Monday, May 31, 2010

Dominguez Canyons Wilderness - the real deal

We traveled to the newly-designated Dominguez Canyons Wilderness over the weekend, and spent a few days in this easily-accessed, yet back-of-beyond area. Yes - it's finally "we" - Catherine's folks graciously took our Will-Man for the weekend, so rather than this:



It was this:



The rest of my photos are here.

This was a special trip to an amazing area - the canyons are only a dozen miles south of Grand Junction on Highway 50, and then only a few more miles on a dirt road. But this is a world apart, full of desert bighorn sheep, towering cliffs, and petroglyphs. I had a nearly constant sense of disbelief that I was only a few miles from the humdrum drive I used to take down to Delta - staring at mind-boggling sandstone cliffs and striking rises to the Uncompahgre Plateau.

The wildness had two elements. First, there was the overwhelming natural beauty of the area. Then there is the ineffective management by the BLM. I've written about the federal land agencies' general abdication of actual lands management before. During this trip, that abdication went beyond merely disposing of a priceless legacy of lands and history, but entered into a realm of misinformation and danger. Visitors to this wilderness should be aware that what the BLM represents regarding this remarkable area does not accurately represent the on-the-ground situation. In other words, use your judgment and leave your expectations at home.

Our trip:

After hiking up the Gunnison River, and the railroad, for a mile, we crossed the fine new bridge and access the wilderness. The in-the-know crowd camps here along the river - it's a calm stretch of beautiful water, and the Canyons' highlights are only a few miles from the river. We saw numerous happy camps of boaters and backpackers - enjoying the warm weather yet lack of bugs. We camped among them, listening to Big Dominguez Creek splashing over a small irrigation diversion dam. On Saturday, we hiked about 13 miles up to Dominguez Campground. The first few miles are striking - big sandstone canyons rise up from the creek, while the creek itself alternates through meadows and smooth granite slabs. After about three miles, the trail grows increasingly rugged, with numerous climbs in and out of gullies. The trail past the Cactus Park Trail junction is on a bench above the creek and largely uninteresting.

After Dominguez Campground (free!), we continued on a series of jeep roads to Wagon Park, a large meadow on the Uncompahgre Plateau. We found the turnoff for the "Upper Bar X Trail" - a carsonite post indicating wilderness access only, belied by ATV tracks:



This trail is actually an old road gradually descending into a series of pretty meadows:



The meadows hang high above Little Dominguez Creek and are isolated from the mesa above by a cliff. We soon realized that the Little Dominguez canyon is much deeper than Big Dominguez (sort of like a big basketball player with a diminuitive name):



A few miles in, the road disappeared. We found several sets of recent footprints, and a few large cairns, but lacked the supplies/time/energy to continue. Luckily, it wasn't exactly an ugly place to camp:



The next day, we fooled around looking for the trail, contemplated continuing on to look for a way to drop down to Little Dominguez Creek, but wisely decided to turn around and head back out to the roads.

Once on the roads, we ran into the BLM wilderness ranger on his ATV. He was curious and perhaps bemused to see us hiking around out there. He confirmed that the "Upper Bar X Trail" does not in fact exist, and he described some possible off-trail routes down to Little Dominguez Creek. He also confirmed the Little Dominguez Creek trail does not exist, but is a worthwhile backcountry adventure given enough time and energy.

We enjoyed retracing our steps, taking time to enjoy the scene at Dominguez Canyon Campground (friendly music-blasting rednecks), swim in the creek:



And saw a large group of desert bighorns:



I estimate it was between 22-25 miles each way - yes we were plenty tired when we got back to the Gunnison. When we got there, we met a BLM river ranger who said he once took a trip down Little Dominguez Creek - it took him three days one way. But again, beautiful and worth the effort.

The issue:

BLM publishes a nice pamphlet on the Dominguez Canyon WSA (its old name). The map in the pamphlet clearly indicates both the "Upper Bar X Trail" and a trail all the way down Little Dominguez Creek. These "trails" simply don't exist. Of course I'm used to taking trails depicted on USGS topos with a grain of salt - a lot of them aren't there or are in disrepair. But why is the BLM publishing a nice computer-generated map of the area with clearly marked non-existent trails?

Also, Catherine called the BLM prior to our trip and asked about our plan. The BLM ranger who answered said the trails were "clearly marked," adding there was adequate camping along Little Dominguez Creek to facilitate our planned route. In other words, he indicated that what is in reality a week-long (or longer) off-trail adventure could be accomplished on-trail in three days. We don't know why.

On one hand, the situation is sad - the BLM has a small budget, is (reasonably) not focused on the experience of a few backpackers, and simply does not know in many cases what trail and other resources are located on its own lands. We saw ATV tracks in the wilderness area, and clearly from the Uncompahgre Plateau side it's essentially a free-for-all. On the other hand, the lack of trails means that the Dominguez Canyons are a strikingly wild area - the Big Dominguez Creek trail may be the only maintained trail through the wilderness, leaving the entire southern mass of the wilderness to the bears, mountain lions, etc. This is a striking thought while looking off a thousand-foot-high canyon wall at numerous mesas, canyons and lowland areas. We will return to investigate more of the area, specifically whether the "Gunnison Pack Trail" or the "McCarty Trail" exist or are more figments of a BLM mapmaker's imagination.

We are also excited to take some river trips with Will-J. Our sore feet certainly think a river trip down the Gunnison to the canyon head campsites would be a fun option the next time around.