Hunter Canyon

Location: Book Cliffs; BLM land north of Grand Junction, Colorado
Maps: I used my Colorado Gazateer and Pearson/Fielder's "Colorado Canyon Country"
Access: From Fruita, take the I-70 north frontage road east to CR21, turn north and follow CR21 all the way to Hunter Canyon.
Trail: Follow the dirt road, or bushwack up side canyons. You can go as far as you like but 3 miles starts taking you out of the canyon.
Fees: None
Dogs: No problem
Webcam: Tomorrow Hill Farm, Grand Junction
Weather:  Current & recent conditions    National Weather Service Forecast

October 8-9, 2005

After filling up our water jugs at the Colorado Welcome Center in Fruita we headed northeast through irrigated farmland towards the Book Cliffs, white and chalky-looking against the clear blue sky. The mild October day was perfect for hiking. Dave gave directions while I drove, and in less than 10 miles we were zeroing in on a particularly prominent cleft in the rock. The road was graded and smooth as far as a compressor station, but beyond that the road was rutted and rough. We continued on slowly over large rocks and through deep ruts until a deep and muddy wash barred the way. I backed up 50 feet to a pullout and parked the car. We gathered our gear into framepacks, then took a few moments to eat a quick lunch of PBJ sandwiches, apples and chocolate. As we were eating, several ATVs sped by with goggled riders. A few minutes passed, and then a couple of tall-strutted 4x4 trucks bounced by. We heard gunshots echoing along the cliffs, and noted shell casings on the ground all around. I began to get the idea that this was not going to be a quiet, peaceful trip. Just before we left, I rotated the car 180 degrees so my Car Talk anti-SUV bumpersticker would not be visible, thus reducing the probability of a bullet through my windshield. It felt like that kind of place. 

We set out under a blazing sun that quickly grew very warm. I could feel sweat running down my back between my pack and my skin. Far from complaining, I welcomed this alternative to freezing wind or snow. The road ran north, with a gulch on the east side. Trash littered the area, and in spots the road was pocked by deep ruts and potholes, all filled with festering, fetid water.  However, the man-made disturbance extended only so far as the truck tires could reach, and beyond the road and up into the cliffs, the scenery was beautiful and calming. Greasewood was the nearest plant, lining the roads and extending out into the flats of mineral-deficient soil. At intervals we happened upon rabbit brush. Sagebrush grew in abundance on the hills, while willows lined the dry gulch. Dried wheatgrasses, Indian rice grass and Sandberg bluegrass filled the interstitial spaces in the shrub community. Higher up in the washes, juniper grew among the large boulders and bare, sandy slides. At the very top was a layer of caprock, flat as the horizon, holding everything together against the persistence of the rain. 

For a couple of hours we walked along without seeing anybody, or hearing anybody. I kept my eyes peeled for a suitable campsite, but the side gulches were very steep, and I could see no where that would lend itself as a good place to spend the night. Dave and I hiked up a steep gulch on the west side, and even contemplated a sagebrush flat, but in the end decided to continue on. However, we did so without packs, which we stashed behind some rocks just off the main road in the gulch. Not 200 yards up the road, Dave pointed out a nice, flat area next to the wash that would work just fine. We decided that unless we found anything better, this would be home for the night. 

Carrying only a bottle of water and my camera, we hiked up the road towards places unknown.  High clouds obscured the sun and made for pleasant, cool air to hike in. The guidebook that referenced this trail provided virtually no details on what to expect. In some ways this is nice since it forces exploration into terra incognita. The only drawback I could see to this was that I didnít know how much water to take. In the end, I took only a liter.  We passed a jeep that was seemingly stuck in the wash. One fellow was gunning the engine while another fellow outside the cab pointed and shouted. I donít think they noticed us walk by. A few hundred yards later two jeeps came motoring back down. Popular place with the OHV crowd, this. 

At the first major side canyon, we took a right up a narrow gulch with a trickle of water running down the rocks. Willows and grass grew in abundance in the cool draw, and elk dropping lay among the leaves at every step. Several times both Dave and I sunk up to our ankles in quicksand. The east-running canyon turned around to the north, and our path led through a 10-m undercut with salt crystals coating the walls from the seeps. Just a few dozen yards later, a rock ledge 10 feet above our heads blocked all passage. A thin sheen of water cascaded down the rock, surrounded by the salt and thin streaks of yellow sulfur. The air smelled slightly of rotten eggs. I could imagine that the water would taste fairly putrid here, and was thankful I had packed in over a gallon. Nevertheless, this little canyon was very pleasant, and felt very hidden and remote. 

We continued up the main channel under an increasingly cloudy sky, forsaking the road to instead walk directly in the creek channel. The creek ran under a series of deep undercuts in the rock, places where the smell of sulfur was particularly strong. A second tributary canyon stemmed east, marked by a giant rock upon which someone had painted JEEP ROCK. We followed this canyon which curled around to the south through an undercut so deep it was almost a solid tunnel. The walls smoothed and steepened until it was very slot-like, finally ending around an S-curve at a short waterfall which could have been climbed, but would get the climber very wet since it also required a short wade (swim) through murky water. Who knows how deep the desert pools plunge? 

