Devil's Canyon, Colorado
Location:  Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, Colorado
Maps: USGS Quad 1:24K Battleship Rock & Mack)
Access: I-70 to Fruita Exit south, right on Kings View in 1.5 miles, then 2 miles to the Pollock Bench, Flume and Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead on the left.
Fees: None
Trail: 7 miles one-way, moderately difficult with steep climbs down and up two significant canyons, requiring passing packs by hand in a couple places. No water except for about 10 minutes after rain. Little shade. 
Dog Regulations: Vague, I interpret that to mean it's OK until someone complains. I wouldn't take my dog on this trail because it is very rough, with lots of cliffs and there is no reliable water (and my dog drinks a lot of water). 
Webcam:Tomorrow Hill Farm, Grand Junction
Weather:Current & recent conditions    National Weather Service Forecast

We rolled into Grand Junction around 12, having driven from Cheyenne, WY in around 5.5 hours through superbly beautiful April sunshine. My friend Larry was driving his white Toyota pickup, a week’s worth of camping gear stashed in the bed. Having eaten only a couple of truck-stop donuts on the way out, we were both hungry, and we surrendered to the ruthless fast food marketing and ate at a Burger King. Larry disapproved of his angus beef hamburger, and I can’t say my cheeseburger rated anything above necessity food. We ate quickly and drove up the road to the BLM office to pick up whatever brochures might help us get around the area. Larry instantly created for himself a large collection of BLM brochures that will undoubtedly serve valuable reference in the decades to come.

Our first stop was Devil’s Canyon in the Black Ridge Wilderness. I had been there before, but had not hiked very much of it. We drove up through Fruita and stopped at a dead end road just on the northern edge of the wilderness. The sun was shining brilliantly off the orange sand. Recent record rainfall had all the desert ephemerals blooming, with thousands of bees humming about from flower to flower. We set off on the trail trying to distance ourselves from a large and noisy group, eventually stopping to let them get far in front before continuing. The area was relatively flat, with grasses and small shrubs dominating the view. Off to the south, however, lay the yawning chasm of Devil’s Canyon. The trail was wide and graveled, but we soon left the main highway for a single track through dense foliage that ran beside a creek. Globemallow and scarlet gilia bloomed on both sides of the trail in cheery colors. Perhaps on only 10 days a year does water actively flow through this sandy wash, and we had hit one of those days. Brown water like chocolate milk sluiced around boulders and over shelves in the sandstone, drawn magnetically to the Colorado River, only a mile or two away. We followed this watercourse along it’s sandy banks and enjoyed the dichotomy of water in the desert. Down the trail, close enough that we weren’t yet bored with the water but far enough that we’d had enough to satisfy us for awhile, the trail split at the mouth of the canyon. I had hiked with Andra up the western side a couple of years ago, and it was time to hike on the eastern side. Steeply, the trail led away from the water and brought into view the length of the canyon to the south. The thin trail wound through juniper and pinyon and passed by a surprising number of ant mounds. Around this time, dark clouds rolled in from the SW and I fretted for my camera, which I had brought no cover for. The wind blew, and it looked threatening, but the clouds passed us over, whatever rain dropping out of them evaporating a Rabbit Valley, Coloradothousand feet up. Within 20 minutes, the sky was blue again and stayed that way for the rest of the day. The upland trail was enjoyable, but the call of the water proved too great, and soon we were back in the canyon bottom, following the gurgling water stream back down the canyon.  The canyon was shaded in places, with steep walls that often rose away at an angle that would make escape impossible. Giant globemallows dotted the creek bank with a profusion of orange. I tried to take photographs of the creek and the vegetation, but my efforts were hampered by the fact that I had left my tripod at the truck. Nevertheless, I captured enough scenes to let me remember the place 50 years from now, I hope. As Larry sometimes says, “A mind is a terrible thing”. Around each bend the water was up to something different, sometimes rolling placidly in a wide current, sometimes riffling over gravel, sometimes swishing around giant boulders, and sometimes, as in the case of the final bend we were able to explore, dropping off 30 feet to stones below. I admired the drop for some time, holding on to the rocks near the edge of the drop. A log had gotten wedged in the chute created by the water, and over time had worn itself into the rock on both ends, poking into stone like a toothpick. This phenomenon seems to occur with surprising regularity in the desert canyonlands. In this area, particularly, we admired a medium-sized shrub with bright white flowers that had 4 petals that were all thin at Coke Ovens. Colorado National Monumentthe base, then widening as they radiated out. Later we identified this shrub as Fendlerbush. We scrambled up a steep slope to escape the depth of the canyon, and found ourselves right back near the trail in the juniper that we had passed by an hour or two before. We hiked out the way we had come in. 

