Road Tripping: Canyon Curiosities

A bit less than an hour north of Montrose on US-50 and just south of Grand Junction, at the eastern end of CO-141, sits the village of Whitewater. Unless you have a good reason to turn there, it’s the sort of place that you’d normally drive right through without a second thought. But it happens that, beyond where the turn-off will take you, there are reasons. (Where it’ll take you is the long way to either Moab or Telluride, among other places.) Those reasons are at least twofold, one a geological curiosity and the other a curious episode of historical folly.

Southwest from Whitewater, CO-141 first takes you partway up the Uncompahgre Plateau into Unaweep Canyon, which is the curiosity. This is because Unaweep Canyon is a geological anomaly, in the sense that two streams flow out of it, one at each end. Canyons normally drain in only one direction.

Westbound, after Cactus Park you’ll enter the canyon’s mouth and follow East Creek gently upward to its headwaters at about milepost 135, where there’s an almost unnoticeable crest – the Unaweep Divide. There’s no sign (or at least there wasn’t when we drove through) and it’s quite unassuming. Over the crest lie the headwaters of West Creek, which the highway follows down to Unaweep Canyon’s western mouth at the hamlet of Gateway on the Dolores River.

This canyon with two mouths is unique in Colorado and probably North America. The geology of it is thought to be related to a landslide in ancient times that dammed what is now the Gunnison River, which used to flow through the canyon and join the Dolores at about Gateway. Eventually this filled most of the canyon with Lake Unaweep, which eventually spilled down eastward past Cactus Park and into what is now the Gunnison Valley. The river then abandoned Unaweep Canyon, and subsequent erosion by the streams up there created the present-day curiosity. There really isn’t a lot to see, but it’s always interesting to explore unique geographies even if they’re subtle.

At Gateway, CO-141 turns toward the south, up the Dolores River’s lovely valley. This is the typical winding, gently sloping canyon cut into sandstone, with sheer, rust-colored walls rising up to the plateau above. It’s about fifty miles after the Unaweep Divide that you come upon another curiosity, this one man-made. There’s even a pull-off by the river with a nice overlook to allow a good view of it.

What’s called the Hanging Flume was built by gold miners in the late nineteenth century. Essentially a wooden irrigation ditch attached to the side of a cliff with long, iron rods drilled into the rock, it’s almost gone now due to vandalism and poaching of much of the wood. Still, the highway pull-off provides a panoramic view of an impressive, early feat of engineering – it’s especially impressive considering that it extended for some eight miles along, and above, the Dolores River. It operated for only three years, and the placer mining it was built for didn’t yield any gold to speak of, so the considerable investment in its construction was essentially wasted. But like many other remnants of early Colorado’s extractive ventures, it provides an interesting glimpse into the past and the folly of gold fever.

After the flume pull-off, CO-141 continues to Naturita, just before which is the turnoff onto CO-90 westbound. This morphs into UT-46 at the Utah state line and then intersects US-191 about twenty miles south of Moab. After skirting the southern fringe of the Paradox Valley, CO-90 climbs and then follows La Sal Creek for several miles into the mountains of the same name. This steep canyon is the last before the high desert of the Colorado Plateau in eastern Utah, into which the Colorado and Green Rivers have cut the features of Canyonlands National Park.

Sticking with CO-141 through Naturita offers choices. CO-97 northward takes you quickly to Nucla and no farther. CO-141 eventually takes you to Dove Creek, northwest of Cortez, after sixty miles of nothing much but slickrock. But about a mile east of Naturita, CO-145 offers a route through Norwood to the San Miguel Valley and Telluride.

The contrast between the sandstone canyon of the Dolores and the ski-country mountains of Telluride makes this choice a true Colorado experience.

Howard Hanson’s “Road Tripping” offers twice-monthly observations about exploring Colorado and the southwest. Comments to roadtripper80517@gmail.com are most welcome.

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About Pep Dekekr

Pep loves Estes Park, he lives here with his family and hopes to bring people to Estes Park and Estes Park to the people. Along with his wife Paige, they own EstesPark.com.

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