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2022 Trip Report - Offroad Trip through Dominguez Escalante Canyon

Offroad trip through Dominguez

Escalante Canyon, Central Colorado

By Joe de Kehoe

The Dominguez-Escalante Canyon area near Delta, Colorado is most well-known for the spectacular canyon that is cut deep into the Uncompahgre Plateau and for petroglyph sites along the canyon walls. The area was formerly occupied by several Ute Indian tribes, all of which have now moved away, but there is a restored Ute camp at the museum in Delta that is a must-see if you are in the area.

I drove the area in my Jeep in mid-July as sort of a solo reconnaissance trip. I had never been on any of the offroad trails in this area before and wanted to investigate the area before a return trip for spots where I could camp for a few days and catch a few fish. The road begins just 12 miles north of Delta, Colorado, and heads west.

Escalante Creek has cut through the eastern flank of the Uncompahgre Plateau and has produced near vertical sandstone walls that are popular with climbers. Maybe Escalante creek is more active during the Spring run-off because when I was there it was a sluggish rust-colored stream.

The area was named for two Franciscan monks/friars who lead an expedition through the region in the late 1700s. Starting in the late 1800s, homesteaders settled in the area and began farming and cattle ranching on the rich floodplains of Escalante Creek. The area was also known to be an excellent hideaway for outlaws and bank robbers, but I didn’t see any.

Two historic homestead cabins remain in the canyon, both of which were built in 1911.

The Walker Cabin was built by Henry Walker and his four sons. Times were tight with money when they first built, and they used the local dirt for mortar. The dirt was sourced from their yard, and the water was from Escalante Creek which runs close to the house. Several years later, when times were a little better, they covered the outside of the house in concrete. Until a few years ago the cabin was badly dilapidated and was nearly demolished until a partnership with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Delta County Commissioners acted to restore and protect the site.

The Smith Cabin is the old home of Captain Henry Smith who came to Escalante Canyon after serving in the Civil War. He was a tombstone carver by trade. The Smith cabin site consists of two cabins. The first cabin was Smith’s home and was built against a large sandstone slab that served as the south wall of the house. Smith carved out a niche in the sandstone slab to serve as his bed, and next to that was a slot where he stored his rifles. Next to the main cabin, Smith built a smaller cabin for travelers that was furnished with lofts and beds.

Just beyond Smith’s cabin is an area known as the potholes where Escalante Creek has carved a series of waterfalls and pools in the granite basement rock. When I was there the rusty water was moving sluggishly through the potholes, but during spring runoff the stream rushes through with sufficient force to trap and drown people who attempt to swim in the potholes. A sign near the parking area warns of the danger.

About 17 miles in, at a nondescript spot called Escalante Forks, the road becomes more primitive – shift into 4WD for the next 40 miles or so of a rocky road through the canyon bottom. Eventually, the road does a sharp hairpin turn and begins a long, steep, rocky climb out of the canyon and onto Love Mesa where the pinion pines give way to a forest of large aspen and Ponderosa pine. There is also a marked improvement in the road on the top of Love Mesa and from there on back into Delta where I spent the night.

From start to finish the trip was about 76 miles, but most of the drive was slow going and took me most of the day.

Except for three trail bikes that passed me late in the day, I did not see another person all day which kind of surprised me because the towns of Montrose and Delta are not far away, the weather was perfect, and the canyon is a neat place to explore.

I did not discover any place to fish, but there were lots of spots for dispersed camping, so I’m planning on returning in the fall when the leaves on the Aspen will be changing color on Love Mesa. ~ Joe

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