We drove west to Rabbit Valley looking for a campsite. All three official campsites were full, so we parked the truck along the road and set up in a nice spot overlooking the Colorado River. Larry cooked hamburgers on a tiny hibachi, and I ate two of them. Delicious. The evening was calm and serene. Distant rains threw rainbows across the orange rock landscape, and the dark blue sky made the rock glow in the evening sunlight. I set up my tent about 30 yards from the truck and went to bed just about the time the stars came out. 

The next day I got up at around 7, just when the sun started heating up my tent. I engaged in the peculiarly satisfying feeling of packing up my gear…always nice to see so much useful stuff pack down into such a tiny space. After that I took a walk around the area, noting the large number of bones lying around. When I got back, Larry was up and packed. We took a short walk down a draw to a cliff over the Colorado River. A train track ran below us about 100 yards. The river ran right next to it. 

The hike to Rattlesnake ArchesWe hopped in the Toyota and cruised over to Colorado National Monument, which we had to drive through to get to the south side of the wilderness. The monument is entertaining. My only complaint is that it’s too small. No one at the visitor’s center seemed to know if the Black Ridge Rd was open, so we drove all the way down there to find out that it wasn’t. A victim of record rainfall, the rough road was closed to prevent damage. This was Sunday, so we assumed nobody would be out to check it today. Thus, we scrapped our meticulously-made plans for backpacking Mee Canyon and drove back around the north side and parked at the Pollack Bench Trailhead. This too was familiar as Andra, the dogs and I had hiked on this trail as well in the past.  Being Sunday, the trailhead was hopping. Dogs and people everywhere, all looking quite pleased to be there. Larry and I did a last minute repack of our frame packs and snacked on food that we would leave in the truck. 

The trail on Pollack Bench is wide for the first mile heading SW, then narrows abruptly when it branches off toward Flume Canyon. We took the west branch that leads to Rattlesnake Arches. We were fortunate to have another fine hiking day. The sun was unimpeded as we walked along, watching our shadows ripple across the gravel and rock Rattlesnake Canyonof the trail. Blue skies highlighted the orange rock. Primrose and prickly pear bloomed on all sides. We passed an especially interesting bladderpod milkvetch that looked like it came from another planet. White longleaf phlox, white and yellow Townsendia, yellow eye cryptantha and dwarf evening primrose rounded out the floral arrangement. The trail itself isn’t very long, but it crosses two major canyons on its way to Rattlesnake Canyon, making for a strenuous hike. I noted the spot where Andra and I had turned back on the last trip, stymied by dogs that were drinking all our water too quickly and not slowing down to cool off. Larry and I cruised past that point, and hiked into the bottom of the canyon, then upstream along a trickling water course, and back up the other side. The second canyon we came upon required us to remove packs, and pass them by hand up the steep climb. Bladderpod plants with characteristic swollen seed pods dotted the area. 

We continued on west, uphill, until we reached the junction of the Rattlesnake Arches trail. Backtracking, we found a wonderful campsite hidden in the pinyon pines far off the trail. Nearby, we were lucky enough to find a plunge pool full of cloudy but great tasting water. After setting up camp, we heated up water to make dinner with, and ate a Rattlesnake Archesfine meal of freeze-dried something or other. I had taken along an Abbey novel, Black Sun, and I read quite a bit of it that evening. Larry took a hike up to the ridge above camp, and I strolled downhill to the rim overlooking a rim overlooking a rim overlooking the Colorado River. Though we were high up and far from roads, the sound of automobile engines managed to make it up to us from the interstate far below in the valley. We tried to ignore it, but it is a fact that the automobile is difficult to escape. 

During the night, I wished mightily that I had brought a thicker sleeping bag. The heat from the day evaporated into the starlit blackness of space, leaving the ground frigid, and my toes numb. I was very pleased when dawn arrived. We set off almost immediately for the arches. Not having studied the map very well, we labored under the mistaken impression that the trail by the arches formed a loop.  In one sense it does: you can see one end of the trail from the other. However, one must have climbing equipment to make the loop complete. We initially took the high road that looks down upon the southernmost arch, which is one of the more complete and traditional looking arches of the area. Larry hopped down to the next lower rim and walked along to the NW, while I stayed on the upper rim. I lost any sense of a trail, and finally consulted the map to learn that we needed to hike all the way around to the north to get below the arches. So, we did. 

