While Grand Junction offers a plethora of outdoor opportunities for the intrepid explorer, the surrounding area is filled with a rugged natural beauty all its own—perfect for a series of day trips for those looking to get their fill of the Colorado wilderness.
Western Colorado is the perfect spot to find peace and tranquility in the great outdoors—especially in the relatively isolated, yet public, lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These areas consist of a number of trail systems ideal for almost every outdoor activity including mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, and ATV riding. There are even campsites for those who want to spend a few days exploring. Additionally, part of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands are the backcountry gems of the area’s two National Conservation Areas (NCAs) not far from the city of Grand Junction. With these easily accessible and nearby spots, visitors can open up a world of natural wonders right outside GJ’s backyard.
For a complete list of the BLM’s lands, including the NCAs, check out this handy trail guide.
The Dominguez-Escalante, National Conservation Area
Hit the road and head to the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area, located on the eastern edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau. With over 200,000-acres of Dominguez Canyon Wilderness to explore, the area has its share of natural beauty—from red-rock canyons and sandstone bluffs that contain geological marvels nearly 600 million years old, to cultural and historic sites like the pinyon and juniper trees that form an important connection with the region’s Ute people.
Distance From Grand Junction: 19.5 miles
Estimated Driving Time: 27 minutes
How To Get There: East on I-70BL E/Pitkin Ave toward S 14th St., Take 29 Rd. Ramp to
There are several distinct recreation areas within the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area, each offering a myriad of outdoor activities and spectacular scenery. Because approximately 30-miles of the Gunnison River flows through the area, it is a unique spot for fishing, wildlife, and recreational opportunities, including 52 protected species of animals and plants. In addition to its own recreational activities (including both motorized and non-motorized trails), the NCA also hosts a portion of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail.
Cactus Park is a great spot for motor enthusiasts to explore the backcountry wilderness of the area—with miles of available trails that link to the Uncompahgre National Forest, both off-highway vehicle (OHV) and mountain biking fans will find plenty to do here. Want to learn more about the area’s unique geological features? Then be sure to stop at the nearby Gunnison Gravels Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
The Gunnison River is an important part of the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area as it not only supports the area’s natural resources and wildlife concerns, but also has become increasingly important to the region’s tourism—namely commercial and private boating, whitewater rafting, canoes, and paddleboards. The sights in this area are not to be missed—from the distinctive red-rock canyons to local wildlife viewing, the Gunnison River offers a number of recreational opportunities. There are also several campsites along the river for those who want to spend the night.
Situated on the northern boundary of the NCA, Unaweep Canyon is an ideal spot for those who want to partake in some bouldering and climbing, as there are plenty of opportunities near East Creek. Situated along Highway 41, this area is also perfect for catching some stellar scenery, as 41 has also been designated as the state of Colorado Unaweep-Tabaguache Scenic Byway.
Escalante Canyon is also known for its recreational opportunities, including kayaking, hiking, wildlife viewing, and picnicking. This Escalante is also known for its history—including its “Red Hole in Time,” popularized by writer Muriel Marshall, where visitors can view historic cabins, trails, Native American rock inscriptions, and other geological formations—the Bridgeport Trail, in particular, offers hikers a unique opportunity to view some of the area’s historic petroglyphs that are chiseled into the nearby boulders. These same boulders also make this a great spot for climbers—especially The Island, Interiors Wall, and the Cabin Wall—some of the most well-known area climbs.
One of the most popular hikes in the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area is the Big Dominguez Trail. Located in Big Dominguez Canyon, this moderate trail takes several hours to complete—but is well worth a visit because of its amazing scenery, including waterfalls, petroglyphs, archaic rock shelters, and a rugged landscape dotted with red-rock bluffs and teeming with wildlife like bighorn sheep. The Big Dominguez Trailhead is also located on Highway 50, simply follow the signs for Bridgeport Road. This is a great stop to make after leaving the Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area, as it is just a short 10-minute drive south on Highway 50.
McInnis Canyons, National Conservation Area
Consisting of over 120,000-acres of high desert canyon country adjacent to the Colorado National Monument, the McInnis Canyons NCA includes important national resources like the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness—an area known as having the second-largest concentration of natural arches in the whole of North America. Also known for its outdoor recreation including hiking, biking, and boating, McInnis Canyons contains multitudes—history, scenery, and outdoor activities for everyone.
