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Thread: Dolores Slickrock Canyon

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA

    Default Dolores Slickrock Canyon

    Dolores River--- Slickrock Canyon Run
    There aren't many desert river runs that can be done in a solo or tandem open canoe without raft support. Damntrue posted a while back about his journey down the Green River from the town of that name down to Spanish Bottoms, at the junction with the Colorado. This time you'll see a much smaller river, cutting another world class canyon--- a river that only runs a few weeks a year, and sometimes not at all.

    The Dolores arises high in the San Juan mountains, passes SSW through the old mining town of Rico, and then describes an inverted question mark, swinging west, north, northeast, and eventually joining the Colorado east of Moab.

    The Dolores was never a year-round river, but its natural cycle is severely compromised by management of McPhee Dam. About half the years it doesn't run at all, and when it does, the season for paddling is roughly 30 days around May 31.

    When it escapes McPhee Reservoir, the Dolores cuts a series of canyons: Ponderosa Gorge, Little Glen Canyon, Slickrock Canyon, Paradox and Mesa Canyons, and Gateway Canyon. Ponderosa Gorge has serious whitewater. Except for famed Snaggletooth Rapid, it can be run in whitewater open boats, but having one's gear in a support raft makes it much safer. The last canyon, Gateway, is a bit easier but still has some rapids that are very difficult in a gear laden canoe. Paradox and Mesa canyons are roadside runs, attractive but less favored.

    Slickrock Canyon is a 36 mile run from a BLM access in Big Gypsum Valley to a BLM takeout upstream of Bedrock. The stream gradient is a modest 10 feet per mile, and while rapids are fairly frequent, they are mostly straightforward. Three used to be rated class 3, but while they may challenge loaded rafts, they are more easily threaded by canoes.

    Here's the Slickrock run from outer space. Note the severe meanders. You'll have a strong tendency to see rivers and streams as raised above the surrounding surface, rather than appearing incised into it.

    mapdolores by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here in early June 1995, I'm tying gear into the boat at the Big Gypsum Valley access. Because the Dolores runs through salt deposits, is very silty, and has no reliable freshwater tributaries, one cannot treat the water. I was planning for two nights on the river, and carried a generous water supply in plastic bottles, held in Nylon net bags.

    doloresscn1 by ezwater, on Flickr

    There is no advance permit required for this river, which makes it much easier to run on the spur of the moment. But the BLM requires one to sign in, and to carry a fire pan, and a strainer for food particles. This was funny in my case, because I did not plan on cooking at all. I had three day's supply of granola, trail mix, and beef jerky. But in case a ranger inspected my load, I had an aluminum turkey roasting pan for firepan, and a large kitchen strainer. I carried a welding rod container to meet the secure feces transport requirement. The rules on these desert rivers are that you pee in the river, but take all feces back to civilization.

    It was early afternoon when I was able to put on the river. Flow was 800cfs, just enough that rafts could still manage it. Canoes can run the Dolores down to half that flow, or less. My wife was still there to get pictures of the first mile of my progress, but she planned to drive to Montrose to visit her aged cousin. She would pick me up at Bedrock in two days.

    doloresscn3 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The land rising around the river.

    doloresscn7 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Entering Slickrock Canyon

    doloresscn11 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn15 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn18 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn23 by ezwater, on Flickr

    A rapid near the mouth of Bull Canyon. I didn't know the gal in the green canoe, but through a chance internet contact, I was able to send her this picture.

    doloresscn25 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Nearing a spot where the river cuts entirely under overhanging sandstone.

    doloresscn29 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn40 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here I've parked under the overhang, with 800 cfs running quietly below the wall.

    doloresscn34 by ezwater, on Flickr

    As I rested, a party passed.

    doloresscn35 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Out in the open, looking above the overhang.

    doloresscn37 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The river coming back out into the open.

    doloresscn38 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn45 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn74 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Desrt varnish, seen in sandstone canyons everywhere. They don't seem settled on a cause for it.

    doloresscn49 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn52 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn54 by ezwater, on Flickr

    What falls from the rim sometimes lands edge on and sticks.

    doloresscn55 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn60 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn64 by ezwater, on Flickr

    With a swift current, I was making good time. I hoped to cover at least 12 miles before camp.

