Dominguez Wilderness Area has multiple uses for hikers
Last year, I wrote about a great trail that leads into Big Dominguez Creek and the Dominguez Wilderness Area from Cactus Park. Problem was, I was in Virginia and made a few mistakes on directions since the area had become wilderness and the Bureau of Land Management moved the trail head.
I drove back there last week to make sure I had it correct this time, and discovered an excellent hike now leads to the edge. Then, a new, yet still primitive trail leads down into this magnificent canyon.
This wilderness is the largest BLM roadless area in Colorado at 66,280 acres. Let’s put that in perspective, however, before the “greenies” get beat up by the “motorheads.” Although this is the largest BLM roadless area in Colorado, the entire Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area consists of 209,610 acres where multiple uses exist, including hunting, cattle grazing and an absolutely incredible system of trails for OHVs (off-highway vehicles).
The wilderness area consists of two major canyon systems: Big Dominguez and Little Dominguez. Little Dominguez is the longer of the two at approximately 12 miles in length. It joins Big Dominguez Canyon one mile before their confluence with the Gunnison River.
The Cactus Park trail head is about a third of the way between the top and the bottom of this canyon.
To reach this entry point into the Wilderness Area, travel south on Highway 50 just past Whitewater to the Unaweep Canyon turn at Colorado Highway 141. Turn right and travel 8.7 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! You can actually drive about 4.4 miles on this road to its end.
A half-mile from Highway 141, you’ll find a brand-spankin’ new parking area and vault toilet built by the U.S. Department of Interior as an example of “Your Recovery Dollars at Work.” Go to recovery.gov and you can find out all about the Recovery Act Program, how the BLM is participating, how this project created jobs for local contractors, and how it created new recreation facilities for OHV enthusiasts.
As the sign at the new trail head parking area states: “This area includes miles of routes for motorized recreation, mountain biking and hiking inside the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area.”
Stay on what appears to be the main road through Cactus Park. In about 1.1 miles from Highway 141, you’ll come to a fork. Take the left fork. You’ll then cross a cattle guard in another 1.2 miles.
In another 2.5 miles, you’ll see a brown BLM sign blowing in the wind. It points the way along the Tabeguache Trail. You’ll come to another fork in the road and follow the arrow pointing 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 before the new boundary was established, the odometer on my old truck read 3.4 miles.
Neither are true these days. With the new boundary, you can now drive another 1.5 miles from this point, where you have to park and hoof it to the edge of the canyon, another 1.9 miles to the south.
Although this is a great hike all by itself, you’ll be rewarded further with magnificent views, from the squat pinyon pine and gnarly, ancient juniper lining the rim of the canyon, to the snow-capped West Elk Mountains between Paonia and Aspen, a hundred miles east.
The trail is easy to follow as it winds along the old 4WD road I used to drive to the edge of the canyon. From this panoramic point, look to your right, or upstream, for a small brown carsonite sign stating this trail is open to horseback and hiking only.
Hike beyond this sign and follow the trail markers — rock cairns — for about a mile upstream, until you come to a notch in the top of the canyon wall. Here, you’ll descend into the canyon along one of the coolest trails in this part of the state.
The hike into Big Dominguez Creek from here is a little more than a mile. This is a primitive trail. Stop often and look for rock cairns. You’ll be blown away at some of the geologic structures 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 4.5 miles downstream to the Gunnison River, or you could hike 8.1 miles upstream to the Dominguez campground and trail head, which is still under snow.
Don’t go here if the road is wet, but if it’s dry, you’ll be impressed with this great trail.