Old Spanish, Gunnison Bluffs trails offer opportunity to reflect on history

Old Spanish Trail and Gunnison Bluffs Trail are known as the Sister Trails, and offer great views of the high desert in late fall.


Sister Trails

Drive time and distance:  13 minutes, 8.5 miles

Length: 6.7 miles one-way on Gunnison Bluffs Trail; 3.6 miles one-way on Old Spanish Trail

Hiking Time: 2-3 hours

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

“Explore the most arduous and famous pack mule route in U.S. history, crossing the beautiful but dangerous terrain of the American Southwest.”

I thought about that quote from the Old Spanish Trail website (http://oldspanishtrail.org) last week, as I wandered along a portion of the Old Spanish Trail, a few miles south of Grand Junction.

“Huh,” I thought. “Kinda’ barren.”

But then, I spied the magnificent Gunnison River meandering below the bluffs, with hundred-year-old Fremont Cottonwoods ablaze in the fiery yellow glow of late autumn in the high desert.

At an elevation of 4,880 feet, I tried to “Revel in the lives of travelers such as Kit Carson, Antonio Armijo, Chief Walkara, John C. Fremont and William Workman, and how they survived the trails’ daunting rivers, canyons, deserts and mountains,” as the authors of the Old Spanish Trail website suggest.

And that made me think, “Who was William Workman?”

Between 1829 and 1848, the Old Spanish Trail tracked across the arid southwest United States from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. The 2,700 miles of trails came together and separated in numerous sections as commercial routes were established across the Colorado Plateau and Mohave Desert.

Four main braids of this historic trail eventually came together to reach California. The Northern Branch traveled through this area.

American Indians had used these trails for centuries, following game along the paths of least resistance. These same trails were utilized by traders and trappers who made them famous as the main north-south route toward the mountain-man rendezvous in Brown’s Park.

Parts of this route had also been taken by the famed Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776, according to a local offshoot of the Old Spanish Trail Association that’s worked diligently to maintain the integrity of this historic trail through Mesa County.

SisterTrails.org is comprised of local citizens and organizations, including the Riverfront Commission, Mesa County, the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Orchard Mesa Neighbors in Action (OMNIA) and the City of Grand Junction.

They’ve all come together to work on preserving the history and open areas surrounding the Old Spanish Trail and the Gunnison Bluffs Trail. Together, winding along the bluffs and desert above the Gunnison River between Whitewater and Grand Junction, they are known as the Sister Trails.

I missed an informal open house and a trail cleanup day last month, but you can find out all about what’s going on — and how you can help maintain these trails — by surfing to http://www.sistertrails.org, or by calling 970-245-8484.

There are two trail heads to reach the Sister Trails. The northern trail head is just beyond the Mesa County Fairgrounds. Travel south from GJ on U.S. Highway 50, heading toward Delta. Once past the fairgrounds, turn right on 28½ Road and travel around Lion’s Park (that small roadside park you’ve always wondered about as you travel south out of town).

You’ll see signs pointing toward the parking area. Be polite as you walk past the private residences along the way.

To reach the southern trail head, keep traveling south on Highway 50 to 31 Road, the Mesa County Landfill access road. Turn right and follow the road to the entrance of the landfill. Turn left before entering the landfill and travel about 1.5 miles to a large corral-style parking area on the right-hand side of the road.

Called Coffman Road, this former gravel road has been recently paved. Check out the new Mesa County Animal Shelter on the way.

Hiking, bicycling and horseback riding are allowed on both of these trails, but motorized travel is prohibited. Dogs are allowed, but you should keep them under control and pick up after them.

The Gunnison River Bluffs Trail travels 6.7 miles along the bluffs of the river. You’ll find cottonwoods, pinion and juniper and lovely rock formations leading down to the riparian zone along the banks of the Gunnison.

The North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail travels 3.6 miles and runs between Highway 50 and the bluffs trail.

Many scenic views offer an opportunity to “reflect on classic Western history,” as they say. Well, “they” must have been tough 150 to 175 years ago to travel through such barren country.

Yet, my old biologist buddy Bill Clark has shown me pages of great photos of colorful desert daisies, poppy globe mallow, princess plume with 12-inch tall spikes, evening primrose, water leaf, yellow and pink prickly pear cactus, claret cup cactus, even moon flower, all taken along these trails.

Spring and fall are certainly the best times to be on these trails, and while you won’t see many desert plants flowering in the fall, you can still reflect on the Old West and ponder the question: “Who was William Workman?”


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