Dominguez Canyon Camping

Humans are just visitors in Dominguez Canyon Wilderness area, south of Grand junction; only animals live here full-time.

A collared lizard basks in the Dominguez Canyon sun.

Dan Leeth

(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

IN 1776, the same year John Hancock and his cohorts were busy signing the Declaration of Independence, two Spanish friars set out to pioneer an overland route from Santa Fe to the California coast. The priests, Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, led a small group through western Colorado and into Utah, their perilous journey ultimately traversing the deep, canyon-cut wilds of the Colorado Plateau. The small entourage reached Utah and Arizona before lack of food and water forced them to return home.

Today, many sites across the Intermountain West are named by or for those expedition leaders, including Big and Little Dominguez canyons south of Grand Junction. It’s unlikely the good padre ever set foot in either chasm now bearing his name, but that does little to diminish their appeal to hikers who love exploring this realm of slickrock canyons. Unlike mountains, which offer wide-open views and the feeling of spaciousness, canyons are tight and intimate. Distances shrink, light dances and color abounds.

The side-by-side, interconnected rifts lie between the crest of the Uncompahgre Plateau and the Gunnison River. In 2009, the land surrounding the twin canyons became the latest of more than 40 congressionally mandated wilderness areas in Colorado. By law, these are places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” In designated wilderness, all forms of mechanized transport, including mountain bikes, are banned. The only way to explore this wild area is the same way Dominguez and Escalante would have – on foot or horseback.

Most visitors enter the wilderness from one of two canyon endpoints. The easiest to reach is Bridgeport off of U.S. Highway 50, about 20 miles southeast of Grand Junction. From a parking lot beside the Gunnison River, the route follows the Union Pacific tracks to a footbridge suspended over the stream. The actual hiking trail begins at a river runner’s campground near the mouth of Big Dominguez Creek.

The other major trailhead lies next to the Big Dominguez Campground at the upper end of the canyon off of Colorado Highway 141 and the Divide Road southwest of Grand Junction. This dirt road may become impassible after heavy rainfall. An easy-to-follow 16.6-mile hiking path connects the two trailheads.

Both Big and Little Dominguez canyons feature thousand-foot-high terraced walls built from the same rock layers that form Canyonlands and Arches national parks in Utah. Desert varnish, rain-washed streaks of iron and manganese oxides, stains the ruddy stone with curtains of somber black. Those same desert rains over many millennia have carved aggregated layers of mud and stone into natural arches, bridges and boulder-capped hoodoo pillars.

Precambrian schist, gneiss and granite, which geologists say is as much as 1.8 billion years old, line the base of the canyon. Year-round trout streams have smoothed and sculpted that bedrock into a waterpark-worthy string of cascading waterfalls and plunge pools ideal for an enticing dip on a hot day. In one spot, about three miles up from the mouth of Big Dominguez, that water plunges down a five-story waterfall in a frothy veil of white.

Like all permanent desert streams, Big and Little Dominguez creeks give the area a bipolar personality. Along the waterway, soft grasses line benches and giant cottonwoods shade streams. Away from the flow, it is desert scattered with cactus, piñon, juniper, saltbush, sage and desert scrub.

While Dominguez and his party may not have actually entered the canyon, Native Americans before and after him certainly did. They left behind panels of petroglyphs and pictographs etched into sandstone boulders. Ranchers and a handful of optimistic prospectors followed. The remains of long abandoned diggings, corrals, flumes, shelters and fence lines lie scattered through the area. One homesteader, Billy Rambo, still lives on a 2.5-acre inholding along the lower reaches of Little Dominguez.

Otherwise free of permanent habitation, the Dominguez canyons remain rife with wildlife that includes collared lizards, mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions, golden eagles, wild turkeys and peregrine falcons. Trout swim the streams, canyon wrens call from the rocks and bear and elk can sometimes be spotted in the area’s upper reaches. In the 1980s, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reintroduced desert bighorn sheep to Big Dominguez Canyon. Today the herd numbers around 65 animals, which often can be seen dining on desert vegetation near the edge of the cliffs.

While the upper or lower reaches of the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness can be explored on day hikes, the best way to savor the area’s grandeur is to backpack in and camp a night or two in the wild. One can then sit back and watch as the long rays of the setting sun ignite the rock, turning canyon walls into flaming tapestries of crimson. Unfettered by artificial light, nightfall brings black velvet skies shimmering with stars and the glow of a Milky Way seldom seen by city dwellers – the same sight Dominguez and Escalante enjoyed centuries ago.

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