Dolores River Canyon
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
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    Distance: 5.4 miles (round trip)

    Walking time:  2 hours

    : 200 ft. gain/loss
      Dolores River Trailhead (start): 4,960 ft.
      La Sal Creek: 5,000 ft.

    Trail: Generally well marked and easy to follow

    Season: All year round, but best in May during the spring runoff.

    Vicinity: South of Grand Junction

    Delores RiverDelores River


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    The Dolores River, which drains the western side of the Uncompahgre Plateau and the San Juan Mountains, offers an often-overlooked hiking opportunity near the Utah border. The waterway is particularly scenic where it flows between the towns of Slick Rock and Bedrock, for here it has carved a winding gorge in the desert sandstone that is frequently over a thousand feet deep. This section of river, called the Dolores River Canyon, has been recommended for designation as a wild river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the surrounding terrain is also being studied by the Bureau of Land Management as a possible wilderness area.

    The hike begins near the town of Bedrock, where the Dolores River exits the canyon to flow across the Paradox Valley. Notice that the river does not take the easy route down the center of Paradox Valley, as one might expect, but rather flows directly across the wide, flat valley to enter another canyon on the other side. This oddity was a puzzle to early geologists, and in fact that is probably how Paradox Valley got its name. It is now known that, unlike most valleys, Paradox Valley was not formed by water. Rather it is the result of a large subterranean deposit of salt that shifted and caused the land to sink long after the Dolores River channel had already been established.

    For the first 0.2 mile after leaving the end of the road the trail closely parallels the west side of the river. Soon, however, the river veers away to the east toward the confluence with Wild Steer Canyon. The trail continues in a southerly direction for the next 0.5 mile, climbing 100 feet above the water. Then it descends back again to the water's edge and turns west to follow the northern shore.

    The trail continues following the river in a westerly direction for the next 1.5 miles. Three times it turns north away from the water for hundred yards in order to get around miner obstacles, but for the most part it stays within a hundred feet of the water. Finally, 2.2 miles from the trailhead you will come to a small BLM sign on the right side of the path indicating that there are Indian petroglyphs in the area. The trail at this point is a few hundred feet north of the water in an area littered with large cabin-sized sandstone boulders, and it is on these boulders that you will find the rock art.

    The most obvious drawings are on a 15-foot-high boulder near the BLM sign about 30 feet north of the trail. The boulder has one flat side facing the trail that has a number of weathered petroglyphs chipped into its surface. This and several other nearby boulders are decorated with a variety of abstract drawings that include bear paws, spirals, snakes, several human-like figures with oversize feet and hands, and at least one antelope.

    One of the boulders near the petroglyph site also contains several faint but unmistakable dinosaur tracks. Walk back down the trail about 40 feet east of the BLM sign; then turn north and walk another 40 feet north of the trail. You will come to a large boulder with a flat side that faces away from the trail toward the cliffs. Look carefully at the flat surface and you should see the fossilized tracks.

    150 yards after leaving the petroglyph site the trail returns to the edge of the river, and 0.5 mile later it arrives at the mouth of La Sal Creek. Although this hike ends at the confluence of La Sal Creek and the Dolores River a faint trail continues up the La Sal for another 3.0 miles, finally ending at a mine. The mine can also be reached by road from Highway 46 west of Bedrock, but numerous "no trespassing" signs have been posted in the area to let outsiders know they are not welcome.


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