Where are the rattlesnakes?
Rattlesnake Canyon's name may scare off tourists, but have no fear, we haven't spotted snakes here in years
It’s hard to say what keeps tourists at bay.
Maybe it’s just a name.
Now, I don’t want to jump into a Chamber-of-Commerce-type argument about whether we should rename Colorado National Monument, but how about Rattlesnake Canyon?
It’s not as well-traveled as some of the other canyons around here, canyons with more glamorous names like Monument Canyon or Unaweep Canyon. Tourists don’t necessarily flock here, even though it contains the second-highest concentration of natural arches in the world, second only to Arches National Park.
Maybe it’s just the name.
Maybe it’s just the rattlesnakes. (Disclaimer: Although a group of us did spot a native Midget Faded Rattler in adjacent Mee Canyon a couple of years ago, I’ve never seen a rattler in Rattlesnake Canyon.)
Maybe tourists are kept at bay because of the rugged 10.6-mile, impassible-when-wet, four-wheel-drive road to reach the upper Rattlesnake Canyon Arches Trail head.
No matter, Rattlesnake Canyon and Rattlesnake Arches Trail are adventurous and fascinating. It’s colorful geological features include spires, windows, gorgeous giant alcoves, and at least nine 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 and golden eagles. A small aggregation of mountain bluebirds swiftly crossed our path last week as we sauntered down the out-and-back Rattlesnake Arches Trail (five miles round trip from the upper trail head).
Keep in mind, however, this vegetation also grows an incredible amount of gnats, and now would be a nice time to hike here, before the gnats really take flight, so to speak.
There are three ways to get into this fabulous canyon: A long 10.6-mile hike from the Pollock Bench area west of Fruita; an equally long 10.6-mile drive on an old four-wheel-drive road just west of Colorado National Monument in the BLM’s Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area; or, a bushwhacking hike up the canyon from the Colorado River — if you’ve floated 3.3 miles down that same river from the Loma boat launch.
We chose the long four-wheel-drive road to the upper trail head last week. To reach this trail head, take Interstate 70 west 11.7 miles to the Fruita exit (No. 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.
Since you’ll be visiting the 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 final 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 February 15 to April 15. If the road appears wet, and it might after this past week’s rainstorms, do not attempt to travel on it. Really.
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 spectacular 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 states clearly, however, “This is not part of the designated trail.” This route is very steep and requires some climbing.
But it’s pretty cool. And the name, Rattlesnake Canyon or Rattlesnake Canyon Arches or Rattlesnake Arches Trail — whatever you want to call it — is fine with me.