” Eaton said. “Unaware visitors are blocking horse trailers, and when the party returns they can’t load their horses. Backing out onto that highway is very dangerous there.”
Eaton said the plan is to better accommodate horse trailers at the new parking lot location. However, the problem will not be solved this year, and is part of a recreation management plan specific to the Sand Canyon-East Rock Creek area that is being formulated this year.
“We send people there, our local businesses send people there, so we are focusing on getting that house in order and making sure visitors have a quality experience,” she said.
The Sand Canyon trail is a convenient drive from Cortez, and was popular before the monument was formed in 2001. Its interesting ruins, mountain biking challenge, mild climate, and desert scenery is a natural attraction. Monument officials are discussing ways to help disperse recreation opportunities on the monument to help ease pressure on that canyon.
In another note, visitors this will notice additional trail signage in the Sand Canyon area this year that clarify various routes.
“People have been getting confused on the loops, so we want to make sure no one gets lost,” Eaton said.