Temple Canyon

A green metal gate blocks the way forward. The chain holding the gate closed has a padlock affixed to it. I’m not sure what this means. Standing there for a minute or two, I consider the possibilities. A spirit of adventure takes over. Leaning my Pacerpoles against the fence, I clamber over, my overnight pack clinging to my back like a monkey.

The landscape here is strangely beautiful.  Cactus glow in the morning light as if lit from within. Soon I am relearning some of the lessons of the desert.  Never sit down without checking what you’ll be sitting on.  Watch where you put your hands and feet.  Take your eye out of the viewfinder and check around when advancing on your photographic subject.

All plant life here seems able to defend itself. I pull cactus spines out my hands, feet and legs, then walk on.

The day heats up as the sun rises higher in the sky and reflects off the rock walls of the canyon. Finding a shaded alcove by the side of Grape Creek, I pause for a while to drink in the coolness.

Scanning the creek for a crossing, I choose a line and plunge in, using my trekking poles for balance. The current pulls against my legs as I carefully navigate around the boulders, holes, and green slime on the creek bed.

Once on the other side, I detect a path that leads steeply up a canyon wall.  Despite the heat, the exertion feels good. It’s been too long since I’ve had an overnight pack on my back.

High above the creek, something feels off.  A look across  the canyon reveals a straight line that looks like an old narrow-gauge railroad grade. A map check confirms that that’s where the trail is. I hike back down to the bottom of the canyon and begin again.

Temple Canyon winds like a serpent between steep rock walls. The old railroad grade climbs and clings to the right side of the canyon. Lizards dart from rock to rock in the stillness and heat of the noonday sun.  Standing still, the only thing I can hear is the sound of water cascading over rocks in the creek far below.

The canyon narrows, and the railroad grade ends. I pick my way down toward Grape Creek. Steep rock walls on either side of the creek seem to block further passage. This must be the part of the canyon that is referred to as The Tights.  There is something eerily enchanting about this place. Perhaps something forbidding as well. While I’m resting in the shade of a damp canyon wall, a cloud passes over the sun. A shiver runs through my body.

There is no way forward but through the creek, so I wade in.  Picking up a hint of a trail, I follow it through brush and squeeze between some boulders. Another cold creek crossing. Making my way forward, I come to a cliff and have to cross Grape Creek yet again.

Standing there thinking that this is as far as I can go, I notice a bit of trail leading up away from the creek. I follow it.

A barbed wire fence blocks my way. At the end of it, abutting a canyon wall is another green metal gate. This one, I realize, is meant to block cattle from becoming lost and hurt in the canyon. I step through the gate and wrap the chain back around the post.

The landscape changes dramatically. Here Grape Creek runs through a wide, gentle valley. This is cattle country. Desiccated cow pies are scattered into the distance. A skeleton lies there bleaching in the midday sun. A little farther up the creek is a dead cow. How she died is a mystery to me. There is something odd in the shape of her jaw. Scavengers seem to have just left her alone.

Crossing the creek again, I hike on. Clouds arise here and there and a bit of a breeze, providing relief from the heat.  Sagebrush and cactus dot the sandy terrain. I poke into a side canyon, then return to the creek.

After a while, I stop and look back. Something is drawing me back toward The Tights  I turn around and start walking back across the desert.

A couple of creek crossings later, I’m passing the dead cow and the skeleton, the cattle gate, and the rock gates of The Tights. This part of the canyon is fascinating to me, and I spend the rest of the afternoon exploring it.

Evening approaches.  I go back through the cattle gate, cross Grape Creek and set up my shelter near a dry wash a ways up from the creek. After eating dinner and hanging my food bag from a tall juniper, I sit outside the shelter and scan the open landscape as the last bit of light drains from the day.

It’s a clear, still night that turns colder as morning approaches  Exiting the open door of my shelter, I breathe in the dust and juniper and watch the constellations glimmer in the naked black sky.

The stars fade. The silhouette of a canyon rim starts to take shape in the murky light. Wearing all my clothes, I head back to The Tights.

The first stream crossing is icy cold, and the others are no better.  With no sun to warm them between crossings, my feet remain numb.  Still, there is an undeniable magic in this place in the predawn light.  Scampering up and down, I try to take it all in.

A water ouzel flies low up Grape Creek, perches on a boulder, bobs up and down and then flies under a waterfall. A minute later, she emerges, bobs a few more times on a wet rock, then disappears upstream.

Hunger drives me back to camp, and I reach my shelter just as the sun emerges over the eastern canyon wall.  Sitting just inside my shelter, I peel off cold, wet socks and trail runners and let the sweet warmth of the new sun bring life back to my frozen feet.

After a leisurely breakfast, I pack up camp, cross the creek, and pass through The Tights one last time.

This last day of March is unseasonably warm, and soon I’m hiking back down the canyon dressed in just a thin nylon shirt and pants.

Rounding a bend in the trail, I come face to face with a large mule deer. She stares at me wild-eyed, then bounds up the steep, rocky slope behind her. Her smaller companions flee in a panic down the trail before me.

Shadows retreat. Rocks walls shimmer in the heat of the sun. Cactus spines glow. Lizards skitter across boulders. Grape Creek flows on.


 During the Temple Canyon trip, I had plenty of time to experiment with my backpacking tripod (the Giottos 8000) and discover the pros and cons. Since then, I’ve made modifications that both increase function and drop weight. Find out how in the next Dondo Outdoors post.

8 thoughts on “Temple Canyon

  1. Hey, Pete, great to hear from you. Yeah, that’s the one. The trailhead is about seven miles out of Canon City. It’s a good early season destination because the elevation is only 6,000′ to 7,000′. My impression is that the canyon doesn’t see that many visitors.

  2. Nice report! I did the same exact hike last November. I remember negotiating “The Tights” and even the same dead cow that you came across. It is a unique area that I hope someday receives the full wilderness status that it deserves. Your report has me wondering if I may have accidentally camped in the State land. My map indicated the State land only went about a mile upstream of the TH, not all the way up to the head of the canyon, and I was certain that I had crossed into BLM land by the time I stopped to camp.

    • Thanks, zydo. When I was researching the Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area, your report kept popping up. It’s actually what inspired me to visit this section myself.

      The map I was using was an older USGS topo that didn’t show the state wildlife land, so I assumed that it stretched from the sign to the barbed wire fence. Since your map shows the boundaries, I think that you really did camp in BLM land. This is good info for anyone wanting to visit Temple Canyon.

      I’ve added your blog to my Google Reader list and am looking forward to reading your future reports.

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