Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Study Area
Imagine an untouched land with seven major slickrock canyons draining into the Colorado River. Natural arches frame the sky, the second largest concentration in the country. On a late summer afternoon, the thunderclouds roll in. As the lightning crackles, a deluge fuels spectacular waterfalls tumbling down the canyon walls. When the storms clear, bald eagles soar within the walls of Horsethief Canyon and somewhere above Bighorn sheep clamber over the rocks.
The Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Study Area in western Colorado holds such marvelous country, 75,168 acres worth. Located on the Colorado-Utah border, you can enter this world on a hike out of the Colorado National Monument or on a relaxed float down the Colorado River, which runs along the northern boundary.
Floating the River
Black Ridge Canyons open their mysteries most spectacularly from the Colorado River. In the WSA's northeast corner, the Loma boat launch provides a put-in that will let you float the full route through the Canyons. The water is relatively flat all the way to the Westwater Ranger Station in Utah, a smooth stretch that can be handled by raft and canoe. Below Westwater outside the WSA, be prepared for some more challenging turbulence, permit required.
To reach the Loma put-in, head west on I-70 out of Grand Junction. Take the Loma exit, go south on the overpass and follow the signs to the launch.
Once you have been on the river a little over 3 miles, start looking for Rattlesnake Canyon. Its mouth is hidden on the south bank. Next comes Bull Canyon, then Mee, Long, and Knowles. Mee and Knowles Canyons are the longest and their mouths make good campsites. Jones Canyon comes last once you have crossed into Utah, but private land blocks river access.
Hiking the Canyons
Black Ridge Canyons offer over 70 miles of trails for those who want to explore on foot. Here are a few options. Please check with the BLM in Grand Junction for local conditions, particularly if you are headed into Knowles or Jones Canyon.
Pollock Bench Trail - This trail leaves the road about halfway between the I-70 exit and the Loma boat launch on the eastern side of the WSA. From the river, the path climbs steeply into Rattlesnake Canyon, where spectacular arches make a great destination. The trail also provides access into the lower reaches of Flume Canyon and Pollock Canyon. Hardy hikers can continue to the Rattlesnake Canyon Trailhead rather than reverse course if they have arranged transportation.
Rattlesnake Canyon Trail - This trail begins at the head of Rattlesnake Canyon, providing an alternative access to its arches. To reach it, take the rim road through Coorado National Monument. Near the mid-point ofn the road, turn south onto the dirt road to Glade Park. Turn right in a quarter mile onto the Black Ridge Access Road, then travel thirteen miles to the trailhead. Expect the road to be very rough, 4WD recommended, and impassable when wet.
Knowles and Jones Canyons - You can hike into the upper reaches of these canyons from the south side of the WSA. But this is wild country. Expect a challenge; don't expect well-defined trails or any facilities, so go prepared. To get there, turn west on BS Road one mile north of the Glade Park store. You hit the Knowles trailhead in 12 miles. Several miles further west, a locked gate blocks that road. That is the trailhead for Jones Canyon. Both trailheads are supposed to be marked.
Natural and Human History
The Wilderness Study Area (WSA) in Colorado is characterized by the high, east-west trending Black Ridge which is bisected by seven major slickrock canyon systems. These systems drain northerly to the Colorado River. The Colorado river forms much of the northern WSA boundary. The canyons cut 600 to 1,000 ft. into the northern, sloping edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau, creating extreme topographic and ecosystem variations between the mesa tops and canyon bottoms. Outcroppings of dark precambrian schist, gneiss and granite laced with pegmatite dikes occur in canyon bottoms. The area contains the second largest concentration of natural arches in the United States.
Between each canyon is a mesa sloping downward toward the Colorado River. These mesas terminate in cliffs towering above the river. The spectacular curving strata formations found on the northern boundary of the WSA are a result of geological faults, which define the current pathway of the Colorado river basin.
Vegetation on the mesas and upper canyon sides consists of sparse to moderate stands of pinon/juniper with some flat areas supporting big sage meadows and grasses. Isolated stands of cottonwood trees and other riparian species such as willow, river birch, and box elder are found along the drainages. The pinon/juniper woodland, sagebrush and riparian vegetation in the WSA provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife including deer, mountain lion, a herd of desert bighorn sheep estimated between 120-150 and bald and golden eagles. The bald eagles winter along the Colorado in Ruby and Horsethief Canyons from December through March.
People have lived, explored and sought solitude in the Black Ridge area for 10,000 years. Enjoy the thrill of discovering the traces they have left - alcove and overhang habitation sites, rock art, and open hunting camps - and leave them intact for the enjoyment of those who follow. The scientific value of an artifact is lost forever once it is moved from its setting.
Other Activities Nearby
Kokopelli's Mountain Bike Trail is accessible from I-70 and begins at the Loma Boat Launch northeasrt of the WSA and winds 128 miles westerly across desert and mountain to Moab. This trail passes through Rabbit Valley, which is also north of the WSA and is accessible from I-70. Check out more GORP coverage of the mountain biking opportunities in this area in our Meccas Beyond Moab feature. This area provides opportunities for hiking, scenic viewing, off-highway vehicle trail riding, camping, and picnicking. The Trail Through Time, north of the Rabbit Valley exit off I-70, interprets the dinosaur rich fossil history of Rabbit Valley.
For more information on Black Ridge Canyons, contact the Bureau of Land Management, Grand Junction Resource Area Office, 2815 H Road, Grand Junction, CO 81506.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication