The Gunnison River angles along the eastern edge of sprawling Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, a vast 210,172-acre swathe of protected land that includes the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness Area. Almost 30 miles of the river meanders through a cliff-lined gorge accessible only by boat or foot. Three major canyons—Escalante, Little Dominguez, and Big Dominguez—drain off the highlands of the Uncompahgre Plateau, the eroded roots of an ancient mountain range, into the glassy Gunnison. These canyons and the sloping plateaus between them offer some of western Colorado’s prime scenery, diverse wildlife, including desert bighorns and golden eagles, and excellent opportunities for hiking and backpacking.

Wilderness Solitude

The canyons test every hiker since there aren’t rangers, a visitor center, paved parking lots, or detailed trail maps. Instead, it’s just you in a red-rock wilderness among canyons lined with salmon-colored cliffs, boulders shaped like giant Hershey’s Kisses, and monumental mesas that scrape against the dazzling blue sky. There is also plenty of solitude and a raw silence that keeps the sounds of civilization far away. On a three-day backpacking trek here you might see only a half-dozen other people, and the only sound besides the wind is an occasional plane far overhead.

Native American petroglyphs depict bear tracks, deer, bighorn sheep, and human-like figures.

BLM / Bob Wick

The Ancient Ones and Outlaws

Besides its rich wilderness and scenic qualities, the area echoes with human history. Over the last 10,000 years, ancient Native Americans left a rock art legacy including petroglyphs of bear tracks, deer, bighorn sheep, and strange human-like figures. One panel with an exploding star may depict the famed supernova of AD 1054. Later, bands of Utes traversed the canyons and engraved shield figures and a bison hunt on sandstone cliffs. The remote canyons also formed hideouts for outlaws and rustlers. The McCarty Trail near Escalante Canyon is named for a pair of brothers who robbed a Telluride bank with Butch Cassidy in 1889 and died in a bank shootout in Delta four years later.

Exploring Escalante Canyon

The conservation area’s three canyons, despite their wildness, are easily accessed by backpackers and hikers from U.S. 50 northwest of Delta. A twisting dirt road follows the floor of broad Escalante Canyon, offering plenty of adventures for rock climbers on vertical cliffs and backpackers who reach the wilderness area on the McCarty Trail. The scenic canyon also boasts day hikes and historic sites like the old Captain Smith Cabin, which was built in 1911 by a Civil War veteran. The captain called the canyon “a hidden paradise. A ruby gem at the bottom of the world.”

The Bridgewater Trail leads to a gorgeous waterfall.

BLM / Bob Wick

The Best Backpacking Trek

The best overnight backpacking trip heads up Big Dominguez Canyon from the Bridgewater Trail and the Gunnison River for an out-and-back, 10-mile hike. Walk 2.5 miles to the junction of the two canyons, turn right, and then walk about another 1.5 miles to reach a gorgeous waterfall. Look for petroglyphs on trailside boulders and desert bighorn sheep grazing below cliffs. Continue up the canyon to find a campsite, since the lower sections of both Big and Little Dominguez Canyons are day-use only. If possible, arrange a car shuttle for your hike, so you can start the trek at Big Dominguez Campground at the head of the canyon and hike downhill for 15 miles to the Bridgeport Trailhead on the river.

Backpacking Big and Little Dominguez Canyons

For a classic backpacking trip, head up Big Dominguez Canyon from the Gunnison River, and then traverse sagebrush flats to the return hike down Little Dominguez Canyon. This loop trek, ranging between 35 and 50 miles (depending on how much side-exploring you do), is for experienced backpackers with route-finding skills. Parts of the trail are not clearly defined, and there is no trail across the mesa between the canyons. The route takes three to five days.

Backpackers in Dominguez-Escalante NCA experience lots of wildlife, sweeping views, and plenty of solitude.

BLM / Bob Wick

Isolation on the McCarty-Gunnison Pack Trail Loop

If you really want to escape the world and revel in the wild, then hike the McCarty Trail to Historic Gunnison Pack Trail for a three-day trek. This 30-mile loop begins at a trailhead near the mouth of Escalante Canyon and then follows McCarty Trail for a dozen miles to old jeep roads across Camp Ridge. The second half of the hike descends the Pack Trail for 10 miles and then edges along the Gunnison River back to the trailhead. Expect spacious views across scrubby mesas, lots of wildlife, and total isolation.

Be Prepared to Rough It

The Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Areas is rough and rugged country, so backpackers need to be experienced in off-trail travel. Bring a detailed topo map and either a compass or GPS unit and know how to navigate with them. Plan your trek in spring and fall when the weather is generally pleasant, since summers are too hot. If you do hike in summer, check the forecast beforehand and carry sunscreen, a hat, and light-colored clothing. Temperatures soar in the canyons and little shade is found.

While Big Dominguez Creek runs year-round, water is scarce away from the creek. You should plan on finding and purifying water from trickling creeks and potholes filled with rainwater. Also, it’s a good idea to use a canister to protect your food from black bears.

Celebrate Success with a Great Meal

After a few days of tramping through the ruddy canyons, you’ll be ready to ease back into civilization with a filling meal. Stow your pack in your vehicle and head back to Delta to celebrate the wind, sand, and stars. A few tried and tasty establishments that don’t disappoint are Fiesta Vallarta, the area’s best Mexican restaurant; Daveto’s for Italian cuisine, pizza, and a superb smothered green chili burrito; and Needle Rock Brewing Company for burgers and cold beers.

Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated Media in partnership with Delta County Colorado.

Featured image provided by BLM / Bob Wick

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