Big Dominguez Canyon
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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    Distance: 7.0 miles
        (plus 31.1 miles by car)

    Walking time:  3 ĺ hours

    : 1,400 ft. loss
      Cactus Park Trailhead (start): 6,120 ft
      Bridgeport Trailhead: 4,720 ft.

    Trail: Unmaintained, but easy to follow.

    Season: Early summer through late fall. The road to Cactus Park Trailhead is impassable from late November through March.

    Vicinity: South of Grand Junction

    Dominguez CanyonDominguez Canyon


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    Several variations of the hike through Big Dominguez Canyon are possible, depending on how far you want to walk and what you want to see. If you want to walk the entire length of the canyon you can begin at the Dominguez Campground trailhead and walk to the Gunnison River at Bridgeport. The total distance of that hike is 16.6 miles, hence it is recommended as an overnighter. The trail is not maintained, but it is still generally easy to follow. It begins in a forest of pinion pine and Douglas fir, and slowly descends along the canyon bottom to the high desert environment of Bridgeport. There are plenty of good camp sites along the way, and water is normally not a problem. Alternatively, you can begin or end your hike at the Cactus Park Trailhead. A well marked spur trail leaves the bottom of Big Dominguez Canyon 5.7 miles before Bridgeport, then climbs 1.3 miles to the Cactus Park Trailhead.

    The hike described here begins at the Cactus Park Trailhead and ends at Bridgeport. I like this hike for several reasons. First, there are several good petroglyph sites along this section of trail which are always a joy to discover in the wild. I saw at least five panels within twenty feet of the trail, and there are undoubtedly many more hidden in the canyonís recesses. Second, the creek is more easily accessible in the lower part of the canyon, and the trail passes by a number of attractive pools and small waterfalls. Third, since the forest is not as dense in the lower canyon it is much easier to spot wildlife. I experienced one of my most memorable moments in the spring of 1999 when I encountered a herd of about 30 desert bighorn sheep while hiking alone in the lower Dominguez. I will never forget the thrill of being close to those magnificent animals in the solitude of the desert canyon.

    From Cactus Park Trailhead the trail first winds eastward for 0.6 mile along the rim of the canyon to a point where a route exists to the bottom. The Wingate Sandstone cliffs above the creek make it impossible for a trail to make its descent directly, but further upcanyon an ancient landslide has opened up a feasible route down.

    Before you leave the canyon rim you should pause to study the gorge that lies below. Much of the route you will be following is clearly visible from this vantage point. Notice that most of the canyon has been carved from successive layers of reddish sandstone and mudstone, but in the very bottom of the canyon lies a jagged, black deposit of gneiss, schist, and granite. This bedrock is very old; it was formed some 1.5 billion years ago during Precambrian times. In contrast, the layers of sedimentary rock just above it are little more than a tenth as old. All of the intermediate layers were eroded away before the younger rocks were deposited. Notice the large hill that rises above the north rim of the canyon about 1.5 miles east of the trailhead. This prominent landmark is called Triangle Mesa. As the crow flies it lies in line with and about half way between Bridgeport Trailhead, your destination, and Cactus Park Trailhead, your starting point.

    When you reach the bottom of Big Dominguez Canyon turn left towards the Gunnison River, and within 0.4 mile you will come to an old mining claim that was operated in 1907 by a man named Archie Smith. (His name is inscribed on a nearby boulder.) The mine is located about 50 feet below the trail near a few scattered pieces of old mining equipment. Above the trail is a primitive stone shelter in which Mr. Smith must have spent many a lonely night. You can still see pieces of an old iron stove inside the tiny bivouac.

    There are Indian petroglyphs all along the lower part of big Dominguez Canyon, but they start becoming more frequent about 1.2 miles below Archie Smithís mine. Many are on the east side of the rocks, so be sure to look back occasionally as you walk eastward. The most likely places to find them are on the large flat vertical surfaces of sandstone-particularly those surfaces that are covered with a dark patina of desert varnish. Most of the drawings were made by chipping away the dark patina to expose the lighter underlying stone. Interestingly, many of the stone drawings are of desert bighorn sheep, an animal that must have played a major role in the lives of the Indians that occupied this canyon hundreds of years ago.

    The desert bighorns became extinct in this part of Colorado soon after white settlers began frequenting the canyon country in the late 1800s. Not only was Big Dominguez occupied by miners, but until recently cattle were also grazed in the confines of the canyon. The wild sheep were easy pickings for a hungry settler armed with a rifle, and they were soon killed off. However, in the late 1980s a decision was made by the BLM to reintroduce the desert bighorn to the area, and now the stately animals can occasionally be seen once again. There are currently about 250 wild sheep that range in the canyons south of the Gunnison River between Big Dominguez Canyon and Roubideau Canyon. They seem to be thriving-their population has increased six fold in the two decades since their reintroduction.

    The best petroglyph panel is probably the last one you will see on this hike. It is located 0.6 mile below the confluence with Dry Fork Canyon, or 0.9 miles upstream from the confluence with Little Dominguez Canyon. Look for a large boulder the size of a small cabin located just five feet from the trail on the north side. The panel is clearly visible from the trail, but it is on the east-facing side of the boulder so if you donít look back you will miss it. The panel contains dozens of drawings, apparently made by numerous artists over a long period of time. While you are looking at the rock art on this boulder look up at the base of the cliffs on the north side of the canyon and you will see another panel. Actually there are a number of petroglyphs in the vicinity of the Dry Fork confluence, so you should be particularly observant along this part of the trail. I must caution you that the canyon floor becomes much wider in this area, and there is more than one trail to choose from. Try to stay on the trail that stays as far above the north side of the creek bed as possible, because this is where you will see most of the petroglyphs. There is a much better trail on the south side of the creek, but you will miss a lot if you follow it.

    Fifteen minutes after leaving the last petroglyph panel you will come to the confluence of Little Dominguez Canyon, after which Big Dominguez turns north and soon intersects the Gunnison River. By now you will notice that the trail is more of a jeep road than a trail. Also you will probably see other campers at the mouth of the canyon, as this is a popular overnight stop among river runners. Continuing north along the Gunnison River for another 0.6 mile will bring you to the Bridgeport Bridge, on the other side of which is the Bridgeport Trailhead and parking area.


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