Knowles Canyon has all the perks we seek, plus an awesome wilderness experience
At first glance, Knowles Canyon looks like any other drop-dead gorgeous red-rock canyon in this spectacular country surrounding us.
Upon further investigation, it is a drop-dead gorgeous red-rock canyon that also provides a true wilderness experience within one hour’s drive of downtown Grand Junction.
This canyon does not feature the beautiful arches as seen in Rattlesnake Canyon. It does not cut through the Wingate and Entrada sandstone layers of this wilderness area 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 solitude that so many of us seek.
Desert canyon wildflowers abound. Wildlife is everywhere, from bighorn sheep to peregrine falcons, golden eagles to lizards. Elk inhabit the upper reaches, and 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 (NCA), just west of the 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 mile or so of the hike takes you through thick growths of pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, native grasses and desert shrubs.
Once you pop up to the top of the plateau above the parking area at the trail head, you’ll find yourself hiking through thick growths of pinyon pine, juniper, sagebrush, native grasses and desert shrubs.
That’s because those are the vegetative types that live here in the arid west where we receive less than 12 inches of annual precipitation. However, a wide variety of wildflowers awaits hikers from the lower sagebrush community, through the pinyon-juniper woodland.
To reach the trail head from Grand Junction, take Monument Road to the east entrance of the 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 .4 miles 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 5.5 miles until you reach the trail head. If the road to the trail head 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, but to be honest, I wouldn’t take my wife’s minivan.
This rugged trail is marked only with an occasional brown carbonate sign, and a few well-placed rock cairns (piles of rock). You must follow them carefully to enter into this canyon.
If you make it all the way to the creek bottom, you’ll be treated to a beautiful riparian setting, where mature Fremont Cottonwood trees and Box Elders line the intermittent stream. You’ll be startled by the elephant-like sounds of small Sagebrush or Eastern Fence lizards running over dried cottonwood leaves near the creek. You’ll be refreshed by the cool and hypnotic breeze that blows up-canyon through the trees as the air warms.
Speaking of warm air, this canyon gets hot. You should restrict your travel here to mornings and evenings, even during spring and fall. The gnats are non-existent right now, though they’ll get pesky as the temperature rises.
There is plenty of water in the bottom of this canyon right now, but that won’t last. You should carry water with you. BLM suggests about a gallon per day per person, and don’t drink from the stream unless you really want a bunch of parasites eating away at your insides. Carry a water purifier if you insist on relying on water in the canyon.
Dogs are welcome, but the Bureau of Land Management encourages pet owners to keep dogs on a leash near any trail head or camping area and always within voice command so they don’t chase wildlife or other hikers.
Troy Schnurr, the BLM’s backcountry ranger for this area once told me, “We really try to promote the wilderness feeling here. If people come here thinking they’ll find a nice wide, well-marked park service type of trail, they’ll be disappointed.”
But if you’re looking for a wilderness experience in the middle of another drop-dead gorgeous red rock canyon not far from home, Knowles Canyon fits the bill.