We backtracked up towards camp, then took the north trail that followed the east side of the ridge. Arches lined the west side of the ridge. Shortly, we cornered the ridge and started down the west side. For the next mile or so, arches of varying shapes lined the wall. The first one we came upon was an overhang looking more like a cave than an arch. It slipped back into the cliff, narrowing as the floor sloped up toward the overhang. Near the back of Larry investigates the inside of an archthe gaping opening, a small hole, no more than 4 feet across, led up to the bench above. We climbed into the lower part of the opening, but the smooth sandstone proved too steep to climb up to the hole. Playing it safe, neither of us attempted it. 

Arches down the trail were more traditional, allowing a significantly larger amount of sky to be seen from below. The sun continued to shine brightly, but the day did not grow hot. We walked along the trail very slowly, photographing the more brilliant features of an extraordinary place. We encountered one man from Denver walking down who was attempting to make the entire trip a day hike. He was from Denver and described to us his “Hiking Holiday”. I love hiking holidays. I was glad we had come with tents, however. No need to rush things. To the west of this impressive display of arches was yet another. While the arches were standing above us, Rattlesnake Canyon was opening up in a giant fissure below us. Hundreds of layers of multi-colored rock dotted by pinyon and juniper stair-stepped down to the creek bed far below, which appeared to be running. We both agreed a hike up Rattlensnake Canyon would be a fun thing to try, and I met a guy later in the summer who has done it.

We recognized the final arch when we arrived, for we had seen it already from below. Inspecting the rock surface, we confirmed that we could not reach the trail above without climbing equipment. So, turning back, we admired all the arches once again as we walked past them searching for a suitable lunchroom. We found a nice shady spot in a shallow alcove between two of the arches. A couple of large pinyons provided shade. We ate a leisurely lunch before moving on. We followed the trail without deviation back to camp, and decided to relax for a bit. I found a smooth bed of sandstone under a juniper and read my book in between short catnaps. Bees droned from wallflower to wallflower, but there were no gnats or mosquitoes out.

In the late afternoon we cooked dinner (term used loosely…boiled water and added to shapeless powdered forms to make instant gruel), then took a short hike east to a small keyhole arch we had seen from the hike the day before. This arch was formed from a large sandstone fin that had been eroded only the very center, to form a small hear-shaped opening. There was no trail up to it, and we I took great pains to avoid crushing the cryptobiotic soil that had grown to impressive cones and peaks all over the sandy desert ledges. The late day sun really lit up the orange rock, and it glowed brightly against the dark eastern sky. From there we followed a side canyon upstream until it boxed up. Larry attempted to climb up higher in the box end but slid down on the smooth rock, breaking his fall with me. No injuries. We hiked back to camp around dark. I put the rainfly on my tent to try to keep the heat in. I also slept fully clothed. That helped, but I was still chilled by morning.

Keyhole ArchRattlesnake Arches
When the sun came up the next day, I packed up my homey little hidden camp. Larry did the same and we were soon off down the trail. I stopped to take lots of photographs, and Larry was soon out of sight ahead of me. I caught up with him as he rested at Pollack Canyon. The day was fairly hot, but we made it back to the truck in a short time and still feeling great. 

Rattlesnake ArchesWe drove SE to Big Dominguez Creek, and hiked along the canyon trail there. Red rocks and barren understory under pinyon pines rolled on and on in a fairly monotonous landscape. The canyon was wide and open, with a good-sized creek running in the middle. Beaver dams in places backed up the water and created still pools from which I’m sure mosquitoes breed by the millions. We hiked perhaps 4 miles total before setting up camp in a pleasant little camp site right next to the creek. We cooked dinner and ate at the picnic table and then retired to our tents. I slept very well that night thanks to my heavier tent and the addition of my sleeping bag liner. Very cozy. Clouds rolled in during the night and we woke up to a soupy sky. After 4 days of camping, we decided to forgo further exploration of Big Dominguez and return home...have to go back and explore more of Big Dominguez someday. I snacked on items for breakfast before we left for Cheyenne. 

A very photogenic tree in Big Dominguez Canyon
Big Dominguez Canyon, Colorado
Big Dominguez Canyon WSABig Dominguez Canyon

 More images of Rattlesnake Arches can be found in the Colorado gallery at

     Page created January 10, 2005