Backpacking the Dominguez Escalante Loop

Date hiked: 04/24/17

Mileage:  47.3 miles

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 5 or 6 groups

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Finally, my first ever backpacking trip. For a while now, I’ve been trying to psyche myself up for this. Forget the long hours alone, surviving at the mercy of the wildlife who call these wild lands home, it’s about finding just how far I can push myself. The trip was hard, and the trail was far from introductory, but when I start slipping back into my comfort zone, that’s when I know I’m not trying anymore.

From the Bridgeport parking area, follow the railroad tracks one mile to the kiosk which marks the true start of the trail. Closed to motorized vehicles, as well as bikers, hoofing it on foot or horse is your only option at access to the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation area.

The next .6 miles feeding into the loop crosses the Gunnison River, then traces the western banks on a sandy trail littered with campsites. At the mouth of the Big Dominguez, one last kiosk, and a gate near the coral of the old Herbert Ennors homestead ushers you onto the trail. From here, a well-maintained trail follows the creek. No camping is allowed one mile from the confluence of the Big and Little Dominguez on either trail.

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The trailhead.

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Looking south from the bridge.

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Looking north from the bridge.

The first few miles leading into the canyon, things went great. The weight I was lugging felt manageable, and I found it wasn’t my back that felt it the most like I imagined it might, but my upper thighs as they warmed up to the long workout ahead of them.

 

Two hours in, and with only a last few swigs left in my Nalgene, it was time to test my water filter out. Of everything I could run into out here, a malfunctioning filter was right up there with getting hurt and getting lost.

For months in preparation, I waffled between buying the Sawyer Squeeze or the Katadyn Hiker Pro. But in the end, I figured, at half the price, the Sawyer Squeeze was just what I needed for the three day trips I’d be allotted each week from work this summer. Plus, when I start on longer trips, it might give me peace of mind to bring it along as backup.

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The Sawyer Squeeze is easy enough to use. All you have to do is fill the included bladder (or two) up with water, connect the filter, then either suck the water through the push-pull cap, or squeeze it into a water bottle. My only issue was getting water into the bladder, but from a suggestion I read online, I brought a plastic baggie along with me, filled that up, then filled the bladder up.

Writing this, nearly a week later, and with no gastrointestinal problems, I have full confidence in the capabilities of this little guy.

I brought a thirty-two ounce (one liter) Nalgene with me. As the trail traces the Big Dominguez for most of the route, my plan was to down one of those every two hours, then filter and refill.

But that led me into making my first rookie mistake of the trip.

4.5 miles from the homestead, the Cactus Park trail branches off to the right, then passing by a prime camping spot five miles in, the trail starts to pull away from the Big Dominguez. For those first five miles, water was my constant companion. I had no issues and no worries.

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Decades of human history unfold along the boulder-strewn trail. Petroglyphs, some spanning three thousand years into the past, include artwork from both the Archaic and Ute civilizations.

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Copper mining ended long ago, but relics still pay homage to those days.

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The Big Dominguez spawns cottonwoods and willows, as well as the more prevalent pinon and juniper.

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With the mountains still encased in snow, springtime comes early down here.

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At least I wasn’t alone on the trail.

On the map I downloaded from the internet, by all appearances, the trail touched the water the entire trip. But as I pulled away from that last good campsite, it soon became painfully apparent, the trail wasn’t going back.

 

 

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A meek voice of reason in the back of my head told me to turn around, but it was barely four, and I was determined to cross a few more miles off before calling it a day. So I marched onward. By now, my legs had grown used to the strain, but that opened the door for the raw skin under my shoulder pads to make themselves known, and no amount of adjusting would alleviate it.

For six more miles I waited for the trail to join with the water again. But for most of it, the best the Big Dominguez could offer was a faint rush no louder than a distant wind. I considered hiking in, but who’s to say I’d find somewhere flat enough or safe enough to pitch the tent even if I did?

Six o’clock rolled around, the time I told myself to stop, and still no water. Then six thirty, then seven. My Nalgene was bone dry, and my freeze-dried food needed water, what would I do if I couldn’t get to the creek? I was nearing fourteen miles now, and only an hour left of daylight. I was too far in to turn back.

I wanted so badly for this to work. All the expectations I had going in, the planning and the money. But right then and there, I couldn’t help but feel like this was the biggest mistake of my life.

Then, by some dumb stroke of luck, I stumbled into a shallow stream buried beneath the shadows of the ponderosas, barely more than a standing pool of water. The entire forty-seven miles of the trip, and it was the only seasonal stream I came across that still had any life left in it. And somehow, here it was just when I needed it the most.

