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Lower Knowles Canyon via McDonald Creek

Canyons of the Black Ridge Wilderness
Saturday, April 11, 2020

Ever since Diane and I spent a nice weekend exploring the upper reaches of Knowles Canyon within the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness area a couple of years ago, I have wanted to get back to explore the lower parts of the canyon. Now that I am stuck staying closer to home for the time being, I thought this would be a great time to finally get there to check it out, especially since I figured it would be a good place to practice social distancing, too!

It seems that most people who hike into Knowles Canyon either enter near the top of the canyon, like we did on our previous visit, or hike in from the Knowles Canyon Campsite during a river trip through the Ruby – Horsethief Canyons stretch of the Colorado River. Since I didn’t have the time to backpack in from the top and don’t currently have any plans for a river trip this spring, I needed to find another way. Looking at maps a few years ago I noticed that McDonald Creek joins the Colorado River almost right across from the mouth of Knowles Canyon and it contains a pretty short and easy trail that I’ve hiked a few times before. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to use the packraft I bought last year to cross the river and get into Knowles Canyon, especially since the temperature out is beginning to warm up and spring runoff hasn’t started yet. With my plans all worked out, I left home early on Saturday morning and drove over to the McDonald Creek Trailhead in Rabbit Valley to start the hike.

I took my time hiking down McDonald Creek to the Colorado River so that the temperature outside could warm up a little. I suppose I could have started my hike a little later in the morning, but I wanted to get an early start to avoid meeting anyone else on the trail since I figured this area could get pretty busy on the weekend.

McDonald Creek Trail

Shortly before reaching the mouth of the canyon I stopped to visit the large alcove that Diane and I got engaged in.

Big Alcove

Alcove Ledge

After reaching the mouth of McDonald Creek, I followed the railroad tracks upstream to find a place to access the river with my packraft. While the mouth of Knowles Canyon is almost directly across the river from McDonald Creek, there is a large island in the way, and I thought that if I started crossing upstream of the island it would be a little easier.

Along The Tracks

I found a small spot that looked like it was a game trail that accessed the river, and it was just big enough for me to get down to the river and launch. Of course, as I was setting up my packraft I realized that I forgot to pack the inflatable seat. I guess I need to practice using this boat more so I don’t forget these things in the future, but it’s not something I really needed for this short river crossing today.

Launch Site

I crossed the first channel to reach the large island and then walked my boat around the point of the island so I could cross the main channel of the river. The water was moving quick, but I was able to land on a nice rocky beach just upstream from the Knowles Canyon Campsite. I could see and hear that there was a group camped there, and I wanted to keep my distance and avoid them.

Across The River

Once I was on the other side of the river, I deflated some air from my packraft and tied it off to a tree nearby. I added a few rocks inside to weigh it down, just in case it got really windy out, and then filled it with the river gear that I didn’t need to carry on the hike. I hiked around the group camping nearby, making sure I gave them plenty of room so that they probably never even saw me, and entered the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness area on my way to the mouth of Knowles Canyon.

Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness Sign

I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon hiking through lower Knowles Canyon while enjoying the beautiful canyon scenery.

Middle Knowles Canyon

The hiking was easy in the wash and the scenery was great with big walls and spires all around. It was also nice hiking through a canyon that wasn’t all cowed up for a change!

Water in the Canyon

The Big Wall

The Red Ledge

Canyon Point

Wash Walking

Red Solid Wash

Lower Knowles Canyon

Mushroom Rocks

Leaving Knowles Canyon

After hiking up the canyon about 5 or 6 miles I turned around when I came up to a large spire on the left. I think I was still about 1.5 to 2 miles short of the place where Diane and I stopped when we came down from the upper end of the canyon. I usually don’t like leaving a gap in the middle like that, but this is a place I definitely want to return to again for another overnight trip, so this will give me another good reason to return!

Mouth of Knowles Canyon

When I returned to the mouth of the canyon I saw that the group that had been camped along the river earlier was gone, so I checked out the campsite for future river trip planning. I returned to my packraft and then got it ready to cross the river again.

Following the trail out of Knowles Canyon to the campsite along the river. The mouth of McDonald Creek is across the way, including the the large alcove I had visited earlier in the morning.

Trail To Knowles Camp

Walking along the bank of the Colorado River in Ruby Canyon.

Ruby Canyon

Getting ready to cross the river again. I planned to cross over to that big rocky beach across the way.

Crossing The Colorado

Here I am stopped on the island while I figured out the best way to cross the second channel on the other side.

Island Hopping

When I reached the other side of the river again, I packed up my boat and started hiking up McDonald Creek. Surprisingly, I didn’t pass or even see anyone else on the trail on the way back.

Looking Up

Of course, I stopped to visit a few of the rock art sites in McDonald Creek since I was passing by, so here are a few photos of the pictographs I saw along the way…

The Sun Panel

Pictograph Panel

Unusual Pictographs

When I returned to my Jeep at the trailhead my GPS said I had hiked about 16 miles total, but that included the river crossings, so it was probably a little less than that. As soon as I was back on the road to the interstate there were motorized vehicles buzzing all over Rabbit Valley, but at least I had plenty of solitude in Knowles Canyon for most of the day!

>> Lower Knowles Canyon Photo Gallery


  1. Dianne
    Dianne April 15, 2020

    Oh, Randy. You never disappoint. I need a nap after all those miles. Thanks for the post.

  2. Steve Riggs
    Steve Riggs April 16, 2020

    Missing canyon country so bad, not sure if your reports help, or make it worse!

  3. Josh
    Josh April 21, 2021

    Was thinking about the exact same itinerary when I came across your trip report. How long would you guess the river crossing took one-way?

    • Randy Langstraat
      Randy Langstraat April 25, 2021

      Not very long, probably just about as long as it took me to inflate the boat and get it ready to cross. Maybe 10-15 minutes or so?

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