A Little Southern Utah in Western Colorado: the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness
Pedestrian bridge over the Gunnison River at the entrance to Dominguez Canyon
Colorado is known for its mountains, and with an average elevation of 6,800 feet rightfully so, but tucked away in the far western part of the state are a number of spectacular red rock canyons and landscapes that look like they were lifted straight out of a Southern Utah travel guide by some sort of magical, three dimensional silly putty. Colorado National Monument is home to the perhaps the best known of these canyons but several equally impressive chasms can be found just to the south in the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area.
Wind-sculpted boulders in Dominguez Canyon
Dominguez Creek is a tributary of the Gunnison River just north of Delta, CO that flows year-round through a series of spectacular canyons cut into sedimentary rock of varying red, orange, and pink hues. About a mile upstream of its confluence with the Gunnison, the canyon splits; Big Dominguez Canyon to the west, and Little Dominguez Canyon to the south. Gentle trails undulate along the floors of both canyons for dozens of miles, all the way up into the headwaters of the drainage system on the Uncompahgre Plateau. I chose to hike up Big Dominguez Canyon, which I knew was home to some year-round waterfalls (ended up being nearly dry…) and impressive rock art. This turned out to be a really good decision as you’ll see shortly. Since most of my hiking recently has involved steep mountain trails at elevations often 11,000 feet, trekking along a relatively flat trail at 5,000 feet was a welcome respite that allowed me to cover quite a bit of ground.
Dominguez Canyon is located within a federally designated wilderness area, one of 43 such areas in Colorado. The Wilderness Act of 1964, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, defines wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In many ways, these values were on display in Dominguez Canyon; despite the area’s proximity to Grand Junction, I hiked about 15 miles (told you it was flat) and didn’t see another human soul until I was almost back to the trailhead. Apart from some rumbles of thunder that echoed magnificently through the canyon in the early afternoon, the landscape was perfectly silent, despite its location only a half dozen miles from U.S. Highway 50. In other ways they were not, such as when I came across piles of metal equipment associated with an old mine (likely copper based on the abundance of azurite and malachite in the surrounding rocks), although being geologically inclined I’m never one to complain about this sort of thing since there are few things as fun and adrenaline-inducing as poking around old mine dumps for an hour!
One of the larger petroglyphs in Dominguez Canyon? A turtle? A chunky centipede? Other ideas?
Dominguez Canyon is also known for being prime Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep habitat, yet a quick glance at the trailhead register told me that seeing these creatures is by no means guaranteed. The BLM asks people to record the number of sheep they spot in the register on their way out, and I noticed that the handful of groups that had visited in the last few weeks had either A) seen more than 20 sheep or B) seen zero sheep. Hit or miss indeed. Despite my best attempts at making convincing sounding sheep noises, my visit was sadly a miss; I had the pleasure of recording a big fat zero in the register as I departed, despite frequently taking breaks to scan the red cliffs for any sign of movement and feeling insanely jealous of the groups just days before that had hit the bighorn sheep jackpot. Despite the lack of sheep, some smaller and less wooly residents of the canyon made themselves known and were even nice enough to pose for a few photos:
Western Collared Lizard, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO
Canyon Treefrog, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness, CO
Despite the nearly continuous presence of distant thunder, which almost prompted me to turn back about an hour into the hike, I didn’t feel a single drop of rain the entire day. Yet when I returned to the junction between Little and Big Dominguez Canyons late in the afternoon, I discovered that the creek coming out of Little Dominguez Canyon, which had been nothing more than a pathetic looking transparent trickle at 10 A.M., had been transformed into a thick brown torrent of mud and debris accompanied by the extremely potent aroma of fresh cow pie. Yum.
This waterfall along Dominguez Creek had been nearly dry just a few hours earlier.
In hindsight I wish I had taken a “before” picture for comparison but that morning the creek was flowing with less gusto than your typical garden hose so my camera and I weren’t exactly drawn to it. Clearly the headwaters of Little Dominguez had gotten a lot of rain in a short amount of time and seeing this dramatic transformation was a good reminder that flash floods can strike areas far removed from any significant precipitation and validated my decision to hike Big Dominguez Canyon instead.
As spectacular as the canyon was, I can only imagine how enchanting it would be at sunrise or sunset when the low-angle of the Sun illuminates the fantastic geology or in the spring when snow melt swells the creek. Always good to have an excuse to go back!