So frazzled, I almost didn’t recognize it for what it was. I sought out the flattest oasis in the forest to set up my tarp and my tent, and with sharp pains of hunger rippling through me, I grabbed my BearVault bear canister full of food and toiletries and pointed myself two-hundred yards away to find a good spot for dinner that wouldn’t get the stink of food on my tent.

The freeze dried food I packed wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. It actually tasted pretty good, even if the chicken chunks looked anything but appetizing. Ready to turn in, I stashed my bear canister in a reedy thicket of branches not quite ready to bud yet.

Night was by far the worst. I worried about being out there after dark, alone, not knowing what could be lurking around my tent. Irrational fears came fleeting in and out; what if a fire came tearing through the mountainside, or a storm unleashed its torrent on me? I’d never felt this vulnerable before. I went to bed with my knife and bear spray at my side, but it wasn’t the animals making me restless like I anticipated.

Waking the next morning, I struggled out of my lethargy, prepared for a painful revolt of the previous day in my muscles. But, miraculously, that backpack had somehow worked out the pain that had been plaguing the top of my spine for months now, and the one above my hip. I had renewed spirits. I made it through that first night without any issues. I got myself there without any help, and I was still kicking. All those insecurities I was feeling the day before, gone. With a cup-a-instant-joe in me, and some oatmeal, I was ready for the day ahead.

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From where I camped, about fourteen miles from the Bridgeport trailhead, to the Dominguez Campground at the end of the Big Dominguez trail, the route gradually winds its way back to the creek. Meeting with the water at mile sixteen, it stays there.

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Nearing Dominguez Campground.

Along the way, I came across an older group on the trail. In talking to them, I found I wasn’t the only one who made the same water mistake the night before. Hearing that, I felt somewhat better. It looked like they had a lifetime of experience, and they ran into the same issues I did. I can’t be doing that bad. We exchanged some insights on the trail, and then one of the women gave me the best compliment of them all: I looked very self-sufficient. Even if I didn’t feel that way, at least I looked the part.

Leaving the campground, I knew I’d have eight and a half dry miles without water as I hoofed it through Wagon Park. This time, I was going to be ready. The last thing I wanted was a repeat of last night. So I filtered and refilled my Nalgene, along with both thirty-two ounce bladders I brought with me. I’d have more than enough to get my through the next eight and a half miles, and then some in case the pond I was banking on to refill was actually a dry seasonal one.

I left Dominguez Campground to a few ATV-ers. Little did I know, they’d be the last human contact I’d have for the next forty-eight hours. To me, that solitude is one of the most nerve-wracking aspects of backpacking, yet, it’s also the most thrilling. Utter silence, you can’t get that anywhere in the city.

Those eight and a half miles went by without a hitch.  Wagon Park features a mess of 4×4 roads and dispersed camping, and having a map is essential to getting around. The first three-quarters of a mile climbs out of the canyon, gaining about three hundred feet. Beyond that, the route oscillates, but stays relatively flat. Leaving behind views of Big Dominguez Canyon, the trail doesn’t offer much until you’ve climbed high enough to gain a vantage towards the mountains of the West Elk Wilderness.

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Leaving behind the Big Dominguez.

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Turn left at this intersection.

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The road winds around a bit before coming to this gate.

Turning left at the last intersection, the final three mile leg of Wagon Park traces a dry seasonal stream bed, but offers the only filterable water in small ponds along the way. A cow pond just below the Upper Bar X trailhead offers your last opportunity to reload. I took advantage, and replenished everything I’d downed along the way in preparation for the next thirteen miles – and my next night – without water.

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From Wagon Park, the Bar X trail branches off on a seldom used route. It doesn’t look like a trail, but double checking with my map and GPS, I assured myself it was right.

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Standing at the brink of the Bar X trail, this image gives you a good idea of what to expect from the route. It’s faint, overgrown, and difficult to follow.

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I missed this the first time around, but the trail actually passes through this “gate”. Pulling the barbed wire from the top and bottom of the post, I felt like I was trespassing, but I was too far along to turn back now. With no Private Property signs in sight, and the trail clearly marked on the map, this had to be it. Thankfully, I stepped through with another dusty set of footprints. If I was trespassing, at least I wasn’t the only one.

 

The Bar X trail is faint, growing nonexistent at times. I know I could have gotten myself across without them, but I was thankful for whoever left those footprints. They spared me a lot of time and a lot of anxiety I didn’t need on top of what was already there.

As long as the route kept to the gravel and dirt, the trail wasn’t too hard to follow. But as it veered into the grass, everything disappeared entirely. The crux came 3.5 miles from the Bar X trailhead.