Distance From Grand Junction: 36 miles
Estimated Driving Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
How To Get There: Take Monument Road from Grand Junction to D S Road. Continue on D S Road until reaching the McInnis Canyons NCA in Fruita, CO.
There are a few stops of interest along the way to McInnis, including the Rabbit Snake Arches Loop, just 10 miles west of Grand Junction. Though the trail is considered moderately difficult, it’s worth it just to get to Rattlesnake Canyon and its magnificent arches. Adventurous hikers will not want to miss this exciting trail known for its views including canyons, arches, and wildlife.
The Trail Through Time is another great stop on the way to McInnis. Located in Rabbit Valley, the area is home to the Mygatt-Moore Quarry where more than 4,000 dinosaur bones have been discovered since the 1980s. With self-guided hikes, amazing views, and distinctive historical and geological importance, the Trail Through Time is fun for everyone from dino enthusiasts to hikers and nature appreciators. Don’t forget to visit nearby Dinosaur Hill, which also contains an easy 1.5-mile loop hike and some of the best views in the area—namely of the Bookcliffs, the Colorado River, and the Colorado National Monument.
McInnis Canyons NCA contains a variety of recreational activities for those who want to explore some of Western Colorado’s most distinctive wilderness areas. Known for its incredible hiking consisting of hundreds of miles of trails, McInnis Canyons has something for everyone—from beginners to experts. There’s also plenty of horseback riding opportunities here, as well.
Devil’s Canyon is one of the most popular trails in McInnis, especially in the winter when it is known for being especially scenic. Easily accessible and containing a multitude of dog-friendly loop trails, Devil’s Canyon is a great opportunity to explore the backcountry wilderness, and customize your journey depending on how far you want to go. The Fruita Paleo Area is another visitor favorite, as it is an easy 1/2 mile hike dotted with interpretative exhibits that outline the area’s geological and paleontological significance. Open only to foot travel, the trail is also a peaceful way to explore some of McInnis’ most distinctive scenery.
Hiking is not the only reason to visit McInnnis—the area is also known as a great spot for boating on the scenic Colorado River along its 25-mile stretch that winds its way throughout the canyons. Several campsites are available along the way as well for those looking to spend the night under the stars. There is also a plethora of mountain biking opportunities—with plenty of trails open to bikers who want to experience the area’s world-class singletrack trails including the famed Kokopelli Loops and the Rabbit Valley Trail System. For those who prefer motorized vehicle adventures, Rabbit Valley also has plenty of trails to enjoy ATV-riding—its rugged trails are known as the perfect playground for those looking for miles of trails in the wilderness.
Other Fun Day Trips Around Grand Junction
The National Conservation Areas around Grand Junction are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to experiencing the area’s abundance of natural scenery and outdoor attractions. Below are some additional ideas for day trips from Grand Junction
- The Serpents Trail is a lovely trail known as the precursor to the scenic Rim Rock Drive. Popular with locals and tourists alike, the trail, also known as “The Crookedest Road in the World,” contains 16 switchbacks through the rough terrain that offer incredibly scenic views of the surrounding Wingate Sandstone.
Distance From Grand Junction: 16 minutes, via Monument Rd.
- The Grand Mesa National Forest is just 40 miles east of Grand Junction, but its lush, forest scenery makes it seem like a world away. Home to Grand Mesa, the world’s largest flat-top mountain, the area is also known for its incredibly scenic lakes and stunning mountain views. Grand Mesa is also a mecca for outdoor recreation including hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and camping. More experienced hikers will love the Crag Crest Trail, a challenging 10-mile loop, this hike is known for its wending, narrow trail along the cliffs.
Distance From Grand Junction: 1 hour, 56 minutes via US-50E
- Highline Lake is another scenic day trip from Grand Junction. Located in Highline Lake State Park, this beautiful spot is known as “an oasis in the desert.” With miles of trails, wildlife viewing opportunities (especially for birders), and several campsites, Highline Lake is the perfect afternoon (or overnight) getaway.
Distance From Grand Junction: 35 minutes via I-70W and US-50E
While Grand Junction is known for its incredible outdoor recreation, the surrounding areas are also rich in scenic beauty; distinctive and rugged landscapes that open up a world of discovery into Western Colorado’s geological and cultural past. With several day trip options from Grand Junction, visitors can choose their own adventure when they hit the road and enjoy the scenic splendor of this uniquely beautiful area.