This Colorado Wilderness Area is Totally Underrated
It would be easy to drive right past the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness area along I-70 near the border of Utah and Colorado. After all, it’s only an hour and a half from Moab, and the nearest town, Fruita, is better known as a mountain biking destination and for its access to Colorado National Monument than as a river-tripping or hiking hub. Actually, that’s one of the best things about the 75,439 acres of pinyon-juniper woodland, sandstone cliffs, Colorado River access, and abundant natural and human history that lies within the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area—the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness offers all the adventure you could want, without having to fight for a parking space at the trailhead. Now that we’ve got your attention, here’s what you need to know about one of the Western Slope’s best-kept secrets.
5 Reasons to Visit Ruby Horsethief Canyon & the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness
1) Natural arches, minus the crowds
According to the Bureau of Land Management, the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness boasts the second-highest concentration of natural arches in the United States, right after Utah’s Arches National Park. These incredible sandstone formations are a result of wind and water erosion over millions of years.
A hike to Rattlesnake Canyon from the Pollock Bench Trailhead is a strenuous but rewarding way to see the most prominent of the area’s 35 known specimens. The hike is a little over 13 miles round-trip (if you have a 4WD vehicle, you can shorten the hike by accessing it from the Black Ridge Road; several natural arches are also accessible from the river). Those who are so inclined can scramble atop of the 150-foot-tall Rattlesnake formation, accessed from the adjacent sandstone cliff. Best of all, unlike Arches National Park, there’s no entrance fee, and you won’t be stuck waiting in line to park or hike.
2) An amazing array of flora & fauna
As the name “Rattlesnake Canyon” implies, there are snakes galore in the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness, along with several species of lizards. The area is also home to deer, mountain lions, and desert bighorns, the latter of which are often spotted both from the trail and from the Colorado River. In the sky, golden and bald eagles soar overhead to complete the picture-perfect view.
The desert might seem inhospitable at first glance, but the Black Ridge Canyon area also plays host to a surprisingly diverse array of plant life. A late spring or early summer trip will earn you an encounter with the desert in bloom—you’ll be amazed at how many different colored flowers these cacti are capable of producing.
3) Top-notch campsites
If there’s one thing the outlaws of the Old West knew how to do, it was pick a secluded campsite. Hopefully your trip doesn’t necessitate hiding out from the authorities—try not to steal any horses—but you’ll still get to enjoy the gorgeous campsites. Hike-in dispersed campsites atop the entrada sandstone cliffs of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area offer sweeping views of the Colorado Plateau. At the bottom of those cliffs, the designated campsites along the Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River feel wild and remote, despite most requiring only a short float to reach.
4) Travel through time
This area is rich in natural and human history, so there’s an epic story around just about every bend in the river. The otherworldly Black Rocks section of Ruby Horsethief Canyon contains 1.7-billion-year-old Vishnu schist (also exposed farther downstream in Grand Canyon), and the Wingate sandstone spires of Mee Canyon make an excellent backdrop for a lunchtime hike. Father along the Colorado River in Westwater Canyon, there’s an unconformity, a geological term for a giant cross-section that shows the canyon’s history, one layer at a time.
In the more recent past, this area is the ancestral land of the Ute people, evidenced by petroglyphs near McDonald Creek in Ruby Horsethief Canyon, and other artifacts occasionally appear in washes after a flash flood.
5) A float for every taste
There’s no better way to fully immerse yourself in the landscape than by floating through it, and like everything else about the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness, the river tripping here offers a huge variety. The 25-mile Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River is primarily flatwater and presents a perfect opportunity to try out a SUP or simply stretch out and enjoy the towering canyon walls, abundant wildlife, and maybe wave to a California Zephyr train. Near the end of this scenic canyon, keep an eye out for white paint on the cliffs along river right, indicating the Colorado-Utah border.
Continuing downstream, things pick up speed in Westwater Canyon, a 17-mile stretch of Colorado River rafting that blends fun, bouncy riffles with invigorating Class III and IV whitewater. While 1-day Westwater Canyon rafting trips are common, combining the calmer Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River in the Black Ridge Canyon Wilderness with Westwater Canyon is a great excuse to extend the trip into several days of interesting side hikes and sightseeing, followed by an adrenaline infusion at the end of the trip.
Most paddlers take out at Cisco, and while it’s always hard to leave the river behind, this takeout is conveniently just an hour from Moab, where it’s easy to keep the adventure going.
Please remember to recreate responsibly & Leave No Trace.
Photos: Arches in the McInnis National Conservation Area – BLM-Colorado/Bob Wick; Ruby Horsethief Canyon section of the Colorado River – BLM-Colorado/Bob Wick; Campsite along the Colorado River – Rob Aseltine; Petroglyphs near Westwater Canyon – Rob Aseltine; Westwater Canyon rafting and paddleboarding – Rob Aseltine