    doloresscn72 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Remember the profile of that high ridge, because later we'll see it from the other side, again from the water.

    doloresscn70 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here, from space, you can see the meanders through which I'm passing. The neck of the three leafed clover is where the previous photo was taken. We have 3 miles of river separated by less than a quarter mile. We'll see both sides of the next meander neck also.

    doloresscn1.5 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I was a bit lost at the time, because I was trying to follow progress on the map based on turns.

    doloresscn67 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn68 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I'd been hoping to camp in or near a particular rock overhang called The Grotto, but I gave up and camped amongst the scrub up near the rapid you see in the back center. I decided to hike downstream before setting up camp.

    doloresscn78 by ezwater, on Flickr

    When I got up high and looked around the bend, there was the Grotto camp. In the second picture you can see the tents more clearly.

    doloresscn76 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn77 by ezwater, on Flickr

    If you've been imagining desert heat all this time, relax. The day had been cool and fresh. I spent the evening munching granola, drinking one of my two beers, and soaking up the scenery in the transition to moonlight. Below, we're back on the river on a splendid morning.

    doloresscn81 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's the Grotto camp from water level. The campers got out before me.

    doloresscn82 by ezwater, on Flickr

    "The Notch" at the upside of another meander neck.

    doloresscn86 by ezwater, on Flickr

    And here's the downside of the big three-leaf-clover meander.

    doloresscn90 by ezwater, on Flickr

    A word about the sandstone. When it's markedly layered and broken, it was laid down in an ancient sea. When it's rather smooth and broad-faced, it was laid down as ancient sand dunes. Sometimes the wind blown layers can be seen slanting in the rock.
    The weather's starting to turn. The Notch marks the downstream side of the meander.

    doloresscn93 by ezwater, on Flickr

    It was starting to rain as I approached Spring Creek. I tried, but not hard enough, to find a place to get out and scout Spring Creek Rapid. I didn't like running the usual route next to the left wall, because I couldn't see if it was clear. So I tried to thread left center, and got my underside thumped good for my troubles.

    doloresscn100 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here the rain's stopped and so have I.

    doloresscn103 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn113 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here I've stopped at Coyote Gulch, the largest tributary to the Dolores in Slickrock Canyon. Coyote Gulch runs fairly level, so those equipped to spend a day or two hiking can walk all the way to the Utah border.

    doloresscn114 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The mouth of Coyote GUlch.

    doloresscn117 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Often one sees little horizon lines on the water, and the exact route is seen only on getting near the lip.

    doloresscn121 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Another neck of a tight meander loop, in this case Mule Shoe Bend. I climbed up on the neck to see the river on both sides.

    doloresscn122 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Right after I got back on the water, a ferocious little thunderstorm struck. The wind was so strong that I was almost blown over, but I got to the left bank and held on to shrubs while the storm blew over. The shot below was when I had turned the Mule Shoe bend. Notice how the rain has changed the color of the frozen sand dunes.

    doloresscn125 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking back up toward Mule Shoe Bend. This is the deepest part of Slickrock Canyon.

    doloresscn128 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's the downstream side of the neck of the Muleshoe Meander. Some day the river will cut through and run straighter and faster.

    doloresscn130 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn131 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Having covered almost 20 miles, I've camped for the second night. I'd not seen a single craft on the water all day, but here's the red kayak gang I'd seen at the overhang the afternoon before.

    doloresscn132 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn133 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I did a little hiking around the campsite, but nothing ambitious. Folks often ask why I often canoe entirely alone. What if something happened? My experience is that a tired paddler hiking alone in rocky country is more at risk. I didn't want to end up like the poor fellow who jammed his arm and had to saw it off to save his life. So, I'm conservative whether on the water or on land in these solo outings.

    The night seemed windier and colder, so I zipped all the panels shut in my 3-4 season tent. I drank my second beer and worked at sleeping.

