Take a kaleidoscope journey through time and earth

Morgan Matthews, left, from Durango and her brother Jorde from Fruita found solitude and sunshine while enjoying a lengthy afternoon hike into Rattlesnake Canyon from the Pollock Bench Trail in the Front Country of the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.

First Arch, viewed from the top, along the Rattlesnake Canyon Arches Trail, is only a few miles from town, yet because of the difficult access, either driving or hiking, the area offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation.

First Arch, viewed from the top, along the Rattlesnake Canyon Arches Trail, is only a few miles from town, yet because of the difficult access, either driving or hiking, the area offers outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive recreation.

There are more arches in Rattlesnake Canyon, less than 40 miles from downtown GJ, than any other canyon in the Desert Southwest outside Arches National Park. Other geologic features in this area include spires, windows, giant alcoves and desert patina. Between these canyons are pinon-juniper covered mesas that slope downward to the Colorado River.


Rattlesnake Arches Trail

Upper trail head

(access from Glade Park/Black Ridge)

Drive time and distance: 1 hour, 40 minutes; 36.2 miles.

Length: 2 miles round trip to First Arch; 5.4 miles round trip for the Loop Trail.

Hiking Time: 1 to 4 hours.

Difficulty: moderate to strenuous.

Lower trail head

(access from Pollock Bench Trail/McInnis Canyons NCA)

Drive time and distance: 16.2 miles; 26 minutes.

Length: 15.2 miles on the P-1 trail to R-1, then back.

Hiking Time: 5-plus hours.

Difficulty: moderate to strenuous.

The Upper Black Ridge Access Road to Rattlesnake Arches Trail on Glade Park opened for the season Friday, a couple of days late.

It was supposed to open on Tax Day, April 15.

Coincidence? I think not.

It opened a couple of days late because of extensive moisture on the “impassible when wet” road. This 13-mile dirt road is normally pretty fair for the first 11.5 miles. That last mile-and-a-half of rugged, four-wheel driving jostles your kidneys, however, similar to the IRS — it doesn’t bother you for 11.5 months of the year, but that last little stretch jostles your brain and bank account.

Of course, in honor of the IRS, you could march through the heat and the desert, frying your brain a little more, to reach Rattlesnake Arches Trail and Rattlesnake Canyon via a five-mile hike from the Pollock Bench Trail adjacent to Horsethief Canyon and the front country of the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.

Once there, another 2.5-mile march will take you around Rattlesnake Canyon Arches Loop Trail and access to nearly a dozen mind-blowing arches. Then, all you have to do is hike back out.

Make sense?

Neither do my taxes.

Nonetheless, this is a canyon all locals should know, because it contains more natural-rock arches than any canyon outside Arches National Park.

Rattlesnake Canyon and Rattlesnake Canyon Arches Trail are adventurous and fascinating. The colorful geological features include spires, windows, gorgeous giant alcoves, and at least seven fabulous arches (although some literature notes there are actually 11 arches in this canyon).

A trip through Rattlesnake Canyon is a kaleidoscopic journey through time and earth — from the upper ends of Black Ridge along the green, gray and purple Morrison formation, down through rust-colored Entrada sandstone and beneath the spectacular Wingate formations with its towering stone walls. 

Pinyon, juniper, sagebrush and riparian vegetation in this area provide habitat for mule deer, mountain lion and a herd of bighorn sheep as well as peregrine falcons, bald eagles and golden eagles. 

To reach the upper trail head, take Interstate 70 west 11.7 miles to Fruita (Exit 19). Turn left, cross back over I-70 and follow the signs to Colorado National Monument.

There is no charge for traveling through the monument to access Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area. Inform the attendant at the entrance gate that you’re headed to Black Ridge Canyons, and you will be permitted to pass at no cost. Because you’ll be visiting Colorado National Monument often, however, you may as well fork over the $20 for a yearly pass.

Then, travel 13.7 miles from the entrance station to the Glade Park Store turnoff sign. It’s just past the upper Liberty Cap trail head. Turn right and travel two-tenths of a mile to the Black Ridge Access Road. Turn right again and stay on that for 10.6 miles to the Rattlesnake Arches trail head.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles are required for the last 1.5 miles to the trail head because it’s gnarly and steep. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended on the rest of this access road, unless you really don’t like your vehicle.

There are actually two roads leading to this trail head. Use of these roads is seasonally rotated for motorized travel. No motorized travel is allowed on either road from Feb. 15 to April 15. If the road appears wet, do not attempt to travel on it. Really. That’s why it opened a couple of days late.

The lower Arches Trail is roughly five miles round trip. After the first half-mile or so, a short section connecting the top of the mesa to the bench below the arches is rocky and steep and requires extra caution. The blooming wildflowers were just beginning to peek out along this stretch last week.

Before descending onto the lower bench, you should check out some of these arches from the top first. The closest one is called First Arch, and it’s only about a half-mile from the drop-off to the lower bench trail. A social trail will lead you to some of the other overlooks and some fabulous arches.

Most hikers used to descend through First Arch to the trail below, me included. The BLM says very clearly, however, “This is not part of the designated trail.” This route is extremely steep, requires some climbing, and is extremely slippery when wet.

To reach the lower trail head, take I-70 west to Fruita (Colorado Highway 340/Exit 19 off the interstate). Travel south across the river for 1.3 miles to Kings View Estates Subdivision. Turn right (west) and go through the subdivision. When the pavement ends, veer to the left around the Fruita Open Space Park and follow the signs to Horsethief Canyon State Wildlife Area.

The Pollock Bench trail head parking lot is 3.3 miles from the subdivision. You’ll pass the Devil’s Canyon trail head and Fruita Paleontological Area.

The Pollock Bench trail head is located just before you enter the main section of Horsethief Canyon SWA. The parking lot is large enough for horse trailers because this trail is accessible to horseback riders as well as hikers. Mountain bikes and motorized vehicles are not allowed.

A vault toilet is found at the trail head, and there’s a sign-in register. It’s important to sign in, not only for safety reasons, but to allow the Bureau of Land Management to keep tabs on use in the area.

Trails here are managed as “designated trails only.”

Recreationists are asked to stay on designated trails because cross-country hiking and horseback riding affect fragile desert soils.

The high-desert climate and rugged landscape can make this a tough area. Summer daytime temperatures can soar above 100 degrees.

However, with mild temperatures this past week, now is a wonderful time to visit.


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