At Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area (DENCA) in Colorado, you can enjoy free camping, magnificent sunrise views, swimming in the creek, canyon hiking, and petroglyphs.  This is a lesser-known area of Colorado and if you visit Dominguez Escalante at the right time you will feel like you found a secret place. 

Unfortunately, your trip might include seeing the results pf heartbreaking vandalism of ancient rock art (I talk all about that part below).  

Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area (DENCA) is an amazing place hidden in the Upper Colorado Plateau region.

This is a place mostly only known to the locals for camping, hiking, and rock climbing and very little information is available online. 

In fact,  we decided to go camping at Escalante Canyon, Colorado when we had to be in Montrose for a day.  I knew a place called Escalante was close.  Only problem….I was thinking of the Grand Staircase.  Very awesome but 6 or 7 hours from where we were.

Looking at the map, we were close to other Escalante Canyon camping.  The Dominguez-Escalante Canyon on BLM land.  A very scenic and historical part of Colorado but very unknown.  

Located west of Highway 50 between Grand Junction and Montrose, it’s mostly a day trip area for the locals. Probably most notably written about as a climbing area on websites and in this book.

 

 

The scenery for hiking and camping is spectacular.  The history dates back to ancient times with petroglyphs and settlers’ cabins to explore. 

Getting to Dominguez- Escalante

The Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area covers 210,172 acres of protected public lands which include the 66,280-acre Dominguez Canyon Wilderness.   The entire area lies east of Highway 50 between Grand Junction and Delta. Highway 141 borders the area to the north. 

The area is divided into the north side which contains the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness and the Gunnison River.   River recreational activities, rock climbing, and hiking are focused in this area.   The 12 mile Big Dominguez Canyon hike is the most popular and features a waterfall, petroglyphs, and archaic rock shelters.  

Directions to Big Dominguez campground

The Big Dominguez campground is on this northern side, where the Big Dominguez Creek flows through the campground all year. The Big Dominguez campground can be accessed from the east by driving south from Grand Junction on Highway 50.  Turn west on the Bridgeport Road  and follow the road 4.5 miles to the parking area.’

Alternatively, you can enter from the east by driving Colorado 141. From Whitewater go 11 miles to the Divide Road turn off.   Follow the signs to Dominguez Conservation Area and the Big Dominguez Campground is about 5 miles.  You can order a more detailed BLM map here 

Directions to Escalante Canyon  and potholes campground 

The other section is the south side, where we camped, includes the Escalante Canyon and the potholes recreation area.  There are a couple of free camping spots at potholes recreation and of course, you can disperse camp on BLM.

 No matter how you go – it’s all really boondocking in this area.  

To get to Escalante Canyon and the potholes recreation area, go south from Grand Junction on Hwy 50.  Go east on CR 6.5o, Escalante Canyon Road.

We found this beautiful BLM camping area a few miles up the road from the Potholes Recreation Area.

History and Cabins

 

The entrance to Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area is a small pull off of Highway 50.  A small BLM sign at the entrance shows the highlights along the Escalante Creek road. 

The Escalante, Cottonwood, Little Dominguez, Big Dominguez creeks flow through the area to the Gunnison River. 

So the dry canyon walls are contrasted with lush creek bottoms.

The Gunnison River is popular for rafting and fishing.  The boat ramp was 3 miles past the entrance on the main road.  This was a popular place, as we could see many cars on either side of the road.

After that, we saw fewer and fewer cars but was still more than usual because it was Memorial Day weekend. 

Due to the availability of water and mild climate the area has a long history of Utes, explorers, and settlers.  Two homesteads are located just off the Escalante Creek road.

Henry Walker built a cabin with his four sons in 1911.  You can visit and see loose stones and clay were used in the construction.

The other cabin we saw was built by Captian Smith.  He used one side of a tall rock as one wall and the other three walls of brick.  He also built a bunkhouse for his guests.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife own both the Walker Cabin and Captain Smith Cabin and both are open to explore inside.

The kids enjoyed looking in and around the cabins.  

 

Potholes Campground and Swimming Hole

 

 We found the Potholes Recreation Area to be the location for camping and playing.  

Just after Captain Smith’s Cabin is the parking, toilets and designated campsites.  Although BLM has created a few campsites here, dispersed camping is allowed on all the land.