    The next morning was sunny and fresh, but I had a headache. I had only about 7 miles to go to reach the take out, so I didn't want to hurry, and mostly floated along taking pictures and trying to ignore my head.

    doloresscn134 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Here's Bip Rock, a famous landmark. You can see cross-bedded sand layers laid down by ancient winds in its face.

    doloresscn136 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I've just run Corner Rapid, near La Sal Creek. It is described in older sources as a class 3 drop, but at least at this level, there was no maneuvering justifying a class 3 rating, and there was no drop either. I, however, now having a full blown migraine, had to drop on the sand and throw up. Not sure what the BLM wants one to do with vomit. Probably remove the food particles with one's strainer. Anyway, I lay in the shade and rested as my headache receded.

    doloresscn147 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Back on the water, nearing an interesting dome that I can't find on the maps.

    doloresscn150 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking back at the mouth of La Sal Creek.

    doloresscn155 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking east.

    doloresscn158 by ezwater, on Flickr

    S-turn Rapid, another "class 3" that is only just a class 2.

    doloresscn163 by ezwater, on Flickr

    A long class 2 leads past the mouth of Steer Gulch.

    doloresscn170 by ezwater, on Flickr

    doloresscn171 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Loading up. The raft belongs to a couple who had seen me convalescing on the sandbar earlier. They usually canoe, but recently got the raft to give themselves more carrying capacity for multi-day trips. He runs shuttle by hitch hiking, and I gave him a ride about halfway back to Slickrock where they embarked.

    doloresscn174 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The ancient store at Bedrock. You can actually buy useful things there, and sometimes they can help arrange shuttle.

    co03.151 by ezwater, on Flickr
    Last edited by ezwater; 30th-May-2011 at 08:22 PM. Reason: Put rocks back where they belong.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    São Paulo - Brazil


    Five star blog EZ! Can almost hear a beep-beep and a coyote with rocket skates passing nearby.....
    Tony BR
    Past 20 years teaching Biology!
    Next 20 building Canoes!!!

  3. #3
    Crow's Avatar
    Crow is offline こんにちは。私はカラスと私はスコットラ ンドの出身で す。
    Join Date
    May 2009
    Third stone from the sun



    Great trip in an old style Synergy I see.

    Here comes the future and you can't run from it
    If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it

    Crow Trip Log

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA


    Thanks, but honestly, I hit the "Submit Reply" button when I meant to hit "Preview Post," so there's some rough spots. Don't know if I can still edit in that missing picture......

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Excellent stuff. What a place to paddle. I just love the big overhang.

    Sandstone is such a great rock type to travel through. I've wandered a little in Utah, though never had time for anything other than brief potters, as it was with work. I must return. "Did" the Grand Canyon (just the north rim & walking part way down) on a holiday many years ago, but its these "smaller" canyons which appeal more. I've trekked in North Africa through some amazing sandstone features too, fantastic places. I love the fact you feel you can almost see the geology changing as the wind & water acts.
    Paddler,blogger,camper,pyromaniac: Blog: Wilderness is a State of Mind

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Apr 2009
    Downriver from the Bywell bridge over the Tyne


    I am blown away with this blogg, great stuff, thanks for posting? Seen any critters on this trip?

    "Pedal five hundred miles on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature" - Pierre Trudeau

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    manchester, uk

    Default Superb

    Simply Stunning
    "Access all areas, Under the radar"

  8. #8



    Did you take your rolled up newspapers?

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Apr 2008


    Fantastic trip Ez thanks for posting

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Atlanta, Georgia, USA

    Default Errata.....

    My Slickrock Canyon run was in 2005, not 1995. You might have guessed from our shuttle car, not on the market until 2000. Here's our oldest Honda, in 1994, and I'm setting off to run a few miles of the Dolores, from the old mining town of Rico, 8820 feet, down to the water gauge at 8420 feet.

    94co30 by ezwater, on Flickr

    The upper Dolores drops at a peppy average 50 feet per mile, but at most water levels the difficulty doesn't rise above class 2. For any that are confused, my boat is a decked canoe, or c-1, not a kayak.

    94co32 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Looking north toward Rico.

    94co32.1 by ezwater, on Flickr

    It was often easier to park in the shallows than on the bank.

    94co32.2 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Parts of the Dolores are good trout fishing, such as this section and the upper part of Ponderosa Gorge. I didn't realise it at the time, but these ledges are artificial, constructed by fishermen to improve trout habitat and fishing.

