Haggerty’s Hikes Column June 07, 2009

Valley is heating up, so get cool on top of the Uncompahgre Plateau

The upper reach of Big Dominguez Canyon Trail on the Uncompahgre Plateau south of Grand Junction is much different than the lower reach. At this time of year, as temperatures begin to rise in the valley, now’s a great time to rise in altitude and hike this upper stretch.

The upper trail head sits 2,700 feet above the hot Grand Valley below. This is a wonderful overnight backpack trip in the late spring and fall. In the summer, though, it can be hot because it drops in elevation from the top at 7,500 feet, all the way to the Gunnison River near Bridgeport, at about 4,800 feet in elevation.

From Grand Junction, go south on U.S. Highway 50 to Whitewater, and turn right on Colorado Highway 141 (Uniweep Canyon). Travel 11.5 miles to the Divide Road turnoff, which is the Uncompahgre National Forest Service Access Road. It’ll be on your left, or south, 0.2 mile past the 140 mile marker.

The Divide Road winds to the top of the mountain. Stay on it for 6.1 miles, until you reach the BLM’s Dominguez Resource Conservation Area sign. Turn left (northeast) and travel another 5.2 miles to the Dominguez Canyon Campground and trail head.

Being so close to town, this place should be packed. Yet, only 25 people (plus a class of 11 students from Western State) signed in at the trail head register in the past two weeks. I saw no one on the trail the day I visited.

Little Dominguez and its smaller brother, Big Dominguez, are located in the midst of the newest wilderness area in Colorado, which in turn is found in the heart of the newest National Conservation Area in Colorado. That would be the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, established in a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama a couple months ago.

The bill set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness, including about 60,000 acres for a Wilderness Area in the midst of this conservation area. Yet, the entire Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area encompasses about 210,000 acres.

It is open to horseback and hiking and this trail is normally done as an out and back loop, although many hikers make this a several day trip.

The trail can be accessed from the Gunnison River near Bridgeport. The trail is also connected to a trail head at Cactus Park (only accessible from a rugged four-wheel drive road). Backpackers can follow a complete loop from Big Dominguez Creek over to Little Dominguez Creek, further south, which circles back to the Big Dominguez Campground. This trip can take several days or up to a week, depending on how much exploring you plan to do.

Some of the lower reaches feature petroglyphs and pool drops. The upper stretch descends gradually through pinion, juniper, Douglas Fir and a few monstrous Ponderosa Pines, with Gamble’s Oak and cottonwood stands occasionally skirting the creek.

Leaves in trees along the creek bed danced in a cool breeze blowing downstream and to the east. Wild alyssum, 3 feet tall, peaked through the gnarly old sagebrush along the trail.

Indian rice grass waved in the wind. Two-foot-tall Indian paintbrush towered above 6-inch-tall yellow biscuitroot. Lichens – black, orange, yellow and white – clung to a few harder

Precambrian rock scattered through the sandstone canyon. Tall yucca posted next to cactus, Gamble’s Oak and more rock.

Water runs year round in Little Dominguez Creek. Big Dominguez Creek is dry only during periods of drought. Desert bighorn sheep have been successfully reintroduced into these canyons. It is not uncommon to see them grazing on the slopes below the cliffs. Keep dogs on leashes so they don’t stress the sheep.

For the past 65 million years, these tiny creeks have carved through the sandstones of the Uncompahgre Plateau creating the magnificent canyons. About a mile down the trail, just past the first glimpse of the creek, you’ll see just how that erosion works, as a new cut continues to erode into the landscape.

In 1976, Congress directed the BLM to inventory land for possible wilderness designation.

The areas BLM found that had wilderness qualities were designated as wilderness study areas. Dominguez Canyon is one of these areas. Prior to congressional designation as a wilderness area and national conservation area, the BLM managed this area so the wilderness qualities would not be lost. 

You can help by leaving only footprints and taking only pictures. Carry lots of water and remember, a key ingredient to protecting these natural areas is to get out and enjoy them.

So, beat the heat of the valley. It’s much cooler up there, even though it’s only 2,700 feet above the hot valley floor.


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