Sunday, August 14, 2011

2011 - April 6th - Big Dominguez Creek (Falls & Petroglyphs), Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area / Dominguez Canyon Wilderness

I believe my desire to find waterfalls in the desert stems from the fact that it is hard to find tornadoes out here.  In the first few months that I lived in Grand Junction, I poured through maps and blogs, trying to find local waterfalls and was quite surprised at how many there were.

I discovered information on the falls in Dominguez Canyon purely by accident.  A co-worker was telling me of a waterfall he discovered while researching Escalante Canyon.  As it turned out, he had found information from the BLM regarding a waterfall in Dominguez Canyon.  Based on the images I found, this appeared to be a fairly significant waterfall, at least for the arid lower valleys. 

I set out southbound on a cloudy Wednesday morning on US 50.  While I knew the high, thick stratus layer would kill a lot of the color in the canyon, I was hoping it would be enough to allow me to get some nice waterfall exposures.

Access to the Dominguez Canyon area can be gained by taking the Bridgeport Road, about 9 miles south of Whitewater on US 50.  At the junction, there is a sign showing access to the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, which was actually created fairly recently.

The road is gravel and follows along the wash of the painfully dry Deer Creek to where it meets the Gunnison River.  Though Dominguez Canyon meets the Gunnison several miles to the south and on the other side of the river, Bridgeport Road is blocked off where it meets the river. There is a boat launch at this site and access to an easement along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks that hikers are permitted to walk on.  

I packed up my gear and proceeded south along the railroad.  Several maintenance cars were rolling down the tracks to an unknown project to the south.  About a half mile south of where I parked, the road crosses the tracks but continues alongside near the river.  

There was some sort of large-scale construction project going on and I chatted with several workers who seemed to be trucked in by three large, white buses.  

Finally, I came to a bridge that crossed the Gunnison, but it was kind of blocked off.  

Another bridge spanned the river a hundred yards to the south and it looked as if it had been constructed much more recently.  At the entrance to the bridge, the BLM has erected several signs regarding the history and biology of the area.  

Bridgeport doesn't really exist as a populated place anymore, but at one point, it was a railroad stop with an adjacent bustling peach orchard.  There was some sort of agriculture occurring on the west side of the river, a half mile north of the bridge, but I'm not sure what kind.  

The signs mentioned several endangered warm-water fish, native to the Gunnison.  They also provided a little information regarding my hike.  I spoke with a man from the railroad for a while but then went along my way, crossing the pedestrian bridge over the muddy Gunny.  

The trail continued south along the western canyon wall for another half mile to where Dominguez Canyon meets the river.  Alongside the trail were signs asking for users to be courteous to the young Cottonwood trees as well as an unused irrigation canal that was exposed in several areas. 

I soon found myself at the mouth of Dominguez Canyon and was happy to find that quite a lot of water was flowing.  Also, I could hear water falling and just upstream, there was a waterfall carved into the rock.  It is perhaps fifteen to twenty feet high and did not look like the picture I had found online.

I stood around for a while, enjoying the sound.  The light was harsh and I was unable to capture anything worth sharing (though I did on the way back which can be seen near the end of this entry).

The trail was fairly wide and comprised of red-colored dust as I entered the canyon, headed west.  I kept tabs on the stream by leaving the trail occasionally to walk beside it.  I found myself on a less-trodden path along the stream and just followed it among the isolated Cottonwoods.

Following Dominguez Creek upstream, the canyon takes a ninety degree turn to the south.  I stayed alongside the creek until the confluence of Big and Little Dominguez Creeks.  The trail that I was on disappeared into the stream here and emerged on the other side, following Little Dominguez Creek up-canyon.  I continued west along Big Dominguez, though the trail was not well-marked.

Still, I continued on, doing a little path-finding along the way.  Eventually, I came to a rapid which excited me, especially since looking upstream, I noticed that the inner canyon started to narrow.

A point eventually came where I had a choice whether to follow the creek into the inner canyon or go atop and follow along the rim.   I chose the lower path and entered into a twisted maze of brush, creek and canyon wall.  The going was difficult at times and the dry vegetation was doing a fantastic job of ripping at my my skin; both my arms and legs.  Eventually, I arrived at a place where I couldn't go any farther.  The creek was to deep to ford and too wide to jump, especially with all my gear and the narrow canyon wall.  This was fine with me, however, as I had a secluded view of a small waterfall upstream. 

End of line.

As rain began to spit down on me, I retraced my steps and thought about what would happen in a downpour and if I might have to use this small lean-to that I discovered.

But the rain only did spit.  After finding the mouth of the inner canyon, which I believe is comprised of exposed Precambrian rock layer, I scaled up to a ledge and continued following upstream.  The edge of the inner canyon provided great views of several waterfalls, but still not the one that I had found online.  

As I was crouching low, taking pictures of one of the waterfalls, I heard a noise building behind me.  It almost sounded like the buzz of a bee, but it was louder and more baritone.  When it changed pitched, I whirled and saw a man come over the edge of an outcrop above me.  It startled me at first, but when several younger members of his family arrived, I was put at ease.

I spoke with them briefly before they continued on their way.  I snapped a few more photos and continued as well.  Eventually, I could hear the roar of a much larger waterfall and I assumed it to be the one that I had seen pictured.  Close to it, I found an old creek channel which had carved deeply through the rock and required a bypass.

When I came around and found the top of the larger waterfall, I stayed briefly but decided to explore the surroundings and allow the family I had met to enjoy it privately.  I approached the northern canyon wall and began to inspect the boulders as I had read that there were petroglyphs nearby. 

