You’ve probably heard of Phil’s World, and if you haven’t, you should really check it out. This awesome, highly rated trail is located in southwestern Colorado outside the town of Cortez. What you may not know is that in addition to Phil’s World, Mesa Verde County has over 600 miles of bike trails and may be the only place in the world where you can ride on singletrack past centuries-old cliff dwellings.
Just down the road from Phil’s trail, Mesa Verde National Park is well-known for its ancestral Pueblan cliff dwellings, which draw well over half a million people visitors every year. The good news is that you don’t have to visit the park, wait in lines, or sign up for guided tours to see these early remnants of Native American life.
Sand Canyon Trail
On the other side of Cortez from Phil’s World you will find the Sand Canyon trail. This 12-mile (round trip) out and back trail lies within The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument that stretches all the way to the Utah border. According to the Bureau of Land Management, this Monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites have been recorded in the Monument, including cliff dwellings, kivas, petroglyphs, and ancient villages. In addition to the extensive cliff dwellings, the area’s red rock mountains, sandstone buttes, and cliffs make for an incredibly scenic ride.
The Sand Canyon trail is an intermediate/advanced trail in the red rock desert with scenery reminiscent of Moab. It is mostly singletrack, with a section of cairn-marked slickrock, and a series of steep switchbacks about four miles in. This half-mile section of switchbacks climbs 700 feet, where many riders choose to hike a bike. Just make sure you stay on the trail because, like Moab, this area has cryptobiotic or “living” soil that can be damaged by footsteps.
If you are looking for an added challenge, Sand Canyon trail also connects to the East and West Rock Creek trails via the blue bike trail connector, where another 10 miles of trail awaits. The West Rock Creek trail is more technical than the East Rock Creek trail, which is more technical than Sand Canyon trail. These trails have more scenic red rock desert riding with great views of the Ute Mountains in the distance.
The Cliff Dwellings
Near the start of the Sand Canyon trail at the southern trailhead is Castle Rock Pueblo, an ancient village built around a sandstone butte. This village featured at least 40 rooms, 9 towers, and 16 kivas. Saddlehorn Pueblo is another cliff dwelling about a mile in, situated in an alcove of a sandstone butte shaped like a saddle horn. As you ride, look out for the caves and overhangs along the trail, as these feature several more cliff dwellings, and most are only a short distance from the main trail.
You can use the short spur trails, marked by white diamonds, to explore the various archaeological sites, but leave your bike on the main trail and explore these by foot. Unlike Mesa Verde, these sites are not patrolled or protected, and are open for the public to view – so please respect these ancient relics of Native American history by staying on the trail and not touching or damaging the relics. American Indians have a strong spiritual connection with these places and regard them as their ancestral homeland.
Where to rent bikes
Book a bike rental easily online from Kokopelli Bike Shop on TripOutside.com. The shop is located in downtown Cortez, and they rent out a full range of bikes from Specialized, Salsa, and Trek. We recommend renting a full suspension bike for the Sand Canyon trail.
When to go
Although Cortez is located in southwestern Colorado, the trails offer higher elevation riding, which means spring, summer, and fall are all great times to ride. There is no shade on the trail though, so we recommend starting early to avoid the hottest parts of the day and bringing lots of water. The trails are mixed use, so remember to yield to hikers and horseback riders.
Where to stay
We highly recommend camping to enjoy the remarkable scenery of the area and the phenomenal dark night skies. Whether you are tent camping, RVing or van life-ing it, there is fabulous (free!) dispersed camping at Cliff Camp right in Canyons of the Ancient National Monument. Another option closer to Cortez is Country Road 34. This area is about 15 miles east of Cortez, and very close to Phil’s World Trails and Mesa Verde National Park.
Where to drink beer
Wild Edge Brewing Collective is a fantastic new brewery (opened in 2017) right in downtown Cortez inside a converted warehouse. They have a solid selection of beers. Some of our favorites were their stellar seasonal pale ales and a delicious raspberry sour. Paired with a melt-in-your-mouth soft pretzel or roasted red pepper panini, Wild Edge is a perfect post-ride pick me up.
Nice article! I appreciated the mention of more difficult trails (with photos), dispersed camping and watering holes. Keep the area reviews coming Julie!
Sand Canyon is a fun trail and fascinating. East and West Rock canyons were built for mountain biking. At points the grade changes are quick, tech. Not ridden anywhere else you could feel the presence of the native spirits other than walking around Chaco Canyon. I rode it at sunrise in summer with temps in the 60s at the start. Surface is mostly sandstone and dirt, little sand on the trails.