Incredible Backcountry Trails
by David Day
Incredible Backcountry Trails
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Distance: 12.7 miles (round trip)
Elevations: 1,520 ft. gain/loss
Pollock Canyon Trailhead (start): 4,520 ft.
Rattlesnake Arches Trailhead: 5,860 ft
Upper Arches Trail: 5,640 ft.
Lower Arches Trail: 5,440 ft.
Trail: Easy, well marked trail. At one point some minor scrambling is required to get from the Lower Arches Trail to the Upper Trail.
Season: Spring, summer, fall. This trail is very hot during the summer with no reliable water along the way. Winter hiking is feasible during years of light snowfall.
Vicinity: Near Grand Junction and Colorado National Monument
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The hike described here starts at the Pollock Canyon Trailhead, but as mentioned above you can also begin at Rattlesnake Arches Trailhead. Unfortunately a 4WD vehicle is required to reach Rattlesnake Arches Trailhead, but if this is not a problem I suggest you begin there. The hike from Rattlesnake Arches Trailhead to all the major points of interest and back is only 5.2 miles, whereas if you begin at Pollock Canyon Trailhead your hike will be 12.7 miles long. This is a very hot hike with no reliable water along the way, and the extra 7.5 miles of walking might be stretching the limit for some people. The season is also important in choosing your trailhead. The jeep road to Rattlesnake Arches Trailhead should not be attempted during winter or early spring, or after a heavy rain. On the other hand, the hike from Pollock Canyon Trailhead can be very pleasant during the early spring when the weather is cooler.
The walk in from Pollock Canyon Trailhead passes across some interesting slickrock country, with beautiful vistas of the Grand Valley and the Colorado River. But it has to be said that the hike’s major attraction is the collection of exquisite natural arches that lie along the eastern rim of Rattlesnake Canyon at end of the trail. They are the best natural arches to be found anywhere in Colorado.
As you will soon discover, the first 1.6 miles of the Pollock Canyon Trail is also a mountain bike trail. It really is a great place to ride mountain bikes, with plenty of challenging slickrock climbs and nice views of valleys below. The bikes are prohibited from entering the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area, however, so after the first 45 minutes the trail is strictly a foot path.
The bike path winds gently upward for the first half mile, then levels out on the rim of Flume Creek Canyon, a wide, flat-bottomed canyon bordered by rounded walls of pinkish sandstone. For the next half mile the trail skirts along the northern rim of the valley, offering one photographic opportunity after another. The view is especially scenic early in the morning when the valley is side-lighted by the eastern sun. Upon reaching the western side of the rim the trail begins climbing again, moving away from Flume Creek Canyon, and finally levels out onto a plateau about 400 feet higher that the trailhead. Soon you see a fork in the trail where one leg of the bicycle path begins a big loop to the south. Bear right at this point toward the Rattlesnake Arches. After another 0.3 mile the trail emerges at the upper rim of Pollock Canyon, where the foot path departs from the bicycle trail. The foot path is much less distinct than the bike path, so pay attention or you might miss it. The bicycle path turns left at this point and follows the rim of the canyon, while the foot path veers off to the right and immediately begins descending onto Pollock Bench below.
After a very pleasant 15 minute walk across Pollock Bench you will arrive at the inner rim of Pollock Canyon, where the trail makes a sudden, steep descent to the dry stream bed below. Once you reach the canyon floor the trail turns south for 0.4 mile, and then climbs 200 feet up the other side. This is the most strenuous part of the entire hike, but fortunately it doesn’t last long. 0.7 mile after leaving Pollock Canyon you will come to another trail junction, where you must turn left. You are now on the Old Ute Indian Trail, which once was the traditional route from the Colorado River to the Rattlesnake Arches. The Pollock Canyon Trail was built sometime after 1973 so that hikers would not have to cross the private land on the lower part of the Old Ute Indian Trail.
As you walk southwest on the Old Ute Indian Trail pause to look up at the horizon. Directly in front of you about a half mile away you will see a large sandstone formation that looks like the end of a butter knife protruding upward. A patch of blue sky near the base of the formation will confirm that you are looking at a natural arch. The trail climbs another 600 feet over the next 1.2 miles before arriving at another trail junction with a sign directing you left to the Upper Rattlesnake Arches trail, or right to the Lower Rattlesnake Arches trail. For reasons that will become apparent later, I suggest you turn right here onto the lower trail.
