Between Montrose and Grand Junction, Colorado, is a place of magic that is well off the beaten path — it’s called Escalante Canyon. Tucked into the 200,000+ acres of the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, Escalante Creek has cut a 1300-foot deep canyon revealing a geologic cross section representing over 600 million years.
Turning off Highway 50 into Escalante Canyon is a bit underwhelming, as the light tan scree hills don’t look all that exciting. However, within a few miles, red rock sandstone starts to show in shelves and outcrops and the cliffs rise higher and higher as visitors venture deeper into the canyon. A good chunk of the valley is owned by one family and the verdant creek bottom, with grazing cattle and waving hay fields is proof of why the ranch has done so well. Keep a sharp eye out because Bighorn Sheep often make their way down from the rugged cliffs to graze in the fields and to get a drink of water from the creek.
Deep in the canyon, the water wears a track through igneous rock cutting many depressions and holes into the stone. This area, known as the Escalante Potholes, is a popular swimming spot for the locals. Be warned, jumping or diving from the rocks above is extremely dangerous and several people have lost their lives. The creek here can also be very swift when the water is running high, so be very careful before hopping in. During the summer months when the water is lower, it’s a great place to wade, splash and have fun. The soaring sandstone cliffs and clear blue waters make this a lovely destination.
Along the way are several interesting places to stop including the Walker Cabin and Captain Smith’s Cabin. The Walker Cabin was built in 1911 by Harry Walker, a skilled bricklayer, and his four sons. Short of funds, he built up the walls with dirt mortar which in better times was covered with cement. Captain Smith’s Cabin was built in 1911 by Captain Henry A. Smith, a civil war veteran and expert tombstone carver. He built three rock walls against an upright stone slab and carved his name and rank on the outside. The interior contains a hollowed out bed-sized alcove and gun niche. For his numerous guests, he later built the second cabin with beds below and in the loft. On the back wall is a hinged shelf which hides a secret room. High above the home site, up on the cliff face, Smith carved his initials and the name of his blacksmith friend, Roy Bowen. The horseshoe and star are the insignia of the blacksmith shop.
At the 17 mile marker, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle to cross a rather substantial creek, especially if the water is high. This allows you to get to a Ute Petroglyph site a few miles down the road. The canyon does continue on but you definitely need a tough four-wheel drive vehicle to continue deeper.
Escalante canyon makes a great day trip, and a fantastic swimming spot during the hot summer months.