Down to the River – Dominguez Canyon Backpack

A weekend backpacking trip to Dominguez Canyon outside of Grand Junction, CO.


As I went down in the river to pray 
Studying about that good old way 
And who shall wear the starry crown 
Good Lord, show me the way! 

One of my favorite places to immerse myself is the Colorado Plateau.   The canyons, washes, and arroyos lead to places that seem both mysterious and beautiful.   The stark red rocks against the blue sky are vibrant.  And each turn of the canyon wall appears to be following ancient people’s footsteps.

The Colorado Plateau is one of those unique places that constantly calls back.   It is up there with the quiet lakes in the Maine woods, the High Sierra, and The Winds. Place where I always long to return.

Desperately needing a backpacking fix, my mind naturally turned to this area.  Moab would be too far of a drive. Northern New Mexico would also be a trek.

I then remembered a place I passed many times to and from other places: Dominguez Canyon.

Being only a four-hour or so drive, it was just at the raw edge for a weekend backpack.

It would also be snow-free and have that wonderful red rock country I so love.  Dominguez Canyon should also have impressive scenery so close to Colorado National Monument.

I did not leave until Saturday morning due to a cold I was recovering from.

The later departure time let me drive to the area in the daylight. The scenic drive helped to emphasize what I’ve always felt about the American West:  The state lines that make up the states do not reflect the reality on the ground.

Glenwood Springs always felt like the last town of the Rockies in Colorado.  It is a border town.  Straddling the line between the Colorado Rockies and the Colorado Plateau.

Somewhere just west of this town, it feels more like the Utah region.  And by the time I arrived near Grand Junction. I truly was in Utah. Perhaps not by state lines, but the area’s geology, culture, and “feel” felt more like Colorado’s neighbor to the West.

And like every time I’ve been in Utah, I was glad to have arrived.

I locked the door and went off. I went into the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau.

Upon arriving at the trailhead,  I followed the footprints to the top of the bluff and snapped a photo of the Gunnison River.

I continued my walk along the railroad easement and took a photo from the quiet boat launch.

I crossed “The Gunni” at the trestle and took the shot that seems to be mandatory on this trip 🙂 :

From the trestle, I had a nice look down the river and over to an older bridge that leads to a (closed-off) conservation area.

After the river, I entered Big Dominguez Canyon and got reminded more and more of the parts of Utah I love.

And much like Utah, there were signs of the ancient people…Utes in this case.

Further into the canyon, I went. And I additionally enjoyed my Utah-like bliss.

Down into the canyon, I saw signs of more recent inhabitants.

Further down the “trail,” I went. The “trail” becomes more of a worn path marked by the occasional cairn.

Shortly before exiting the canyon proper and rising to the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau, I made camp for the evening.

Being an overnighter, a luxury was packed, making for a pleasant evening in camp.

I reached the plateau, and the dirt road walking portion of the trip began.

I took a last look into the canyon.

I followed the dirt roads and entered the Wagon Park area.

The plateau was nice, but time to enter the canyon again.

I went into the Little Dominguez Canyon area (I did some off-trail hiking in some washes…delayed me, but it was oh-so-beautiful) I went.

Hooked up to the creek, The Gunnison, and made it back to the trailhead.

It was late. I was tired.

But I was happy.

I needed this trip.  I needed to be out backpacking, sleeping under the stars, and being out in Nature.

Dominguez Canyon gave me what I needed at the right time.

All the photos


Getting There: Take 50 East off I70. Follow 50E until just after Mile Marker 52.  Turn onto Bridgeport Rd for ~3 miles or so to get to the TH.

The Route: The classic loop is ~38 miles connecting “Big D”  and “Little D” canyons with some dirt road walking in the Wagon Park area.  The portions of both canyons near the river are well used and easy to follow.  Further away? Not so much.  A decent amount of people seem to make base camp near the creek and explore the area with a day pack.  The NatGeo map makes for reasonable accuracy if you read the terrain correctly and think where pack stock may go in the pass.

UPDATE OCTOBER 2021 – 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. 🙂  Please see the updated information on a trip Joan and I did in October 2021. In short, a lot more signage, some more regulations concerning wag bags, and we found a non-technical descent into Little Dominguez Canyon.

UPDATE APRIL 2022 – This past weekend, I hiked the upper reaches up Little Dominguez, and I found the NatGeo map reasonably accurate of the track’s location in the past. The desiccated cow patties formed cairns that made finding the old stock trail reasonably easy with minimal bushwhacking to where the “Black Point” trail leaves the canyon on an obvious old pack road. Joan and I often follow old stock paths, often not on current maps, and the trick is to think where a horse and cattle would comfortably travel.

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11 years ago

If I were only able to hikeand camp one of those two canyons. Which would you rrecommend?

11 years ago

Nice, love that part of the world.

10 years ago

Awesome trip report. I’m very interested in doing a loop up thru Big Dominguez and back out Little Dominguez. Believe it or not, yours is the first report of it I’ve seen. Another hiker had a report that the trip down Little Dominguez was so bad (as far as route finding) that they turned around. He claimed that a BLM ranger stated that leg alone took about 3-5 days! Because of that info I actually canceled the hike and went to Coyote Gulch instead. Any advice on connecting the roads through Wagon Park to get to Little D? I have… Read more »

Cole Herring
Cole Herring
6 years ago
Reply to  Ravi

Connected the Big and Little Canyons over the past three days. Parked at the Dominguez campground and hiked down the Big canyon into the little one. Then out via the Bar X Trail. Pretty Easy navigation with a good topo map. Just be prepared to hike vertical on your last day up the Bar X and out. Beautiful 3-4 day trip

9 years ago

Paul- awesome trip report! Thanks for putting this (and many others) together. I’m coming from BPL and had a couple questions specific to this loop, so I figured I’d post here. When navigating between Big D and Little D, did you cut across on the Dominguez Trail or did you loop all the way around by Carson Hole where Big D narrows off? I’m trying to get a sense of distance and where to cut across and start navigating by compass and not just following the canyon walls. Also, would it be more straight-forward to navigate this loop from Big… Read more »

9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Got it. Thanks!

Are there any routes you recommend to get up from Little D to the Wagon Park plateau? It looks like coming around No Mans Mesa might work, but it’s tough to tell from the topos and it’d be nice to stay on the floor canyon longer if possible.

6 years ago

I don’t know if you ever went back and hike upper Little Dominguez to/from Black Point, but here is my TR if you are interested. Above Poison Canyon to BlackPoint is a rough bushwhack at times with thick willows/scrub oak block progress or crumble rock and scree. You can’t get lost because it’s in the canyon but it can be slow at times. The connection from Big Dominguez CG to the Black Point TH is a pleasant walk or rarely used FS roads. I also used the Winter Park Trail marked on the TI Map and you never know… Read more »