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Dominguez Canyons

by Scott Bacon

Big and Little Dominguez Canyons lie on the Northeastern edge of  the Uncompahgre Plateau in Western Colorado. They contain a wonderful mixture of steep red rock canyon walls, waterfalls through deep slots in the under-lying black schist, the cool waters of perennial streams, the endangered Desert Bighorn Sheep, and petroglyphs left by ancient peoples.

The Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Study Area can be reached from several different roads. But once you are at the wilderness boundary, no motorized vehicles are allowed. We backpacked in from the Cactus Park access and spent 3 days exploring the lower ends of both Big and Little Dominguez Canyons.
To get to the Cactus Park trailhead, take the Cactus Park turn off on KS.20 Road from Hwy 141. The first few miles of this road is easily negotiable with a passenger car, but the last few miles require 4wd. I would not recommend trying to travel this road in the rain or soon after a heavy thunderstorm. The road becomes very slick and it crosses several washes that are normally dry, but swell with swift running deep waters during and after rain storms. There is a small area for 4 or 5 vehicles to park at the trailhead.
From the parking area look West-Southwest for the trailhead. The trail follows the canyon rim for about two miles traveling in a Southwesterly direction. Arriving at the trailhead in late afternoon provides excellent light for viewing the grand vistas of Big Dominguez Canyon and the Gunnison River Valley from the canyon rim. There are several points along the trail that offer great shots of the canyon and nearby Triangle Mesa. Then the trail begins the steep rocky descent into the canyon. This, due to run-off and severe erosion, should not be attempted in the rain, either. Just before the final pitch down into the canyon, through an old rock slide area, you will see a very large sandstone boulder that is suspended on a 20 foot high tower of conglomerate rock and sand. The trail winds directly underneath this remnant of the age old slide. After 20-30 minutes of steep switchbacks, and losing about 600 feet of elevation, you reach the canyon floor.

From this point, we continued down Big Dominguez Canyon exploring the many waterfalls of Big Dominguez Creek and frequent pictographs left by ancient peoples. About 2.5 miles down the canyon we found a very nice undeveloped campsite next to a multi-tiered waterfall spilling into a great 'swimming hole'. At this location we saw a herd of the endangered Desert Bighorn Sheep. This was a rare and pleasant surprise. We were quite close to them before we even saw them. Their color blends so well with the desert terrain that they are difficult to see, unless they move. Our border collie / trail companion, Darby, noticed them first (of course) and a perk from her ears let me know that she had seen something. There were about 16 Bighorns total, mostly ewes and young ones.
The hike from our camp-spot down to the confluence of Big and Little Dominguez Creeks was very hot and very dry. Temperatures during this Memorial Weekend of 2000 were over well 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the nearby town of Delta, CO. Water was readily available at most times by detouring off the trail and down to the creek. A quick pump with the filter and we could refill our water bottles. We did this frequently. Unfortunately, the extreme heat, biting flies and buzzing gnats made the hike less pleasurable than it could have been. I have been to this location during Memorial Day Weekend on previous years and it was much cooler and there were hardly any bugs. We just got a little bad luck this year.
Only about a quarter mile down from our campsite there was an incredible waterfall which I returned to in the evening for better photos. We did not venture more than a couple miles up Little Dominguez Canyon, leaving those explorations for another trip.
We back-tracked, retracing our own steps, out of the canyon. The climb out is not for the faint of heart and was strenuous with the added weight of camera gear and film in my pack, but the photos were worth the strain!

All images and text copyright Scott Bacon