Although I am relatively new to camping and backpacking, having only taken my first-multi night trip last summer, going on my first solo backpacking trip seemed like a right of passage I was ready to take. When plans fell through with a group of friends, and my time off from work was approved, I felt it was the perfect time to see of what I was capable.
I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, and my trip with friends falling apart was the first of many things that reaffirmed my belief this weekend. Everything didn’t go as I planned, and it was a serious roller coaster of ups and downs, but the highlights overshadowed every rough patch along the way.
Before I left Denver, I made plans to head west toward Grand Junction, Colorado, to backpack through Rattlesnake Canyon. I planned to camp at nearby Colorado National Monument before hiking out to and sleeping under the arches of Rattlesnake Canyon. On the way to Rattlesnake Canyon, I planned to stop at Rifle Falls State Park. After exploring Rattlesnake Canyon, I was going to stop and hike Dominguez Canyon on Sunday for a relaxing swim before my drive home.
Everything went off without a hitch the first day, and I left Denver around 8 a.m. to head to Rifle Falls State Park. After a few stops and breakfast in Glenwood Springs, I arrived at the park around 11 a.m. It is a very small park, and it was packed this Thursday morning with campers and other visitors.
I have to admit, I wasn’t completely alone on this road trip, because my pup, Maria, joined to keep me company. We quickly hopped out of the car and could already hear the waterfalls flowing! We were both excited to see what was up ahead.
Maria led me up a path that took us behind the waterfalls before we ever saw them all from the front. It is a very short walk from the parking lot to the falls, so it wan't take long before we were standing in the glory of these magnificent, lush waterfalls.
We started exploring behind the rushing waters discovering there are also caves all along the rock formations! We explored every nook and cranny we could find and fit into. It was so much fun exploring around these dark, mysterious, and natural creations.
After the caves, we took the staircase to the top of the falls. We followed the trail along the edge of the cliff looking over the extremely dense vegetation below. Bushy trees lined the edges of the small crystal-clear river that fed from the falls. The entire scene was magnificent, and we stopped at every ledge to get a new view.
We finally came back down to see the falls head-on, and they were even more spectacular from this view than they had been from behind or above - which I didn’t even think was possible.
Flowers were blooming in the bushes all around, and fish were swimming right up to the mouth of where the three falls’ waters combine. It felt for a moment like I could have been standing in the closest thing to The Garden of Eden I might ever witness.
Colorado National Monument:
I had reserved a campsite inside The Colorado National Monument at the Saddlehorn Campground through the recreation.gov website. It was about 2 hours from where I was, so I hit the road and arrived around 6 p.m. I set up my tent and organized my items before I pulled my chair out and set it up to watch the sunset.
That night, I realized I had forgotten to pack the propane tanks for my JetBoil trail stove, so I went back into town to get one the next morning. This put me far behind schedule. My 6 a.m. start time was intended to get me on the trail before the day’s heat, but after the extra stop and a few wrong turns, I didn’t get to the trail head until almost 2 p.m. When I finally arrived, I ran into another set of issues.
McInnis Canyon/Rattlesnake Arches:
First, I discovered that Rattlesnake Canyon is actually day-use only. I am not sure if this was a recent change or if the posts I had seen of campers were just rule breakers, but I decided to change my plan. Instead of spending two or three days in the arches, I was now limited to just a few hours. I switched my gear from my large overnight pack to my smaller day pack, and tried to get on with hiking.
My next issue was the time of day and heat. I was hitting a desert trail at the absolute hottest part of the day with a big, black dog. The Rattlesnake Canyon upper arches trail is an 11-miles out and back. We made it to the bottom of the canyon and reached a sign that read 2.2 miles one-way to the next destination.
Maria was sitting under a tree panting, and I had already given her a few bowls of water. I knew the heat was getting to her, and I made the safe choice to head back up the canyon after only making it one and a half miles.
I made the right decision and got Maria back into cooler conditions just in the nick of time. I cooled down the car for her, and we drove out of the canyon. Since Rattlesnake Canyon hadn’t worked out, I had an alternative plan to hike the nearby Mee Canyon which allowed backpacking and camping.
You can read in more extent about the tail and the conditions that caused us to turn around in a more extended, detailed blog post HERE!
We drove all the way back down the same rough dirt roads I had driven down a few hours ago, and turned toward Mee Canyon halfway out of the McInnis Canyon area. Just past the trail head was an empty site with an established fire pit.
I decided it was the perfect place to set up camp to get an early start in the morning. I set up my tent and got some dinner cooking. As soon as I finished my meal, the weather flipped and went from hot and sunny to cloudy, windy, and chilly. I could tell a storm was rolling in.
I put on the rain cover for the tent and got Maria inside. It didn’t seem like the storm was too bad at first. Within a 30-minute window, though, the winds picked up to what I later read was over 60 miles per hour and nearly ripped my tent apart.