The recreation area consists of a gravel parking lot, some picnic shelter, information boards and pit toilets.  The campsites are free but very primitive and are marked with a brown carsonite with a tent. The campsites are located above the river with spectacular views of the Canyon walls and the valley.

The BLM Ranger was around checking on things but otherwise, the area is unattended.  He advised us to head down the road a little to find a large flat space for our RV. 

We easily found an open site that was level and easy access with the camper.  

Swimming at the Potholes

 

We spent almost the entirety of the 3 days in the potholes area of the creek.  The potholes are created from the creek and the geology of the area.   The rushing water dug out small pools for water and built shallow sand bars in other areas. 

Due to the low water level, the conditions were perfect for the kids to play in the little pools created in the creek. 

The water actually changes the temperature during the day, starting cool in the morning and warming in the afternoon.  Very noticeably which is so unique. 

Signs are posted all over this area can be very dangerous and that deaths have occurred.  A Ranger was checking on everyone and generally available for assistance. 

I could see how during high flow, with the creek rushing through the area, it would be very unsafe to be in the water.   We were there in an unusually dry year and able to splash and swim safely. 

Although cliff jumping is prohibited, and deadly, the activity did draw a crowd.  

One person even said to me,” you have to be careful, if you get caught you get a $1000 ticket.”  Um yeah, there is a reason for the costly fine. 

CAUTION:  This area can be very dangerous in the spring during high flow.  Be very careful about entering the water. 

Petroglyphs Destroyed by Vandalism

 

We did try to find the Ute petroglyphs indicated on the sign.  We followed the directions from the Ranger to the turn off the main dirt road and then a second right turn. 

The kids have seen the petroglyphs at Dinosaur National Monument so we did know what to look for.

When we arrived at the location just off the road, the signs indicating the historical significance of the location and penalty for damage were full of bullet holes.  Worse yet, the rock face was so badly vandalized the petroglyphs were mostly indistinguishable. 

Can you see the real rock art in the picture below?

This turned from a history lesson to a lesson in ethics and the tragedy of the commons.  My son said, “someone was the first and the rest followed.” 

My daughter said, “the Ute must be so sad.” 

I think they got the lesson. 

 

Rock Art in the Big Dominguez Canyon

I know that the whole Dominguez – Escalante Conservation Area is protected for the ancient rock art, among other things.

The area is full of petroglyphs but some are more difficult to find and to get to.  I found a couple of websites here and here that describe hikes to petroglyphs in more detail.

The petroglyphs and ancient structures are more well preserved in the Big Dominguez canyon hike.  

The Big Dominguez Canyon and the McCarty Trail are options for backcountry camping and hiking with views of petroglyphs.

Scenic Canyon Sunset, Sunrise and Full Moon Views

 

Did I mention how beautiful this location was?  We watched the sunset the first night, the full moon rise and I was up early the next morning to watch the sunrise.  

Our campsite was situated on a cliff above the creek and with spectacular canyon views.

We had a campfire during sunset and enjoyed the silence of the canyon.

We watched the canyon walls as the light changed from morning to day and night again. Charles and I stayed up late watching the full moon. 

In the early morning, I was able to catch the sunrise and the moon set at the same time. 

Dominguez – Escalante Canyons – One of Colorado’s best-kept secret camping spots

 

This is an awesome area with so many places to explore. 

Sometimes I do a lot of research before visiting an area and sometimes I don’t.  This time we were totally winging it.  

We were lucky the runoff was so low this year and were able to play in the potholes. 

Generally, spring would be a time for rafting not swimming.  Fall is probably a great time to visit the area for playing in the water.  

At first, I got Escalante canyon in Colorado confused with the Escalante Grand Staircase area in Utah.  Totally different areas with different managing agencies in different states.  So, I’m not a good trivia partner. 

Escalante – Dominguez National Conservation Area is located west of Highway 50 about halfway between Grand Junction and a tiny town called Delta. 

There are 3 turn-offs from highway 50 depending on where you are going.  You can read more about it on the BLM website or contact the office (970)244-3000.   A couple of web sites describe the hikes and petroglyphs, climbing routes and rafting tours.  

Have you heard of Escalante Canyon, Colorado camping before?  Although I had driven by the turnoff more than a hundred times, I never knew what was down that road.

 What is your favorite secret camping spot?

 

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