Escalante Canyon and Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Study Area

by Curt Donohue on May 4, 2009

Escalante Canyon #1

Our trip to the Escalante Canyon on Thursday April 30, 2009 was somewhat spur of the moment and we really didn’t know what we would find because the information available for the Canyon is limited, at least compared to what you would find for other State Parks or National Monuments.  See the following link for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources’ take on the Canyon.

http://parks.state.co.us/NaturalResources/CNAP/NaturalAreasInfo/AlphabeticalListing/EscalanteCanyon.htm

For a even better information go to:  http://www.blm.gov/co/st/en/fo/denca/dcw.html.  This is the BLM’s webpage on the area and includes links to download a fact sheet, a map and a brochure which includes a very good map and info on various rules and recommendations regarding burning fires, viewing artifacts, respecting wildlife, etc.

We took off from Montrose, CO at about 11:00 AM and completed the trip around 4 PM, so I’m calling it a half-day trip.  That didn’t include any hiking trails because we didn’t see any.  We did, however, stop at several old cabins, visited with other explorers at those locations and took many pictures.  We also checked out one very nice rest area with covered picnic tables and great views.  Directly below the rest area was Escalante Creek and obvious examples of it’s awesome erosive force.

To find Escalante Canyon, drive north from Delta, CO approximately 12 miles and you should see the turnoff.  It is marked well with a medium sized sign on the right side of the road.  Take a left off of the highway and head west.  There is a large parking lot on the south side of Escalante Canyon Road with a portable toilet.  If you are driving, don’t park here because there isn’t anything to see until you get a few miles down the road.  The next picture is of the mileage sign for various landmarks.

Escalante Canyon Milage Sign

Since it is spring, water was rushing down the Escalante Creek which blocked us from checking out a few roads.  We weren’t able to get to the Ute Petroglyphs and we had to end our trip right at the 17 mile marker or risk making our Subaru into a boat.  Nonetheless, there was plenty to see.  Let’s start with Walker Cabin.

Walker Cabin

Sign for East Walker Track


Walker Cabin PlaqueTo the left is a wood sign that has been engraved with a short history of Walker Cabin.   The lighting wasn’t very good for this photograph so I will transcribe it for you.

“Walker Cabin – This cabin was built in 1911 by Harry Walker, a skilled bricklayer, and his four sons.  Short of funds, he laid up the walls with dirt mortar which in better times was covered with cement.  Visitors are welcome.  This site is owned by the Colorado Division of Wildlife.”

Walker Cabin #1

Walker Cabin #2

Walker Cabin Interior #1

Walker Cabin Interior #2

As you can see by the photos above the cabin is in pretty rough shape.  It’s doing pretty well, considering it was built in 1911 and has been exposed to the elements for an unknown period of time (at least to me).  Please be very careful when exploring the cabin.  There are floor boards missing and quite a few that are weak and sooner or later more will fail.  Watch your step.

It’s pretty amazing to think about someone building a stone house in the middle of nowhere (back then and even now).  The amount of stone needed, even for this small cabin, was substantial.  I have no doubt that the kind of people that it took to build this life were much tougher and more determined that the average Joe in today’s world.

Land of Contrast

Land of Contrast - River, Field and Desert

Cattle in Field

The photos above show that the Escalante Canyon it isn’t just desert with rocks and trees and cactus.  It was amazing to see all the hay fields working on producing lush grass for the numerous cattle that are raised in the canyon.  Much of the Escalante Canyon is open range, so don’t hit any livestock or you’ll be fully responsible for the consequences.  There were quite a few cattle either near or on the road during our drive so you will definitely want to drive slow around corners and over hills or you could be in for a rather large nasty surprise.

The Escalante Canyon, on the Colorado side anyway, is made up of public and private lands.  I’m really not sure how much each there is, but it seemed like we were on about 50% of each.  That’s a rough gauge based on how many times the signs identified a change from public to private.  With that in mind, please be respectful of the private land owners.  Many of the sideroads are not public and you should know exactly where you are going and what you are doing if you choose to get off the main road.

