Craving for Knowles: Canyon takes you to the middle of nowhere

Knowles Canyon trail meanders through “a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone.”  And it’s long - at 18.4 miles from the parking area on Glade Park to the Colorado River, it’s one of the longest canyons in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. Photo by Bill Haggerty.


Knowles Canyon

Drive time and distance: 52 minutes; 25.9 miles from Grand Junction.

Length: 4.7 miles to canyon overlook and another 13.7 miles to 
Colorado River, one way.

Hiking time: 5-plus hours.

Difficulty: Strenuous.

In search of desert solitude, I thought of a famous Edward Abby quote as I ambled down BS Road toward Knowles Canyon:

“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”

The canyon walls of Knowles filled the craving.

I’ve written about this canyon once or twice over the years. It does not feature the multitude of arches as seen in Rattlesnake Canyon. It does not cut through the Wingate and Entrada sandstone layers as dramatically as in Mee Canyon. Yet, it contains spires, monoliths and alcoves, it’s steep and deep just like the other two, and it provides the wilderness experience and desert solitude that so many of us seek.

When I hiked here earlier this month, I crossed paths with only one other humanoid and found desert solitude less than an hour from town.

This time of the year, most of the colorful plants and desert wildflowers have wilted and faded into the landscape. The solitude remains along with the wildlife, from bighorn sheep to peregrine falcons, golden eagles to lizards. Elk inhabit the upper reaches while down in the river, you’ll find the last remaining stronghold of four intriguing, yet now endangered fish that have survived in this ruggedly beautiful country for tens of thousands of years.

Knowles Canyon is located southwest of Mee and Rattlesnake Canyons in the 
75,500-acre Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area. The wilderness area, in turn, is located in the heart of the 122,300-acre McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, just west of Colorado National Monument.

Knowles is one of the longest canyons in this area. Like Mee Canyon, this hike is not for inexperienced canyon-country hikers. It is strenuous, rugged, remote and steep. From the trail head to the canyon overlook is 4.7 miles. It’s another 13.7 miles to the Colorado River. 

The first 1.2 miles of the hike take you through thick growths of pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, native grasses and desert shrubs. Those are the vegetative types that live here in the arid West where we receive less than 12 inches of annual precipitation.

Yet, as you proceed deeper into the canyon, “something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”

To reach the Knowles Canyon trail head from Grand Junction, take Monument Road to the east entrance of Colorado National Monument. Travel to the top of the monument, then turn left toward the Glade Park Store, just past Cold Shivers Point. Travel 5.9 miles to the store and turn right. Go four-tenths of a mile and turn left on BS Road (B South). 

This road turns to gravel in 3.1 miles, but it’s in pretty good shape. Stay on it for another 8.3 miles until you reach the trail head (Warning: Do not take that sharp right turn when you pass N 10 3/4 Road).

When this road is wet, the last couple of miles could be nasty. If it’s dry and you drive slowly, you could make it in a minivan. To be honest, my wife would shoot me if I drove her minivan there.

The trail is rugged, too. It’s marked only with an occasional brown carbonate sign and a few well-placed rock cairns (piles of rock). Follow them carefully. 

If you make it to the river, you’ll be treated to a beautiful riparian setting where mature Fremont Cottonwood trees and Box Elders line the intermittent stream flowing into the mighty Colorado River. You’ll also need a backpack and tent, because that’s a long way to hike in one day.

From trail head to overlook is 4.7 miles, making a 9.4-mile round trip. That’s a pretty healthy hike. And, now’s the time to hike here. It’s not too hot, and hunting is not allowed in the NCA, whereas hunting seasons are upon us throughout much of Colorado. Thus, it’s a logical place to hike, especially if you’re in search of a little desert solitude.


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