Even with me and Maria inside the tent was lifting up around us, and the stakes in the ground were barely holding us down. I made the split second decision to pack up and get in the car.
I quickly unsnapped the rain cover, pulled out the poles, and pulled up the stakes. I threw the entire tent and all of its contents inside my car. I collapsed the poles and got them inside before having to carry Maria to the car. I managed to get everything safely put away just seconds before the downpour started.
It rained all through night, well into the morning, until almost noon. When it finally broke, I rearranged the car so that it was drivable and took off as soon as I could in fears the rain would start again at any minute.
All of these issues that had kept me from camping in Rattlesnake Canyon may have saved my life. Any sort of flash flood, lighting strike, or wet / cold conditions could have been devastating more than 5 miles away from shelter. It was crazy to think about as I was white-knuckle driving out of the steep, muddy canyon.
Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area:
By the time I got back onto pavement, the storm had completely passed and the sun and heat had both returned. I set my directions toward Dominguez Canyon and drove an hour south to embark on a trail recommended to me by some friends. Little did I know how great their recommendations were.
Dominguez Canyon is one of the most incredible places I have been in Colorado, and I have only explored about a quarter of one of its trails, and I was blown away. I liked it because it was a very easy and accessible hike with incredibly rewarding views and surprises inside, all within just six-miles of red rocks.
You can see more from this spectacular place in another blog post - which you can find HERE!
Maria arrived in the late afternoon, but this time, heat wasn’t a concern. The trail followed right along the Gunnison River, so Maria had ample opportunities to cool down. Plus, the rain had brought the temperature down and carried in a massive breeze. It made the hike that much more enjoyable.
After getting to the bottom of the small hill I had parked on about a mile down the trail, we crossed over the Gunnison River and took a left to the Big Dominguez Canyon (as opposed to the Small Dominguez Canyon). Now, we were up close and personal with the bright, red rocks towering in front of us.
We walked along the trail for about another mile until we reached the mouth of the Big Canyon. It was here where another incredible thing that most definitely would not have happened if I was still in Rattlesnake Canyon.
Maria attracted another dog from one of the nearby camps, and when the owners and I retrieved our pets, one of them recognized Maria and instantly asked if he had met me before. It turns out that we had met just a few weeks ago while I was camping at Radium Hot Spring! It was a wild, one-in-a-million type encounter. We both couldn’t believe it, and I told them I would stop back by to hang out after I did a little more exploring.
I walked past their camp just another half mile to find a swimming hole perfect for cooling off and relaxing, and I had it all to myself! I swam and enjoyed the incredibly serene spot until another group showed up.
The group told me about another swimming hole up the river and about some ancient petroglyphs in the rocks. They said they were about a mile and half up the creek, and I decided that was a bit too far for this trip, so Maria and I dried off on the nearby rocks before stopping back by to see our friends.
We hung out till the sun started to go behind the canyon walls. We all exchanged contact info and were still talking about how mind blown we were that we had all come together in this incredible place. I said my goodbyes and told them that I would see them soon!
The hike back out seemed even easier than the hike in, and we were back in the car in absolutely no time. We drove out of the trail head road, turned down a different one in the same Dominguez-Escalenate Public Lands area, and drove to a campsite I had been recommended.
It was about 15 miles down the road and perfectly secluded inside of this picturesque canyon. It was somehow desert-like yet featured trees and a river. It was almost magical.
I walked down to the river and rinsed off my body and all of my cooking supplies before setting up camp. The spot had a designated fire pit, and I started one to cook some sausage over the open flames. After dinner, I stayed up until the stars came out to see the constellations over the tall, orange walls. When it got late, I crawled into bed and slept throughout the night peacefully and undisturbed.
The next morning, I reached out to the friend whom I had met at Rifle Falls State Park earlier in my trip. We decided to get together to do a little fly fishing. Again, if my plans not been changed, this opportunity would have never presented itself!
We met just outside of Grand Junction and threw our lines on the Colorado River. We saw dozens of fish over the course of the day. Some were just feet away from us, yet neither of us were able to catch a thing. It was frustrating, but the company was so enjoyable and the views were so great that we didn’t let it get us down.
We eventually packed up and agreed we would have to try this spot again another day. Even though we didn’t catch anything, it was a perfect way to end my trip. Trying a fishing spot with a new friend was exactly what I needed to cap my first ever solo road trip.
When I made it back to Denver, I couldn’t believe what all I had been able to see and accomplish in those few short days. I was extremely proud of myself for sticking to my guns and doing what I wanted to do, because it led me on the most incredible journey and introduced me to places and people I know I will be seeing again soon!
Talkin' 'bout Tacos:
I'm Taylor, aka Tacos! I am sharing my journeys and experiences from across the world hoping to inspire travel and adventure in all who read.