Hiking the canyon country of western Colorado generally is considered a warm-weather endeavor. Crowds descend on the red rock chasms each spring, their footsteps renewing the trails that have lain mostly dormant during the winter months.
That off-season dormancy is precisely why hiking the canyons in winter is worthwhile. A dusting of snow over the landscape near Grand Junction gives canyons a vastly different character than they display in warmer weather.
Pinon and juniper trees hold tufts of snow on every branch. Melting snow sends tiny rivulets of water cascading over warm, south-facing rocks and cliffs, while in the cold and shady side canyons, the tracks of rabbits, coyotes and other wildlife can remain for weeks, frozen into snowy crust. Human tracks are few, simply because few people venture out to hike here during winter's chill.
The sun, lying low in the southern sky, casts long shadows in the Colorado canyons during winter. Wingate sandstone that comprises the towering canyon walls takes on unique hues with the low angle of the light, making winter one of the best times for photographers and artists to capture canyon country's full range of colors and contrasts.
One of the best winter hikes in the Grand Junction area is Devils Canyon, which lies west of the city, near Fruita. The canyon is part of the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area (formerly known, and still referred to on many maps, as Colorado Canyons NCA), a region of unique topography and beautiful vistas, laced with excellent hiking trails.
The lower portion of the Devils Canyon trail winds through a series of low hills criss-crossed by a network of paths leading to a variety of places within the national conservation area. Each trail is clearly numbered, and sign posts along the way can keep you on track to Devils Canyon.
From the main trailhead, follow Trail D1 for approximately eight-tenths of a mile to its intersection with Trail D4, which descends from a ridge into the lower Devils Canyon drainage. During winter, ice fills the tiny streambed in the shallow lower canyon, and you get your first glimpse of the different world that exists in the bottom of desert canyons.
Uplands are dominated by pinon and juniper trees, cactus and sage. In the canyons, where water is more easily available, cottonwood trees grow from sandbars deposited by thousands of years of spring runoff and summertime flash floods.
Stay on Trail D4 for a short distance until it connects to Trail D3, which is the trail that runs into the upper reaches of Devils Canyon. To this point, the trail has been easy walking. But access to those upper reaches of the canyon lies at the top of a steep escarpment made of hard, dark-colored stone. Geologists say this rock is some of the oldest on earth, dating back billions of years.
The top of the escarpment at the base of the Colorado red cliffs in the area, is atop a gap of more than 300 million years in the geologic record. Experts say this area was uplifted and massively eroded before the sands that form today's cliffs were deposited during the age of the dinosaurs.
The hike gets much easier after climbing the escarpment. This section of trail makes a 3.8-mile loop up one side of the canyon and back. Watch closely for signs of desert bighorn sheep that live in this area. It's also common to see mule deer, rabbits or a variety of birds.
An old cabin built by cowboys who used to run cattle in the area marks the halfway point of the 7-mile hike. Take a few minutes to go inside and sign a visitor register that other hikers have left on the table. Although the cabin has a stove, don't build a fire, and don't plan to spend the night; fires and overnight camping aren't allowed in Devils Canyon.
To reach the Devils Canyon trailhead, drive west from Grand Junction, on Interstate 70 for about 10 miles and take the Fruita exit. Head southwest on Colorado Highway 340. Just after the Colorado River crossing, turn right on Kings View Road, following signs to McInnis Canyons NCA.
The road is paved almost all the way to the trailhead. The pavement continues past the turn to the Devils Canyon Trailhead, stopping just before the horse trailer parking area for Devils Canyon. The aforementioned Trail D1 begins at the parking area.
Only hikers and horseback riders are allowed, no mountain bikes or motorized vehicles. It is helpful to carry a trail map of the area when hiking; maps are available from the Bureau of Land Management office in Grand Junction, 2815 H Road, phone 970-244-3000. Or get a brochure online from the Bureau of Land Management.