Luckily, I stumbled upon a few.

This was the first time I had ever actually come across any petroglyphs, even though they are fairly common in the area, so I enjoyed it!  Eventually, my waterfall interest pulled me away and I decided to go have a look.  The north side of the creek did not afford a good view of the waterfall, so I knew I'd have to cross.  I walked a bit upstream and came across the family once again.  The dad was on my side of the creek, having just crossed and his kids were on the other side.  He told me this was the best place to cross, so I decided to give it a go.  Again, the water was too deep to walk across and certainly a test of my jumping skills.  I threw my gear over to the boy on the other side, which he skillfully caught and set down gently.  

Then it was 1...2... JUMP!  Due to the closeness of the inner canyon walls, there wasn't much room for a running start, but I got just enough to make it across, even if my heels did graze the water.  I watched as the two jumped back across, thanked them, and then scaled the ten to fifteen feet of the inner canyon wall.  Heading a bit east, I finally came across a good view of the waterfall.

But that wasn't good enough.  I wanted a better view.  Against my better judgement, I climbed down the nearly-vertical rock wall alongside the falls.  There were several ledges and handholds, which would have been difficult even if I wasn't carrying a tripod, camera bag, and large backpack.  

After a few close-calls, I made it down the treacherous face, having to drop my gear the final five feet or so down.  The camera beg luckily landed softly in a shrub, but the tripod wasn't so lucky (it still is rather scraped up from the fall.)  
Once at the bottom, I started working my way up the opposite slope and took in the amazing view of this beautiful waterfall.

I'm not a great judge of proportion, but I would estimate its height at somewhere between 50 and 75 feet tall.  Several hoodoos overlooked the falls from the opposite side and I climbed up the slope among them.  To my surprise, I kept finding myself in precarious positions as the hillside was firmly baked adobe covered in loose pea-gravel.  It was very difficult to climb without slipping and for a few moments, I actually found myself stuck in position, unable to resolve a route out.  Somehow, probably through hasty maneuvers, I was able to make it up the slope and found a decent ridge line back to the southwest that gave the best views of the falls yet as well as the entire canyon downstream.

Hoodoos to the right.

"Dominguez Falls" on Big Dominguez Creek

I sat for a while with this view, quite content with what I had found.  After checking my watch, I realized I still had some time to explore before my "turnaround time" and set off farther upstream.  I found my original crossing point and noted that the family had placed a log across the stream.  If you ever read this, thank you!  With the log, it was easy to cross the stream and continue west.  

I was looking for a the fabled "newspaper rock", which I had seen pictures of online.  It was a petroglyph site densely packed with images.  Supposedly, it was very close to the big waterfall, so I combed through the area before finding it right along the trail.

Dominguez Canyon's "Newspaper Rock"

I continued west for a quarter mile perhaps and stopped at a small drop in the stream before turning around and heading back.

On the way back (before reaching "newspaper rock"), I saw several petroglyphs that I had missed. 

Unusual etchings.

Just lichen.

Unfortunate additions.

This shot was difficult to manage as it required immersion in the brush and a lot of manipulating with my point-and-shoot camera. 

A buffalo, a bear or something else? 

The "UFO" appears to be a recent addition.  Perhaps by the producers of "Ancient Aliens"? 

And then farther on, I found an improved structure under a boulder.  I'm not sure if it was built by indigenous peoples or settlers later on. 

I took one last stop at the falls and then made haste back down-canyon.  The trip back was relatively uneventful.  The clouds persisted but nothing more than a spit of rain fell.  I realized that there was a wide trail away from the creek itself which I had missed.  It was much easier to travel on than the weak trails next to the stream.

Above the falls.

Wide double-track near the mouth of the canyon.

I stopped at the waterfall near the mouth of the canyon as it seemed a bit darker out and perhaps easier to photograph.  I noticed that it was built up for diversion, possibly for the old peach orchard in Bridgeport downstream.

After that stop, I hiked back down the Gunnison River to the pedestrian bridge, past the now deserted railroad construction site and then all the way back along the rails to my vehicle. 

Pedestrian Bridge

I was tired, but not worn out by the time I reached my vehicle, but also extremely satisfied with what I had found.  Though the waterfall is known, surprisingly, it is not on the USGS or BLM maps.  The stream is known to flow year-round, so I'm not sure why it is on the maps while several smaller, dry waterfalls are.  It was suggested later (in confidence from someone I spoke to while reporting) that the waterfall may not be on the map to help divert attention away from the petroglyphs.  I'm not sure how much sense that makes considering that there is an official trailhead there.  Regardless, I guess that it makes the "find" more special. 

On a side note, I've thought a lot about whether I should post the pictures of the petroglyphs on this blog considering that many area sites have been vandalized (not so much vandalized, but added to without cultural discretion if that makes sense) over time.  However, I feel if one is interested enough to be reading about my adventures in this blog, then they probably understand that cultural treasures like this should not be disturbed.  At least, I would hope. 

Even in the months since visiting, this is one of my favorite places on the Western Slope.  Treat it with respect.  I've decided not to add a map, but I believe the descriptions herein should get you to all the notable sights. 

I plan on returning to the canyon at some point and going farther upstream.



Pat Boomer said...

Wow those shots of the falls are awesome.
Frame worthy for sure.

Dann Cianca said...

I can't help but imagine what I could have done with a camera/lens with an aperture beyond F8. One day...