Camping Adventures at Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area
Magnificent Sunrise Views, Swimming for Kids, Free Camping, Canyon Hiking and Heartbreaking Vandalism of Historical Rock Art
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 visit the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area when we had to be in Montrose, Colorado for a day. I knew a place called Escalante was close.
Looking at the map, we were close to other Escalante. 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.
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.
Although we did not check out the rock climbing or rafting, those are quite popular in the area.
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
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 BLM Ranger was around checking on things but
The campsites are located above the river with spectacular views of the Canyon walls and the valley.
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.
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 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 this area can be very dangerous and that deaths have occurred. A Ranger was checking on everyone and generally available for assitance.
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.
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 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.
I know the whole Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area is protected for the ancient rock art, among other things.
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.
Escalante-Dominguez 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-Dominguez area 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.
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