Canyons to Plateau and back – Dominguez Canyon

On and off for the past year, Joan has wanted to hike the well-known Dominguez Canyons loop.

The loop takes in Big Dominguez Canyon, a walk over the Uncompahgre Plateau through Wagon Park, down the Upper Bar X Trail, and into Little Dominguez Canyon to complete the loop that’s not quite 40 miles.

I did a variation of the more well-known loop back in 2013 and did a shortened version with an off-trail trek via Star Mesa in 2017.

Joan’s wanted to do this loop for a while. With an even more flexible schedule that gives me three-day weekends every week, I did not have to use time bank funds to make a challenging two-day trip into a mellower 2.5-day trip.

Since I’ve done the larger loop and even the smaller version, more signed roads have been on the plateau, marked trailheads, and informational kiosks. All in all, more straightforward navigation than nearly a decade ago, even discounting GPS-enabled devices.   In addition to the more well-marked areas, there are more regulations version 2013 as well.   More information on those changes is below. –

Having the gift of time means I became more amenable to doing this route more casually. And having it relatively close by to our home also gives us more time for hiking and fewer hours driving. A win all around.

And what do I find?

That fall makes perhaps the perfect time to backpack this loop with cool and crisp weather, blue skies with ideal lighting, and the cottonwoods blazing yellow along the creeks. And the red rock delights never get old. What’s not to like?

We started at the usual place and immediately started discussing potential packrafting trips for the spring.  One trip at a time, though!

Joan, in particular, enjoyed the pleasant walking of Big Dominguez Canyon and the fall scenery.

We soon reached a well-known and BLM signed boulder formation with rock images from various eras.

On a Friday afternoon, we had the canyon almost entirely to ourselves. We could take our time and take in the images at a leisurely pace.

And see a panel I have not seen on previous visits.

We made our way down the canyon and steadily climbed up the plateau along an obvious path.

Above the canyon by a panel. The path’s below.

As always, the images along the way told us people had used this path for generations.

We continued up to the plateau, and the trail became steeper. We even spotted some bighorns on the canyon wall.

At extreme end of the zoom lens and cropped.

Not long before we reached the plateau proper Joan and I found a wash that quickly led perhaps .25 miles to Dominguez Creek below. Not only did we camp within easy reach of flowing water, but we also found ourselves nestled in the pines trees, so different from the desert floor below.

Why, yes. A free-standing tent. 2 lbs for me, 1 lb for Joan. A tent of wonder! PCO Joan

The following morning we woke up to a colder day with an overcast sky.

We are following the break to our campsite, back to the trail. PCO Joan.

Shortly after, we reached a beaver pond just before the Dominguez Campground, the top of the canyon rim, some water, and the only people we’d see until later the following day.

PCO Joan West.

We soon reached the jeep road and followed the rutted path towards our high point of the trip at just over 8000′.  We enjoyed the views from the plateau over to Grand Mesa, the Elks, and other places in the area.

I found myself astounded at how much better the signage ended up being here versus nearly a decade ago, too.

PCO Joan.

The following day we started a gradual descent to the canyon via an old pack trail that soon turned into single track.  Since Joan and I can both read maps, a spring we saw fewer than .5 miles r/t off the main route made much easier water carry. With plenty of water for the last stretch, we know the descent into the canyon would not become an issue.

We made camp for the evening and found ourselves lulled to sleep by the rain.

With the brief storm blown through, we could marvel at the canyon country not too different from our home in Moab.

Though the track long since vanished, some quick map reading and GPS assurances brought us to the final descent to Little Dominguez proper.

Many people take a southeast course, as discussed on the FKT site and on AllTrails by an ultrarunner named Greg. Many people using this route describe it as “spicy”  or “very technical.”

Joan and I looked over this route, started having some spirited discussions, and decided to scope out more where the map had the old pack trail instead.

Finding this bighorn skull did not help abate any “spirited discussions.”

Joan and I took a northwest line down a gully then onto a dirt ramp that led to the canyon with scrambling. And the route ends up as Joan approved! (More info below)

Joan pointed out the dirt ramp we came down.

