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Extreme Rock Crawling - Carnage Canyon

Posted in Features on May 20, 2004
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This is the story of an extreme challenge route that was created, then lost to closure, and finally reclaimed due to lots of hard work and persistence. Although there may be more than one route in Colorado that claims the Carnage Canyon moniker, the one slightly south of Buena Vista in the central part of the state is an entirely appropriate claimant to the name.

Carnage Canyon is just south of a wide spot in the road by the name of Johnson Village. Here, Highway 285 veers east toward Fairplay, while Highway 24 continues north to Buena Vista. One mile east of the highway intersection, Chaffee County Road 301 crosses the highway. Follow the County Road south for about a mile and a half, then turn east directly across from the state prison farm on an access road found between two fences. When you reach the end of this narrow lane, you are at the trailhead for Carnage Canyon. If you've run a trail called Chinaman's Gulch, these directions should sound familiar: The two routes share the same trailhead. The long-established Chinaman's Gulch route turns north, while Carnage Canyon enters a narrow, boulder-infested canyon directly ahead.

Getting there is easy. Getting this technical, boulder-hopping trail approved by the land management agencies was a much more arduous proposition. Ironically, the route was first identified by an agency employee as a potential replacement for the Rattler Trail (see "Bitten by the Rattler," 4WDSU March '98 issue), which was closed due to resource concerns. The route up this tight, boulder-infested canyon was actually an old road, and since it was connected at both its upper and lower ends by existing roads, it looked to be a perfect prospect. Members from several clubs took it upon themselves to reclaim the route for the four-wheeling community, and by early summer 1998, people with a yearning for high adventure could enjoy the rocks. The naming of the route occurred after finding the skull and scattered bones of some unfortunate link in the food chain. Someone observed that more than one vehicle would find a similar fate if anyone tried to drive up the canyon, and the name stuck.

With the dearth of extreme challenge opportunities in the area (exacerbated by the loss of the Rattler Trail), the trail received quick attention and heavy use in those first few months - too much use in the minds of nervous agency personnel. By October 1998, the Bureau of Land Management had planted an official "Closed" sign at the entrance to the canyon. Now the real work started. Persistent letters and visits to the management agency yielded no results, but local enthusiasts were not to be thwarted. Finally, the Four Mile Travel Management Plan provided the formal opportunity to have Carnage Canyon declared an official route.

The wheels of bureaucracy grind excruciatingly slow, and it wasn't until Memorial Day 2003 that Carnage Canyon was once again opened to the general public. We had the opportunity to run it one week later, and it was worth the five-year wait. The original route pioneered in the summer of 1998 had gone up and around several areas in the canyon that were considered to be impassable at that time. Resource concerns about the new official route dictate that the trail stays completely at the very bottom of the canyon. Fortunately, five years of technological and vehicular advancements have made this strict canyon-bottom venture possible and downright exhilarating.

The hidden mysteries of agency concerns over resources also dictated a new exit from the canyon. Rather than merely continuing up the canyon until reaching the existing road, the route now turns abruptly left at a new fence just feet from the exit road and climbs straight up and out of the canyon over a gargantuan ledge, only to rejoin that same existing road. Curious reasoning? Yes, but the result is a memorable and potentially seat-puckering experience. By the time we reached the exit ledge one day in June, it was raining. The rocks were so slick that we could barely stand on them, let alone drive up and over them. Even our very seasoned crew did the smart thing and pulled winch cables.

We ran Carnage Canyon with eight vehicles in about four hours, but your encounter with the rocks may vary in time and intensity. All but one of the vehicles had tires larger than 38 inches and Dana 60s at both ends. In this configuration, the vehicles were about an even match for the rocks. Check out the extreme action and make your choice carefully. Without care, the scattered carcass of your vehicle could add future charm to Carnage Canyon.

CARNAGE CANYON
GPS Coordinates
Point Description Latitude Longitude Elevation (ft.)
001 Turn-off on Chaffee County Road 301 38 48' 52" 106 5' 58" 7,869
002 Turn-off to trailhead 38 47' 31" 106 5' 42" 7,805
003 Trailhead 38 47' 31" 106 5' 3" 7,849
004 End of trail 38 47' 38" 106 4' 21" 8,333

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