At this point you have another half hour of walking to the first of the Rattlesnake Arches. The trail proceeds along the northern base of a sandstone mesa for 1.0 mile, then swings around the western end of the mesa and starts back along its southern side to where the famous arches are located.
Geologists will immediately recognize the sandstone cliffs above the trail as a likely place to find arches. The cliffs are composed of Entrada Sandstone, a strong, homogenous layer of sedimentary rock that was deposited about 180 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. The Entrada Formation is uniformly consistent in its composition and is remarkably free of faults and cracks. It is this characteristic, along with the fact that it weathers easily, that makes it an ideal building material for natural arches. A large percentage of the Southwest’s natural arches occur in the Entrada Sandstone Formation.
The first two arches will come into view soon after the trail turns east at the end of the mesa. They are located high on the sandstone cliffs about 100 yards from the end of the mesa. The first arch is just a small hole, about ten feet across, in the top of a large alcove. 200 feet to the right of the first alcove is another large alcove with a bridge spanning across the front of it. This arch is actually a double arch, since there is a small hole in the center of the bridge. Another arch is located in yet another alcove 200 feet further east. It is partially hidden, however, and it can’t be seen from the trail.
Most of the arches you will see face southwest; hence early afternoon is generally the best time to photograph them. There is also some spectacular scenery on the south side of the trail, opposite the arches. The deep canyon south of the trail is Rattlesnake Canyon, one of six major canyons in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Area. Notice the many alcoves in the Entrada Sandstone on the opposite rim of the gorge. There are surely many more undocumented natural arches along its southern rim waiting to be discovered by off-trail hikers.
From the first three arches to the next one is only 0.1 mile, and the rest of the arches can all be found along the following 0.9 mile stretch of trail. In all, there are six especially beautiful arches, and a few other smaller, harder-to-find ones, all located in the Entrada cliffs on the left side of the trail. The fourth arch is extremely slender and graceful, reminiscent of the Landscape Arch in Utah's Arches National Park. The fifth one is but a small hole in the top of a high sandstone alcove-like a chandelier in the top of a grand ballroom-and the sixth arch forms an almost perfect 80-foot-diameter oval against the blue Colorado sky.
There are undoubtedly more arches along the rim of Rattlesnake Canyon, but when you arrive at the bottom of last arch, which I will call Trail Arch, the lower trail comes to an abrupt end. Before you turn around stop and look at the slickrock above the trail and you will see a series of distinct toe holds carved into the sandstone. From there it is possible to climb up the slickrock through Trail Arch and onto the mesa above. Some hand-over-hand scrambling is necessary, but the exposure is minimal and most people shouldn’t have too much trouble. After you have passed through the hole at the top bear to the right around the last obstacle, and you will soon come upon the well marked Upper Rattlesnake Arches Trail. The entire climb realizes an elevation gain of about 200 feet and should take you about ten minutes. It is easier to climb up through the arch than it is to climb down; hence my earlier suggestion to walk the Rattlesnake Arches loop in a counter-clockwise direction.
If you turn right at the top of Trail Arch it is a 15-minute walk back down to the junction between the upper and lower trails. However, if you want to lengthen the hike you can turn left on the upper trail and follow it westward along the top of the mesa to the end of Rattlesnake Point, 0.7 mile away. There are some fantastic views from the north side of the point of the Colorado River winding lazily across the bottom of Grand Valley. If you began this hike from the Rattlesnake Arches Trailhead it would definitely be worth your while to walk to the end of the upper trail, but if you began the hike at the Pollock Canyon Trailhead you have already seen many similar views of Grand Valley on your way to the arches.
Bearing right at the top of Trail Arch will take you to the Rattlesnake Arches Trailhead, 0.9 mile away, or to the Old Ute Indian Trail, 0.7 mile away, from where you can retrace your steps back to the Pollock Canyon Trailhead.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Rattlesnake Arches Trail
Colorado National Monument, McInnis Canyons (Trails Illustrated, map #208)
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