Back in the main stem once again, we continued upstream over massive rock obstacles that I was amazed to see tire tracks approach, go over, and continue on. We came upon a sharp east curve in the canyon, with a steep hill in the canyon bottom leading towards the abutting wall. I walked up the hill a short ways and then into a deep undercut that curved like a C for 60 yards. Inside the undercut it was dark, cool and quiet. Dave followed after checking around and explored the opposite direction. We met up again in the creek channel and continued upstream for only a few hundred yards before deciding to turn back and set up camp. 

Near the sulfur-smelling undercut, about halfway back to our packs, we broke away from the creek bed and followed the dirt two-track to the west. We heard the approaching whine of engines, and sat in the rabbitbrush and willows off the road to wait for the possible passage of the vehicles. Something primordial urges me to remain hidden in the wilderness when at all possible. We sat in the dense shrubs and listened as a jeep in low gear whined and chugged itís way up the rocky creek channel at no more than a walking pace. Once it had passed, we resumed our walk down the road and rejoined our packs just where we had left them. 

We carted our gear the short distance upstream and crossed to the east bank where Dave selected a nice flat piece of real estate surrounded by junipers and pinyons. We set up the tent, and I carried in several large rocks to cook and sit on, as the area was only hard packed sand. Then we relaxed in the gray of the later afternoon, Dave reading his book about the fellow who lost his arm in Blue John Canyon and I my book by J Campbell about mythology. As evening fell, I gathered firewood, against the protest of Dave, and then began to make dinner while Dave stoked a small fire to life in a shallow pit dug out of the sand. At first he used the dead rabbitbrush twigs I had gathered, but after we both agreed that this fuel put out a foul odor, he gathered sweet-smelling juniper twigs to burn. Maybe this is why they call rabbitbrush Chrysothamnus nauseosus! We ate grilled burritos and then relaxed in the comfort of the soft firelight. As the evening deepened, stars began to peak through the dissipating clouds. Quiet pervaded every crevice, until the distinct whine of engines began to echo through the rocks. For 20 minutes we were aware of their approach, and watched them crawl along the road not 30 yards from camp, stopping to investigate a tricky washout nearby. We heard their shouts and radios and felt all the more inclined to be quiet when they were near. Our fire was small, and I doubt they ever saw us over the glare of the headlights and roll-bar spotlights. Hearing them roll out of hearshot was like exhaling and slumping back down in my chair. The quiet of the desert night resumed, interrupted only by the crackle of small juniper twigs on the fire. At around 10:00, we allowed the fire to die out and covered it over with sand. 

The next morning we cooked a quick breakfast of oatmeal, supplemented by dried apples. As I walked away from camp to let loose a stream of last night's water on some lucky bunchgrass, I noticed a black moose eyeing me from only 30 yards away. I crept quietly back to camp and motioned for Dave to follow, and the moose was still there when we returned. In fact, I think we left the area before he did. We packed up camp and walked out. The sun was out in the clear sky, but the deep canyon kept shadow upon us for the first mile of our walk. It was cool, and I kept my sweatshirt on. Along the way, we noticed the signature of motorized travel lining the road in the form of beer cans and bottles.  I think Edward Abbey wrote some wonderful essays on the west, but I never quite got his logic of throwing beer cans out the window at every chance. After passing up several dozen, I pulled out a plastic bag from my pack and began to collect the trash with Daveís help. In a short time Dave found a plastic bag on the side of the road and began to fill that as well. For a mile or so, we picked up almost every piece of litter there was. As we broke out into the sun, we both got pretty hot, and I removed my sweatshirt and flannel. We passed a fellow parked off the road who called out something that sounded like, "You seen any truckers today?" I figured he must be talking about the OHV gang, and I replied no. Dave asked me later how I knew what a chucker was. I then realized the guy hadnít been asking about humans, but was asking about the whereabouts of an imported game bird. Well, my answer would not have changed any, as we had not seen any chucker that morning. By the time we neared the car, our trash bags were so full that bottles dropped out at odd intervals. You want to know why hikers donít respect OHV riders? Iíll tell you. 1) Noise follows OHVs wherever they go  2) Trash follows the trails of OHVs like a footprint 3) Obvious disrespect for the health of the plants and animals in the ecosystem. There are places in the west that see hundreds of hikers a day that have less trash than OHV routes that see maybe a dozen vehicles a week. Why is that? Is it so hard to carry out the trash your OHV freighted in? I find it quite easy to put my trash in my backpack, but then again I usually donít carry a 12-pack with me on backpacking trips. In fact, Iíve never done that. Enough of my lecture.

Back at the car we loaded our gear, carefully, and tried to make some room for the anticipated box of apples we would stop and buy in Pallisade. Then we drove off under a beautiful blue sky.

Entrance to Hunter Canyon

The dirt road that runs into the canyon follows the
mostly-dry wash.

One of the many side canyons.

The box end of a side canyon with a heavy
crust of salt and sulfur from the seeps on
the walls.

Autumn colors deep in a side canyon.

More wonderful fall color hidden in seldom-visited
and never-driven side canyons.


In the main stem of the canyon, there are several
places where the wash cuts horizontally into
the soft sandstone, producing long undercuts, like
this one here. We saw a guy drive his truck
through here, right in the soft streambed, leaving 
massive tire ruts. What a guy.

The sun takes a very long time to reach the chilly
canyon floor in the morning.


See more scenic photographs at Landscape Imagery Nature Photography's image galleries.
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