Rattlesnake ArchesDate: 10/31/2011
Miles: Approx. 5.5 round trip, 6.5 if you include the overlook trail
Time: 4.5 hours
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 39° 8.231’N , 108° 50.005’W
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The Rattlesnake Arches Trail is located within the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area which is part of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness. Rattlesnake Canyon is home to the second largest concentration of natural arches in the nation and possibly the world. The first being Arches National Park in Utah. Scenery, solitude and the opportunity for wildlife viewing including big horn sheep, deer, mountain lion and various other critters is on the menu for this trail.
There are three ways to access the trail, one being from the Pollock Bench trail head, the next is from a point on the Colorado River and the third is from the Black Ridge Road. This post describes the access from the Black Ridge Road.
To access the trail from Grand Junction Colorado you need to begin by traveling west to Fruita Colorado. Once in Fruita travel south on Highway 340 or Broadway Road until you reach the entrance to the Colorado National Monument. You can tell them at the station that you are traveling to Rattlesnake Arches and they will normally waive the entrance fee to the monument. I would recommend paying the $10 entrance fee so you have the opportunity to enjoy the monument a little also. The fee is good for 7 consecutive days so you can always come back later.
Once you enter the monument continue to travel for about 11 miles until you come to 16.5 Road which is also the Glade Park Store turn off. Immediately after turning off of RimRock Drive and onto 16.5 road you will see the Black Ridge Access Road on your right.
Half the fun of this hike is getting to the trail head. The first couple miles of the road is a little rocky in spots. The road climbs up the side of Black Ridge and heads towards the group of radio towers up at the highest point. Most of this section of road is carved out of Bentonite Clay which can get extremely slick with even the lightest sprinkle of rain. If the weather is too bad the BLM can close the road completely. Make sure you plan your hike only if you’re sure the weather is going to cooperate.
Once you get about ¾ to the top you will come to a “T”. Turning left will take you to the Upper Access road which is only open from April 15th to August 14th. Turning right will lead you to the Lower Access road which is open from August 15th to February 14th. Both roads are closed from February 15th to April14th. We obviously took the lower road. The main road to the trail head is fairly well marked so pay attention to the small signs and you will be fine. The trail head is located about 10 miles farther down the road. The first eight or so miles varied between slightly rocky areas with intermittent smooth meadows. This section could easily be navigated with pretty much any vehicle with slightly more clearance than the family sedan. The road becomes more fun once you pass the gate where the upper access road connects to the lower road. For about the last two miles you will want to make sure you have something a little more robust than the average soccer mom SUV. There are some decent boulders, hills, erosion and possible mud that you need to navigate around, over or through. Overall though pretty much any stock 4-wheel drive pickup or jeep type vehicle should not have much of a problem. I went the whole way in 2-wheel drive.
The trail head is located at the end of the road. The trail starts by dropping down from the first mesa onto a lower portion. After walking about .5 miles you will come to a sign indicating that turning right will lead you to the lower trail and left will take you on a .5 mile one way trail to the Rainbow Arch overlook which is the last arch on the lower trail. This upper overlook trail is worth the extra mile as the views are great and you can see the arches from a totally different perspective.
Once we checked out the overlook we headed back to the sign and headed down to the lower trail. The trail drops over the edge of the cliff via an old rock slide looking area. The trail is pretty steep here in areas and can be rather slick with gravel. We took our four and seven year olds down it many years ago and they didn’t have any problems, you just need to be very careful.
In about a quarter mile farther down you will come to another sign indicating a right turn will take you to the Pollock Bench Trail about 5 hard miles away and a left turn will lead you to the arches. Unless you are prepped for a long hard hike, turn left to the arches.
Once down from the top, the trail levels off and travels along the base of the cliffs and along a small bench. The best views from the second sign until you reach the end of the mesa are of the valley below, the first arches are located on your left and facing west shortly after rounding the corner. The difference between these arches and the ones in Arches National Park is that Rattlesnake Canyon arches are formed horizontally compared to Arches NP arches that are formed in a vertical manner. This phenomenon makes this area all the more unique.
From the second sign the trail is about 2.2 miles or so until you come to the “end of the trail”. There is a sign indicating when you have reached the end. From here you have the option of either climbing up through the last arch and connecting to the overlook trail and shaving about a mile or so off of your hike or turn around and go back the way you came. Looking at the hand holds carved out of the sandstone to assist in the climb up and the slope of the sandstone you might be tempted to climb through the arch. Things look a lot different from the ground than they do when you’re actually on them. Unless you are an experienced rock climber I would recommend going back the way you came. Going back you get a little different perspective on things and we noticed more arches we missed coming up.
Overall this is a great hike. I rated it moderate only because the return trip can be a little rough on the body coming up from the lower sections to the trail head. The remoteness of the area and the difficulty of accessing it make for a great day. Although the name is a little concerning, the chances of seeing a rattlesnake in this area are really no greater than anywhere else around here. I have heard that the name was actually given to it because it looked like a snake on the map. True or not, I don’t know. Don’t let the name or the road in keep you from visiting this great area.