Captain Smith’s Cabin

Captain Smith's Cabin #1

Captain Smith's Cabin Sign

The above sign greets visitors to Captain Smith’s Cabin.  This sign says “the front cabin was built in 1911 by Captain Henry A. Smith, a civil war veteran and expert tombstone carver.  He laid up three rock walls against an upright stone slab and carved his name and rank on the outside.  The interior contains a hollowed out bed-sized alcove and gun niche.  For his numerous guests, he later built the second cabin with beds below and in the loft.  On the back wall is a hinged shelf which hides a secret room.  To your left, up on the cliff face, he carved his initials and the name of his blacksmith friend, Roy Bowen.  The horseshoe and star are the insignia of the blacksmith shop.”

Here are some additional photos of the site.  This particular stop also has a very nice covered picnic area.

Captain Smith Sleeping Alcove

Captain Smith Cabin Interior

Captain Smith 2nd Cabin

Captain Smith 2nd Cabin Backside

Escalante Potholes Recreation Area

Approximately 12 miles from the Escalante Canyon mileage sign, we ran across a very simple and well kept rest area that included a clean bathroom and several covered picnic areas.  From some documentation I found on the BLM website, it appears these improvements were made in roughly 2005 and were still in very nice shape.  The covered picnic areas included a picnic table and an elevated grill for charcoal barbecuing.  According to the signs, no wood fires of any kind are currently allowed, nor is the cutting down of trees or branches whether they are dead or alive.

Here are a few pictures of the rest area and the covered picnic benches.

Public Restroom

Covered Picnic Area

As an added bonus, just behind the restrooms was a beautiful view of Escalante Creek, which has cut down through the sandstone and underlying igneous rocks over millions of years.  It was very striking to see the contrast between the sandstone, which is the majority of what you find in the Canyon, and the igneous rock because you don’t find that everywhere in the Canyon.  In fact, this was the only place that I really noticed it.

It is my understanding that in this particular part of the creek there are a number of potholes that have been formed from the erosive power of the creek.  People have found these potholes enjoyable to swim in when the water is lower, but BE WARNED, these potholes can be extremely dangerous and many people have died in the last few years from diving and swimming in these potholes.  If you tried to swim in them now (high raging water), you would be a goner for sure.  There are very ominous signs in the rest area regarding the potholes and you should read the document at the following link to get an idea of how dangerous this can be.

GO TO THE FOLLOWING LINK AND READ CAREFULLY:

BLM implements additional regulations at Escalante Pothole

Escalante Pothole Area #1

Escalante Pothole Area #2

End of the Road

End of the Road - Impassable Escalante Creek

The above picture shows our stopping point at 17 miles into th journey.  I wasn’t interested in testing whether or not the Subaru could get across and I’m glad I didn’t.  While we were stopped and enjoying the scenery, a more risk tolerant tourist tested the water to see how deep it was and tried to walk to the other side.  It looked pretty promising until he got to the middle of the creek where he dropped in almost to his waist.  This guy was pretty close to six feet tall and I’d be willing to bet he dropped two feet on his last step alone for a total of three feet of water.  I think we would have been fishing him out if he had kept on going.  It was actually kind of scary when you realize just how powerful even a small fast flowing body of water is.  Don’t mess around and be safe.

3 Things I Will Do Differently Next Time

  1. Get a map of Escalante Canyon – So far, I haven’t found one, but I’m sure if I get with the local BLM they could help me out.  If anyone knows of a good map, please let me know.  What I would be looking for on the map is hiking and road trails on the public lands and demarcations between the public and private lands.  It was a few days after our hike that a good friend of mine informed me that there are all kinds of hiking and road trails to take in the canyon.  I’m excited to go back and try some out.
  2. UPDATE 9/1/09 – Here is the map I was looking for that you may find very helpful. Go to: http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/co/field_offices/grand_junction_field/PDF.Par.68129.File.dat/Dominguez%20Canyon%202007.pdf

  3. Bring a picnic lunch – There are several great pull-off areas including Captain Smith’s Cabin, the Escalante Pothole Area and a couple other smaller camping sites.
  4. Plan for an overnight camping trip – There are a couple very well kept primitive camping areas along the road that could easily accommodate tents and smaller campers.

In Closing

The Escalante Canyon in Colorado is not very well documented and I would like to change that.  If  you happen to have any stories, maps or good information on this canyon, please contribute to this post by commenting below.  It is a great canyon with much to offer and we might as well make it as enjoyable experience as possible for everyone by sharing what we know.

