Big Dominguez Canyon | Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area
Whitewater, CO | 04/30/21 | 5.71 miles | 215′ gain
Shortly after our Texas/New Mexico trip, my friend Allie moved to western Colorado for her new job in Telluride. While it sucked that she was now six hours away, a fun bonus was that I could come visit any time I wanted. I made my first trip down on the last day of April. I left in the morning, intending to get some exploring in on my way to Montrose, where I would be meeting Allie after she got off work. Her hike recommendation led me to the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area which is packed full of red rock canyons, petroglyphs, and other historical sites. (In other words, a place I would thoroughly enjoy.)
After a very long drive down the interstate, another highway or two, and then a long dirt road, I finally reached the Bridgeport Trailhead. It was only 1:30 and I had quite a bit of time to kill before meeting Allie. I slowly ate my snack and dreaded leaving the comfort of my air conditioned car. How could it be over 80° already? It was still April!
I eventually dragged myself out into the heat and set off down the road toward the start of the trail. My plan was to take my time and hike as far as I could into the Big Dominguez Canyon, with the hope that I’d make it to the large petroglyph panel along the trail. Just down the road from the main trailhead, the “trail” turns off and parallels the Gunnison River and a set of railroad tracks. This section of trail is really the access road for the tracks, and since this line is still active, numerous signs warn users to keep off.
I soon reached the designated railroad crossing and continued along the trail/road on the opposite side. The road leads to Bridgeport, once a station along the 133-mile rail route between Gunnison and Grand Junction. The first railroad was constructed here in 1882 and the Bridgeport Station buildings followed soon after in 1883.
There didn’t seem to be anything left to see at Bridgeport besides a historic wooden suspension bridge, blocked off due to unsafe conditions. Signs and fences guide users to an information kiosk and a more modern bridge across the Gunnison River.
The old wooden suspension bridge was moved from another location and rebuilt here in 1935, but before that the only way to cross the Gunnison was by ferry. As early as 1895, various ferries operated along this stretch of river.
Shortly after crossing the bridge, the trail passes the cable anchor rock for one of the ferries. William Baer carved his initials (WB) into this rock during long waits while helping with the cable.
Further upriver, the Big Dominguez Trail leaves the Gunnison and turns off along Big Dominguez Creek. The creek was dammed and water diverted through irrigation ditches. The dam and ditches may be remnants from riverside orchards dating as early as the 1890s.
The area was also used as a passage for cattle ranchers as they drove their cattle up the Dominguez Canyon to summer pastures on the Uncompahgre Plateau. A few structures and corrals are located just off the trail.
I continued further into the canyon, hoping to find petroglyphs or other evidence of the Indigenous people who lived in this area for thousands of years. After hiking just under 3 miles, I took a long break in the shade of a giant boulder. I wasn’t sure how much further I would need to hike to see the petroglyphs but ultimately the heat won and I decided to turn around. (And for those wondering, the main petroglyph panel is about 4 miles from the trailhead.)
On the way back to the trailhead, I took another long break on the Gunnison. Soaking my feet in the cold water was a good end to a hot hike.
I would like to acknowledge that Big Dominguez Canyon is on the ancestral land of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute).