Visitors to the Colorado Plateau can freely travel across scenic recreational areas, sometimes wandering in and out of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado perhaps without knowing they’ve crossed state lines.
Here in Moab, we sometimes joke that there are more green license plates on vehicles from Colorado than there are from Utah. But the tables can easily be turned, by venturing from the Beehive State into the Centennial State for day trips or camping stays.
Recreation areas near Grand Junction, Colorado are aplenty. The Dominguez Canyon Wilderness southeast of Grand Junction near Whitewater is one such example.
Established in 2009, the Dominguez and Escalante canyons were so named for the well-known early Spanish explorers — Franciscan friars Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, who explored the desert southwest during the years around 1776. The Old Spanish Trail runs alongside the canyon. The explorers were scouting out a new trade route from Santa Fe to California.
The canyons are located about 20 miles off of Highway 50 between Grand Junction and Delta, Colorado. The Bureau of Land Management manages the vast lands.
The Dominguez Canyon trailhead, located on the Gunnison River near the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad tracks, accesses both Big Dominguez Canyon and Little Dominguez. It is a non-motorized area (unlike the adjacent Escalante Canyon), located in the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area. Drivers from Grand Junction will turn right (west) off of Highway 50 onto Bridgeport Road. There are few indications that the old town of Bridgeport had residents long ago. BLM signs on Highway 50 mark the way, but the turnoff comes up quick. Bridgeport Road is a good but narrow dirt road down that goes for three miles to the Gunnison River and the trailhead.
The Big Dominguez Canyon Trail is very long and “can be explored for days on end,” according to a description from alltrails.com. Many day-hikers enjoy the route that goes to the top of a towering waterfall and back, “perfect for a day hike.”
The alltrails.com website is quite clear about what hikers and equestrians might encounter. There are parking lots that accommodate cars and vehicles that are pulling stock trailers.
The trail starts at the river by following a gated dirt road that runs parallel to the railroad tracks for about a mile. Don’t be surprised to have a train pass by. After a mile, travelers will see a “Do Not Enter” sign that protects a section of private land. Numerous railroad signs also warn travelers to stay off the tracks. Visitors should respect the signs and continue down the trail on the public access for a few more minutes to the Bridgeport Bridge that has maps and descriptions. An old bridge near that location is no longer suitable for travel, but a newer steel and wood bridge can carry a string of horses.
The first bridge is interesting to behold though not to be trespassed. It is an old cable-type suspension bridge that was long ago moved from Cameo in Debeque Canyon and reconstructed here, according to alltrails.com. It is privately owned. The public bridge is just upstream a short distance and is the bridge to use.
Hikers will cross to the other side of the Gunnison River, then turn left to the mouth of Dominguez Canyon. There are shaded areas next to the river and some primitive camping areas. The area is rich in archaeological history. This is where the wilderness area begins.
After a couple of miles the trail forks, with the right trail going to Big Dominguez and the left (or straight) trail going to Little Dominguez.
Little Dominguez Canyon is part of the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Study Area. The BLM designated almost 74,000 acres of the area as a wilderness study area back in 1980. Both Big Dominguez Creek and Little Dominguez Creek flow year around, and Little Dominguez Canyon can be prone to flooding during high spring flows or flashfloods.
Visitors to Little Dominguez will cross the creek several times as they travel toward an old homestead that appears to be abandoned. Old farming equipment is rusting in place next to a dead orchard and root cellar. An old farmhouse speaks of the past’s better days.
A family by the name of Rambo was some of the original homesteaders of the canyon. The family is said to have had a ferry just up from the new bridge that they used to transport their peaches over the river.
Billy Rambo sold his family’s 100-year-old homestead to the BLM in 1988 so that it could be preserved, according to a story in the Montrose Press. He enjoyed a life estate lease, and he remained on the land until his death several years ago.
It is clear that no one lives there these days. Visitors are encouraged to leave the homestead as it is and not tamper with its old relics.
Beyond the homestead, travelers can walk near the creek, but the trail gets more brushy and narrow.
Serious hikers and riders may be able to find where the trails in Big and Little Dominguez canyons intersect with a route called the Upper Bar X Trail, terminating at Black Point on the Uncompahgre Plateau. That kind of exploration could entail some camping and several days of wandering.
Residents of Moab and visitors to the desert southwest might enjoy these Colorado canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Its wilderness designations make it a peaceful though sometimes busy respite from our region’s many motorized routes. Most folks stop hiking after a couple of miles, leaving the canyons’ upper reaches fairly devoid of people. While the Dominguez canyons are reminiscent of Moab’s terrain, they offer greater variety than one can enjoy by staying close to home.