Sand Canyon: While not overwhelmingly welcome, plans for adequate parking are overdue

A family starts a winter hike at Sand Canyon.

Journal/ Sam Green Enlargephoto

A family starts a winter hike at Sand Canyon. Journal/ Sam Green

A parking lot at Sand Canyon? What a novel idea, considering that right now there isn’t one at the most popular spot in all the 176,000 acres of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Some 18,000 people visited last year to hike or ride a horse or a mountain bike in the heart of McElmo Canyon, and every one with a license to drive will attest to that as fact.

Yes, there are a couple of relatively flat patches of slickrock – outnumbered by the convoluted chunks between them – that can accommodate some dozen cars and a horse trailer or two at the trailhead.

But that “parking lot” is a better place to damage the underside of a car than to leave it for a day. On weekends, as many visitors are unhappily discovering, it is a place to return after a day outdoors to find your vehicle blocked in by cars that arrived after you did.

Of course, the news from the Bureau of Land Management addresses more than the rocky parking spot. The agency is proposing a new addition – a functional, level parking lot – about ½ mile east of the trailhead and a connecting trail.

Seeing such a development at this favorite local getaway may sadden some Montezuma and La Plata County residents, but it is inevitable. It has been made so by the popularity of the place.

Getting there could not be easier. Enjoying it even more so. The sunny canyon spurs dotted with juniper, piñon, yucca and wildflowers offer hiking and riding for everyone, whether your ambitions call for a full-day march or a cycling adventure that will take you six miles north and almost 1,500 feet of elevation higher at Sand Canyon Pueblo, a trip that leaves the scenic downhill return for last.

The place is best known as a family refuge for those parents desperate for a day outdoors: a hike on a gentle trail with amazing views and a glimpse of ancient ruins, a break for lunch in a warm (or shady) nook in the sandstone, and an unhurried hike back down make up an amazing day for youngsters, especially those on their first outings.

For some old-timers, the new lot seems a bad idea. If there is no parking available, go elsewhere for the day and cut down on the crowds is their unhelpful advice.

Saying no to more parking is not an option, not with the dangerous situation created by people illegally parking on, or jockeying about, the narrow paved strip of County Road G. Traffic is surprisingly heavy, not just from McElmo Canyon residents but because this is the main route between the San Juan River communities of Aneth, Montezuma Creek and Bluff, Utah, and the shopping and employment opportunities in Cortez.

Sand Canyon may have been, at one time, the accessible local antithesis to Mesa Verde National Park: a place of wonder free from closures, signs, rules and entry fees. For better or for worse, those days – like the era represented by the ruins and broken bits of pottery found throughout the national monument – are ancient history.

What Sand Canyon and its managers need most are public comments on the parking plan. Submit them before Oct. 10 online at http://bit.ly/2xD6lKH or via email to Keith Fox at the BLM Tres Rios Field office (kfox@blm.gov).