Safely on the canyon floor and near water, the tempo changed back to a delightful canyon stroll from a half hour or so of those not-so-delightful spirited discussions that sometimes occur among couples in, ah, interesting situations!

A homestead, still active well into the turn of the 21st century, proved a perfect last pitstop before we made the final three miles or so back to the truck.

From this point, the hike out went quickly, and we started seeing people again.

We reached the Gunnison River and again talked about a future trip idea.

A last walk over the footbridge, and we soon reached the trailhead and enjoyed some goodies stashed in the cooler. And then a burger and beer awaited!

 

Changes and ideas on this route since 2013

Since this route is somewhat well-known versus almost a decade ago, I think it’s responsible for noting some changes since my earlier trip report that still gets some traffic, if not as much as AllTrails nowadays. 🙂

  • First, as mentioned, the area is more well signed. The roads and trailheads and a more obvious delineation between the lower canyons where camping ends up prohibited (Zone 1), but also Zone 2 where you can backpack but need wag bags, and Zone 3, which is outside the National Conservation Area.

PCO Joan.

In brief – 

PCO Joan.

  • Zone 1 – The lower Dominguez canyons.  For the first five miles from the Bridgeport Trailhead, you can not legally camp except at some limited Gunnison River sites not open to backpackers at certain times of the year.  There is a post in each canyon now that clearly marks the day-use only vs. backpacking zones.
  • Zone 2 – Camping allowed, but you need to use a wag bag and pack out your poo.  You are still in the National Conservation Area (NCA). Only three miles are not in the NCA from about .5 miles west of the Dominguez Campground with its two pit toilets and to just inside Wagon Park.
  • Zone 3 – No wagbags needed. See above.

  • Despite online info, the route is not dry between Big Dominguez Canyon and Lower Dominguez Canyon.  If you look at your map, Steamboat Spring ends up only an easy .5 miles r/t just after entering the Upper Bar X trail.  You can see the cottonwoods as you descend to down the start of the Upper Bar X trail. Unless it is an arid year, the spring should flow fine and makes a large, almost stock pond source. It’s not the clearest spring, but I’ve seen far, far, worse. It easily breaks up the stretch between Big D and Little D at eight miles in and allows some excellent dry camping possibilities before the descent into Little Dominguez Canyon.

  • Speaking of maps, the NatGeo #147, Uncompahgre Plateau – North map ended up as surprisingly accurate. The “trail” status may ebb and flow at times, but easy enough to pick up the track as needed. It even proved helpful in the descent into Little Dominguez Canyon.

Speaking of which…

  • By adhering closely to the old pack stock trail route, we found a “Joan approved,” non-technical descent into Middle Canyon at No Mans Mesa.

Joan pointing out the approved route!

As mentioned above, “Many people take a southeast course as discussed on and the FKT site and on AllTrails by an ultrarunner named Greg. Many people using this route describe it as “spicy”  or “very technical.”  

As you can see on the map below, we took a Northwest route instead.  The ultrarunner route goes southeast at the dirt slope near a hoodoo.  Joan and I also used this slope.  But from there, Joan and I went around the northwest and found a gulley to drop into. Once the gulley became steep and started cliffing out, we worked our way to an obvious dirt ramp and then worked our way down.

Some careful footing is required at times, but not technical at all.

Just after the dirt ramp leading into Middle Canyon and not long before that canyon joins up with Little Dominguez.

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Misti
1 month ago

Looks like a fun adventure! I’m glad y’all keep it real with the “spirited discussions” 😉

Ellie Thomas
1 month ago

This looks like a great hike. I always love coming across old, abandoned homestead ruins in the backcountry!

Jeffrey Olson
Jeffrey Olson
1 month ago

A friend and went up Little Dominguez a couple years ago. I “scouted” a route on the map up the canyon wall a couple miles before Black Point. We cliffed out and turned around. the willows in the upper part of the canyon are pretty intense. The creek was in full flood mode and we crossed it dozens of times in an often futile attempt to find the least brushy track. We saw no one. A beautiful, remote and tough little hike…