A canyon-do attitude: Exploring Dominguez-Escalante

Wyatt above Dominguez Canyon.
Wyatt above Dominguez Canyon.

Cast in the shadow of the majestic Colorado National Monument, the nearby Dominguez Canyon Wilderness doesn’t demand attention so much as wait for people to discover the richness of its depths. It is the wallflower of wilderness areas.

Best Red Rocks concert? Radiohead, 2001. Best redrock canyons? Western Colorado.

After nearly three decades as a study area, the 60,000-acre Dominguez Canyon Wilderness in 2009 joined the 210,000-acre Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area as part of the Omnibus Public Lands Bill. That landmark legislation1 designated more than 2 million acres of wilderness in nine states.

Wyatt near Big Dominguez Creek.
A juniper husk in winter.

There is another set of numbers that distinguishes Dominguez-Escalante among other Colorado wildlands and hints at the distinctiveness and diversity of the ecosystems within its boundaries. Dominguez-Escalante’s terrain ranges from about 4,800 feet to 9,000 feet, from juniper-dotted desert to forests thick with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.

In Colorado, a substantial portion of protected land resides at elevations of 8,000 feet and higher. Or as Charlie Kerr, a former president of the Western Colorado Congress and a member of the Bureau of Land Management’s Northwest Resource Advisory Council, told me once: “Most of our wilderness is rock and ice.”

Miles at Dominguez-Escalante’s “Newspaper Rock” (every petroglyph site worth its salt has one).

Unlike The Monument, the stony grandeur of which is laid bare and invites basking, Dominguez-Escalante resides off the beaten path a bit, and its treasures are cached around corners, amid trees, on the backs of boulders, along high-desert creeks.

The area is best known for its numerous petroglyphs, which are etched into various stones and rock walls. These carvings are often referred to either vaguely as “Native American” or attributed—not necessarily incorrectly but with limitations—to the Anasazi, Fremont or Ute cultures.

The art spans thousands of years and is the cumulative work of multiple peoples, including, unfortunately, modern homo sapien Americanus, who have enhanced these delicate links to our past while ensuring their own idiocy will endure for generations to come via such additions as “Rob Wuz Here,” “Jimmy Sucks” and “Kevin + Tammy”.

The etchings provide a glimpse of some of our country’s earliest cultures.
They are also just plain cool.

Hunter-and-gatherer cultures like the Fremont and nomadic bands of Ute traveled the region extensively, and many carvings clearly depict native wildlife and geographic features. Other etchings stir the imagination with their enigmatic intricacies.

Closeup of petroglyphs along the Little Dominguez Creek Trail.

The petroglyphs are a fine reason to venture into the confines of Dominguez-Escalante, but they are far from the only reason. As the rock art suggests, the area is home to a range of wildlife, including antelope and a thriving population of desert bighorn sheep. Coyote and mountain lions prowl the region, as do black bear in the wooded elevations.

I would love to hear thoughts on this one…

The Gunnison River and two stout creeks, Little Dominguez and Big Dominguez, support a robust riparian habitat. Marshy offshoots of Big Dominguez Creek provide popular stopovers for waterfowl, and the area in general is home and hunting ground for an array of raptors and other birds; the dogs and I had a rare daytime encounter with a great horned owl, which occupied a tree along the Big Dominguez Creek trail, and on one late-autumn hike following Little Dominguez Creek we were joined for the better part of an hour by a playful raven, which seemed to delight in swooping over the dogs, landing just out of reach then alighting to a nearby boulder or tree as the canines gave chase.

Miles at the base of a frozen waterfall along the Little Dominguez Creek Trail.

Despite its proximity to Grand Junction, Dominguez-Escalante maintains a self-contained solitude. Yes, the Bridgeport Trailhead area, which provides easy access to the Gunnison River and the petroglyphs near Little Dominguez Creek, has a nature-as-amusement-park vibe in the spring and summer (one could be forgiven for expecting to pass through a turnstile to enter the canyon). But even amid peak popularity, few venture past the boulder-framed waterfall and petroglyphs that are but a short hike from the parking area and the western shores of the Gunnison.

Winter in Dominguez-Escalante.

In fact, if one follows Little Dominguez Creek far enough, the trail itself essentially vanishes (some maps list the Upper Bar X Trail branching off the Little Dominguez after rounding Star Mesa and Poison Canyon, but the path is not as clearly defined as the sporadic four-wheeler ruts left by those who prefer to tear-ass through nature rather than connect with it).

Dominguez-Escalante may lack postcard-friendly flash, but it offers more than just a pretty picture for those willing to take a closer look.

1Leave it to Congress to enact the most substantive wilderness protections in a quarter-century only to gut the funding for its management (meanwhile giving itself a raise—you know, for a job well done—and simultaneously bitching about bailouts, moaning about healthcare and bellowing about the deficit). Never mind that the salary of rank-and-file members of Congress is more than double the national individual average, or that these “public servants” have access to a great healthcare plan, which, though technically purchased via taxpayer dollars is administered by a private company rather than the federal government and is therefore not, technically, “Socialist.” Nobody walks the tightrope of hypocrisy better than politicians.

Overlooking Dominguez Canyon and the Gunnison River.

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