    94co32.3 by ezwater, on Flickr

    Most of the Dolores runs through sedimentary strata, but on this section below Rico is a short canyon created by porphyry, a fine volcanic rock sometimes associated with mineral deposits. Rico has seen silver mining, but now mining activity focuses on molybdenum. The porphyry is the tan rock in the cliff.

    94co32.4 by ezwater, on Flickr

    I've parked the boat downstream on the right in order to photograph the rest of the canyon. Rapids were just a little more difficult here, but my biggest challenge came when, rounding a tight bend, I found a tree down across the entire river, and had to scramble up the bank to portage. A highway runs close to the river all the way from Rico down to the town of Dolores, so they would have had less difficulty locating my body.

    94co32.6 by ezwater, on Flickr

    So, that was a wonderful little high altitude run on the Dolores. Compared to this section up around 8600 feet, my Slickrock Canyon run was from 5200 feet at the Gypsum Valley put in down to about 4900 feet at the take out. Slickrock Canyon's water gradient is only 10 feet per mile. The lower altitude is partly responsible for the desert conditions in Slickrock Canyon.

    I have roots, or at least a root, in this area, because one of my grandmothers was born in Sawpit, Colorado, downstream from the mining town of Telluride, along the San Miguel River. The San Miguel is similar to the Dolores, and they join below Slickrock Canyon and the Paradox Valley. The San Miguel has no large dams or reservoirs, and so unlike the Dolores, runs at natural levels through the summer. I've run a section of the middle San Miguel. Its steadier flow means that the lower Dolores is runnable a month or more longer than Ponderosa Gorge and Slickrock Canyon.

    Someone asked if I saw any particular animals in Slickrock Canyon. No, I didn't, but bighorn sheep are sometimes seen in Ponderosa and Slickrock. There are bobcats, racoons, mule deer (which I've seen on the San Juan) mountain lions (rare), and elk wintering in Ponderosa Gorge. Black bears may be seen up there, too.
    Otters were once seen on the Dolores, but were wiped out both by trapping and by mining effluent. Recently they have been reintroduced, and are doing well, subsisting more on crustaceans than on fish.

    Mining up and down the Dolores ruined much of the fishery in the past, and harmed other wild creatures also. In addition to silver, and some gold, in the Telluride-Rico area, radium ore (pitchblend) was mined near Slickrock Canyon, then vanadium, and then uranium. The US has a large uranium reserve east of the Dolores, and mining may resume any time demand picks up. It would be hard to think of any good that mining has ever done for rivers or wild lands.

    One sad mining tale concerns an engineer who sought to bring water to placer gold deposits on the east side of the middle Dolores, below the San Miguel. There was no way to pump water from the river, so they built a wooden flume down the east side of the canyon from the San Miguel, along the Dolores to the mining site. But when they sought to use the water to separate the gold from the smashed rock, the gold particles were so small that they would not fall out under the influence of gravity. The mining engineer shot himself.

    co03.145 by ezwater, on Flickr
    The river here is the San Miguel, close to the Dolores junction.

    Enough errata for now.......

    (Wavecloud asked if I brought along newspaper for my pants. No, instead I brought large coffee filters. One places some filters like doilies on the ground, and then one makes a deposit on the filters. Everything is then gathered up and inserted carefully into the welding tube rod holder [seals tight, waterproof, sturdy] for transport back to civilization. Wavecloud will be pleased to learn that it arrived in Atlanta in good condition.)
    Last edited by ezwater; 1st-June-2011 at 01:00 AM. Reason: scat singing.

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Nov 2009
    Tasmania, Australia


    Great bloggs ezwater. I'd never have guessed you were a two pot screamer. Migraines really do suck, don't they.

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Jul 2008


    Nice contrast to the desert there, with your "high altitude" paddling.

    Just lost a good 15 minutes viewing the satellite imagery on google maps. That part of the world is amazing, one of those places where the world looks unfinished. As it is!
    Paddler,blogger,camper,pyromaniac: Blog: Wilderness is a State of Mind

    Paddle Points - where to paddle

  13. #13
    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Newtownards, Northern Ireland.

    Default Lunar scenery

    Great blogg of a great trip.

    That's another world completely, i love the wild scenery, the unpredictable water levels, the grade 2 moving water over so many miles. I'd love to try it, very different to the soft green of Ireland.


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