Taking trek to Cactus Park is tough ride, but worth the trip
Cactus Park Road leads to Cactus Park Trail head at the edge of the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area and it lives up to its name. Cactus thrives in this high altitude desert south of downtown Grand Junction.
According to the odometer on my old Toyota pickup, this trail head is only 26.2 miles from Fourth and Main. My old pickup also reports this is a rugged drive. It creaked and squeaked all the way, but at the end of the road was one of the nicest hikes within 26.4 miles of the city center, even though it was steep.
The Cactus Park area, south and west of Whitewater off U.S. Highway 50, is a mecca for motor heads. The area is open to Jeeps, ATVs and motorcycles. There are miles of trails that roam through the cactus-strewn park. There’s plenty of room to spread out and it’s a great place to camp and relax in the great out-of-doors, only a few miles from town.
However, if you travel all the way to the edge of Cactus Park, you’ll stumble into Big Dominguez Canyon and Big Dominguez Creek, an awe-inspiring landscape that has taken 65 million years to sculpt.
When the Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed, they must have been thinking about a place like this.
According to the BLM’s literature, this wilderness is the largest BLM roadless area in the state of Colorado at 66,280 acres.
“The area displays an array of ecosystems, ranging from upper Sonoran piñon-juniper desert along the Gunnison River, to Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine to aspen at higher elevations. The Wilderness area consists of two major canyon systems, Big Dominguez and Little Dominguez. The canyons drain the northeastern corner of the Uncompahgre Plateau. Little Dominguez is the longer of the two at approximately 12 miles in length. It joins the larger Big Dominguez Canyon a little over a mile before their confluence with the Gunnison River,” reads the BLM information.
To reach the Cactus Park trail head, go south on Highway 50 just past Whitewater to the Unaweep Canyon turn at Colorado Highway 141. Turn right and travel nine miles to the Cactus Park turnoff, which is .9 miles past highway mile marker 146.
This is a rough road but passable in two-wheel drive — MOST of the way! That last mile and a half, however, has most passengers hanging tight to the “Oh, My God” handle located just above the passenger-side window on most modern four-wheel-drive vehicles. The road is impassable when wet, in any kind of vehicle.
Stay on the main road through Cactus Park. It’s hard to tell at times, since there are so many side roads. When in doubt, go forward, don’t turn. From Highway 141, travel 1.1 miles to a couple forks in the road.
One fork leads to the right, the other to the left. No matter how you voted last election, stay in the middle on this one. In another 1.2 miles, you’ll find another fork. Go forward toward the weathered barb-wire fence and cross the cattle guard.
In 1.6 miles, you’ll see a brown BLM sign blowing in the wind. It points the way along the Tabaguache Trail. You’ll come to a fork in the road and another arrow points to the right. Travel another .2 miles. There, you’ll turn left at the BLM’s Dominguez Canyon Access sign to Cactus Park Trail head. It says three miles, but my odometer said 3.4 miles.
As you face downstream from the trail head, you’ll be blown away by the depth of scenery, from the squat pinyon pine and gnarly, ancient juniper lining the rim of the canyon at your feet, to the snow-capped West Elk Mountains between Paonia and Aspen about a hundred miles to the east.
The hike down to Big Dominguez Creek is only a half-mile. From the small parking area at the trail head, you’ll travel upstream or southwest on the rim for more than a quarter-mile before descending through a neat keyhole in the sandstone.
Just as on the road, watch carefully where you’re going. This is a primitive trail. Stop often and look for rock cairns.
If you take your time and look around, you will not believe some of the geologic structures you’ll discover on this hike — thin pillars of dirt, somehow bonded and hoisting massive sandstone slabs weighing tons. Take your camera.
Once you reach the creek, you can hike 3.2 miles downstream to the Gunnison River, or you could hike 9.4 miles upstream to the Dominguez campground and trail head, which is still under snow.
I opted to retrieve the truck and drive back through Cactus Park, on the Cactus Park Road, and check out the acres and acres of cactus.