Trip to the Rockies – Escalante Canyon

September 24, 2020 ~ As part of our 3-week road trip through the Rocky Mountains, we spent some time exploring the Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area (NCA), in western Colorado. In my entire childhood as a Coloradoan, I had not visited this area, so it was a new landscape, and held an exciting surprise.

The Dominguez-Escalante NCA is a rugged and remote landscape of canyons, plateaus, tumbled boulders the size of houses, weather-blasted pinon pines, scrub brush and cactus. It is named for Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, two Spanish Franciscan missionaries who explored and mapped a giant circle through what would eventually become four states, searching for a trade route from Sante Fe NM, west to California.

Dominquez-Escalante National Conservation Area map

Many visit the NCA in order to raft the Gunnison River, along the NCA’s northeast border, but we had a different goal in mind. We were particularly interested in “The Potholes”, a primitive recreational area along Escalante Creek, a small tributary of the Gunnison River (the same river that rockets through the bottom of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison – see red arrow in the top map). Because Colorado has been so dry this year, we weren’t sure we would see any water, but, if we did, we hoped it would attract a bird or two for us.

Scoured, loose and treacherous cliffs of the Escalante Canyon along Escalante Creek, a tributary of the Gunnison River
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1600 sec. f/11 ISO 2500

 The rocky one-lane gravel road took us over the Gunnison River, now hardly more than a shallow stream meandering through the desert landscape, without a hint of the half-mile deep black canyon it had come from, a short 20 miles to the east.

Three Desert Bighorn Sheep rams in the back row, with five ewes
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2500 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

We trundled up over a little rise, then back down to the canyon bottom. There, in a farmer’s small cultivated field, we found a small group of bighorn sheep! I had seen one or two individual bighorns throughout my years growing up in Colorado, but never a herd of them, and never so close to the road. These are Desert Bighorn Sheep, Ovis canadensis nelsoni, as distinguished from the larger Rocky Mountain Bighorns normally seen at the higher elevations in the Rockies and eastward into the Dakotas, and the smaller Peninsular Bighorn Sheep in California. The Desert Bighorns are a sub-species of bighorn sheep that are specially adapted for the arid desert conditions.

We quickly bailed out of the car, smart phones and cameras raised. The bighorns were grazing on the sparse alfalfa left in the field after an early mowing. The flock was a mixture of mature rams and ewes, and perhaps some yearlings. Normally, rams and ewes congregate in separate herds, but during the mating season, they are seen together. We watched as an older ram approached a younger one, head up and chest out, sending him cantering off to the edge of the group. And then a small quiet voice behind me said, “If you turn around very slowly… and look uphill…”. Oh. My. Word. There were more animals making their careful way down the rocky cliffside toward the green pasture, and they would pass right in front of me.

Desert Bighorn Sheep, adult male, checking us out
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

The horns of a mature ram can curl around in a full circle, while the horns of the ewes are more gently curved, rarely making even a half circle. This was a ram, poised on a strategic rock on the steep hill above me, taking stock of our position in the road, and his flock on the far side of the road. The pattern of rings in a ram’s horns can be used to determine his age (but the results are indeterminate for ewes).

Jogging down the rocky slope
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

He loped decisively down the hill, with complete sure-footed ease.

Ram brooming his horns in the brush
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

And then, he stopped right in front of me on the side of the road closest to the pasture, and began buffeting this little bush from side-to-side with his horns. This is called “brooming”. The bush didn’t suffer at all; he generated a healthy dust cloud, then raised his freshly polished horns for his portrait. Brooming blunts the tips of the horns, preventing them from extending too far and becoming a nuisance to grazing and/or peripheral vision. But I also noticed that he has two cuts on his forehead, probably from battering contests with other rams, and brooming may have soothed the itchy healing skin. The wear on the tips of their horns can also be caused when the animals use their horns to mash prickly-pear cactus, so that they can eat the juicy interior without getting stabbed by the spines.

Did you notice the fancy little “cowlick” circling in the fur along his ribcage? Each mature animal I saw had one, each one in a slightly different position. I believe this is a pattern of hair growth, not just a left-over grooming effect.

Ram with itchy forehead
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

At this point, my 500mm lens was far too long – I could not fit him in the frame, and I couldn’t step backward for fear of tripping on the uneven road, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the animals long enough to switch lenses. What a wonderful problem to have!

A very handsome young fellow!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

I love his orange eyes, with rectangular pupils. Prey animals such as goats, deer, horses and these sheep have horizontal-slit pupils because it gives them better wide-field and peripheral vision than round pupils would, and potentially, because it reduces glare from the sky, also improving their vision, the better to see and avoid any predators.

He lifted one foot, then put it deliberately back in place. After a few moments of staring me down, and perhaps considering the advisability of charging me, he stepped with sure-footed ease through the specially-constructed fence opening, down into the pasture.

Another ram and ewe quickly followed down the hill. The Conserve Nature website says that their sure-footed stance comes from their “unique concave elastic hooves”; unlike a horse’s hooves, the sides of the bighorn sheep hooves are not rigid, they are bendy, allowing the greatest surface contact between the rubbery bottoms of their feet and the rocky terrain. It was clear that they had no fear of the loose sharp-edged rocks on the slope.

Desert Bighorn Sheep ram, stepping confidently down the hill
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 1000

At least two of the rams and one of the ewes were wearing tracking collars. Conservation efforts to protect the population of Desert Bighorns which had dwindled to around 8000 animals in the 1960’s have been successful, resulting in a current population of over 20,000 (efforts for the Peninsular Bighorns have not been as successful). Protective measures include preserving escape routes (e.g., providing gaps in fences between water and the high cliff tops to which the bighorns can run to escape predators), and separating bighorns from domestic sheep which carry diseases including a type of pneumonia that is fatal to the bighorns.

Carved sandstone river bottom at the Potholes, in Escalante Canyon
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1600 sec. f/11 ISO 2500

And what of the Potholes? Well, we did eventually get there. We continued bumping down the rocky gravel track until we found the primitive picnic site on a level place well below the soaring rock cliffs, yet still 50 feet above the bottom. The rushing spring runoff water falls over rock ledges creating hydraulics that etch these smooth curved forms from the sandstone base of the canyon, creating a swirling design of intersecting bowls. Warning signs indicate that the spring currents and hydraulics are very strong and deadly, while the autumn water is hazy green from runoff, giving poor visibility to the bottom. A list of tourists who’ve lost their lives diving into these waters is prominently displayed.

Closeup of the Potholes, formed by water hydraulics over eons
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR
1/1600 sec. f/11 ISO 2500

When the road finally grew too rough for our vehicle, we turned around and returned to civilization, taking one last look at the herd of bighorns, now 22-24 animals strong, still placidly feeding in the pasture… a peaceful end to a delightful excursion.

8 thoughts on “Trip to the Rockies – Escalante Canyon”

  1. Love the hoodoos and the free-standing spire to the left side of the huge cliff. Did you see the face? It looks like it was made by angry men from Mars- a primitive Mt Rushmore!
    Desert Bighorn! Gorgeous! Reading your description of the encounter made me nervous- I had to keep reminding myself that you were alive- you didn’t get ‘rammed’ into oblivion, as you did create this wonderful photo-story. Truly a joy to explore every crisp detail!

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    1. Heh – you are correct, it LOOKS like we took some risks. But remember that my big 500mm lens brings the subject much, much closer than it is in real life, so while the animals were clearly aware of our presence, they weren’t feeling threatened (or defensive) about us.

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