I told myself I wouldn’t stop for the night unless I knew exactly where the trail was and where it was headed, hoping to alleviate any added pressure I’d have going into the next day. Four grassy plains came and went with only minimal second guessing. On an adrenaline high from making past the worst of it on the fourth, the route led straight into a fifth, only this time, it stretched at least a quarter mile out, and surrounded by hills, with no hint as to where the trail might be hiding out there, things didn’t look promising.

I wandered for twenty minutes, trying to find any sign of where to go, but it was closing in on five-thirty now, and despite what I told myself, I just didn’t have it in me to find the trail before nightfall. I went to bed that night feeling utterly lost and alone. And it didn’t help waking in the middle of the night to thirty mile an hour winds howling through the trees around me. But, sheltered by the branches, I barely got a ripple of a breeze blowing through my tent.

Tent Sunrise2

I woke the next morning, and with my GPS, the now torn and tattered map, and what little I had on Google Maps, I managed to pinpoint exactly where I was and where I needed to be in ten seconds flat. Putting any thoughts of finding those footprints behind me, I made a beeline, shocked to find them again on the other side with ease. I had the worst of it behind me, and I realized, I worked myself into my second rookie mistake the night before.

From now on, I’m stopping well before I’ve past my prime each day. I pushed myself too hard, and in that fatigue, I could have gotten lost or hurt. And with no one to turn to, the consequences would have been vast.

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Gaining elevation on the fifth grassy meadow. Can you spot the trail?

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Grand Mesa.

In the coming day, I made my third and last rookie mistake by not knowing what the trail had in store for me. Day hikes always have an option to bail, but what I soon learned, backpacking doesn’t always offer the same luxury.

The Bar X trail follows the higher contours of the mountain before feeding into the wash of a smaller canyon branching off of the Little Dominguez. Going into it, I figured the trail would be obvious, or cairned at the very least, but what little confidence I had disappeared with the footprints just ten miles from the end. The homestretch.

Standing nearly one-thousand feet above the Little Dominguez, I could see a sliver of the canyon, but with no trail in sight, I had absolutely no idea how to get down there. I attempted dropping into the wash and trying to scramble my way down, but that quickly put me in real danger of getting cliffed-out. And the class-three climbing wasn’t exactly what I was bargaining for my first time out with twenty-some pounds strapped to my back. Briefly, I considered backtracking all the way to the Dominguez Campground and hitching a ride to my car, but that was a lot of extra mileage I didn’t revel in hiking. Plus, that would likely add another night, and I was due back today.

So with my GPS in hand, I just went for it. Tracing a flat ledge high above the wash, I begged the mountain to give me an out. Ten miles from the Bar X trailhead, I really begun to loose elevation. Following the contours on my GPS closely, I tried to find a route that would steer clear of the cliffs, and managed with only a few clumsy moments of shimmying with my pack.

It was nerve wracking, but lower and lower I went until, finally, a footprint and a cairn. With only one-hundred feet left to navigate, I’ve never felt so much relief in my life.

As the Bar X trail meets with the wash, the canyon feeds into the Little Dominguez, and the first honest trail in ten miles. It was faint, but nothing compared to what I just went through.

Across the next five miles, the trail winds through the canyon towards the Big Dominguez, hindered only by the snowmelt in the half a dozen creek crossings. Four miles from where the Bar X trail feeds into the Little Dominguez, the trail passes by the house of the last original homesteader of the canyon, Mr. Rambo. Making use of his old double track, the final trial comes with crossing the Big Dominguez. It took me longer than it should have with the snowmelt, but I finally came across a worthy log. Sawed off on both ends, it looks as though someone else must have found themselves in the same boat as me.

Once across the Big Dominguez, one last easy jaunt simply retraces your steps along the Big Dominguez and the Gunnison River to the Bridgeport trailhead.

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I always think back to some of my other firsts – my first time in the backcountry, my first solo 14er – and how nervous I got leading up to it. But now, it gives me nothing but excitement. I know eventually I’ll get to the same place with backpacking, and I’m just excited to see where life takes me in the meantime. So many things I wanted to do seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream, but now I can see those doors opening for me.

I have a lot to learn and need a few more trips under my belt before I can really feel like one of the crowd, but I didn’t turn myself off my first time out, so that’s got to be something, right?

Trail Map

0. Map

Directions

(From Grand Junction): From Pitkin Avenue, head south on Highway 550 for twenty miles, then turn right onto Bridgeport road. Parking is at the end of this 3.2 mile dirt road.

23.3 miles; 32 min

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