Canyon Walls Near Road

Tree Over Road

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Curt Donohue March 8, 2013 at 10:50 am

Thanks for sharing Barbara:)

barbara haywood March 8, 2013 at 7:50 am

I’ve been to escalante canyon several times over the yrs. Iutt is such an interesting place. My friend & I crossed over that creek once in a 4 wheel……When the water level was low. The scenery appears to get more rugged past the creek. The potholes have always interested me. One time we came upon a calfskin sitting on a large flat rock…no bones, just the skin. and 2 yrs ago we saw a bear cub drinking from the creek. We knew mama bear had to be nearby. I’m now 71 yrs old and I can’t hike around, but as long as I can drive , I’m fine.

Madge L. Street Carlile October 11, 2010 at 2:35 pm

I visited Escalante Canyon back in 1966 or 1967 ..I visited there with my father who g lived there with his family..Henry & Molly Street and siblings..They lived there when the epidemic hit and took many lives.He was a small boy but he remembers that because he lost a little brother (Wildeen Street) who is buried in the cemetary in Delta,Co.
My father had told us all the story of this tragedy so I wanted to see the place and he took us there.

Jeff November 26, 2009 at 8:34 am

If you haven’t discovered it yet, get ahold of the book “Red Hole in Time” by Muriel Marshall. It is probably the most complete and accurate history of Escalante Canyon; a very good read.

Cookie September 8, 2009 at 8:32 pm

I was just at Escalante Canyon yesterday for the first time. What a wonderful place. I’m interested in learning more about Capt. Henry Smith. I have done some searching on the net but am not having much luck. Nothing on Roy Bowen either. If you have any leads it would be much appreciated. Also, you can get the BLM map “Delta” of that area as well as the adjoining map to the south. I got mine at Summit Canyon Mountaineering in Grand Junction along with a book called “Exploring Grand Junction” by Glen D. Weaver. Good Luck and much enjoyed your site.

Curt Donohue September 1, 2009 at 8:59 am

Georgina,

Thanks so much for the comment. That is the brochure I was trying to download earlier, but they were in the process of updating. Thank you for your contribution!

Georgina Levey August 30, 2009 at 11:13 am

After seeing segment about a death in the Potholes on 20/20 recently, I came across this write up. I don’t know if you ever found a map of the area, but the one that is featured here: http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/co/field_offices/grand_junction_field/PDF.Par.68129.File.dat/Dominguez%20Canyon%202007.pdf might help… Camoing at Little Dominguez Canyon is a real treat if you want some addtional info. about that.

Curt Donohue July 22, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Jesse: Here’s another update as of July 22, 2009.

I just updated the main post to reflect some additional information that you should find very useful if you are going camping in the Escalante Canyon or the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Study Area, which includes the Escalante Canyon. I added a short description and link to the BLM website which can take you to their brochure on the area, among other things. That brochure discusses the rules around campfires.

Unfortunately, they appear to be updating their brochure and don’t have it available for viewing or download. Thus, this is what their brochure says that I picked up this morning.

Minimize Campfire Impacts

  • Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires.
  • Keep fires small. Only use sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.
  • Burn all wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, then scatter cool ashes.
  • Use a lightweight stove for cooking, and enjoy a candle landern for light.

Good luck and have fun.

Curt Donohue July 21, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Jesse: I just spoke with the Uncompahgre Field Office, which is in Montrose. Here is there contact info:

Uncompahgre Field Office
2465 South Townsend Avenue
Montrose, Colorado 81401
970-240-5300
FAX 970-240-5367
Field Manager: Barbara Sharrow

They have a pamphlet that describes what is and is not acceptable regarding open fires. I suggest you call them directly and try to get a copy of this pamphlet. It appears that burning open fires is allowed as long as it is in a designated area such as a fire pit or rock ring. When I was up there I saw several of these.

Depending on where you go, you might also want to call the Forest Service since they have lands adjoining the Escalante Canyon and their rules may be different.

As a rule, always call ahead because fire restrictions could be in place due to drought or other circumstances. Lastly, the lady I spoke to mentioned they were doing a 2,500 acre controlled burn in the canyon right now. She couldn’t tell me exactly where that was, but you might get more accurate info when you call.

Jesse July 21, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Can you have open fires there as long as you don’t collect wood?

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