The Spencer-Dominguez Loop is one of the more challenging routes in the Lee's Ferry area. It involves ascending the Spencer Trail, route-finding cross-country to the Dominguez Pass, and then descending on an old trail to the Paria River, finally catching the Paria Trail back to Lonely Dell and either retrieving a vehicle or road-walking back to the boat ramp. The loop described here is a "shortcut", shaving about 3 miles off of the route and eliminating the need to arrange for a shuttle vehicle or crossing the Paria.
This route crosses some very rugged terrain, especially between the power line road and Dominguez Pass. Do not attempt this route without a good GPS with pre-marked waypoints or good topographic maps and
good map reading/orienteering skills. This route is 100% dry - there are no water sources anywhere along the route. Bring at least 3 liters of water for colder months. It is not recommended to do this route during warm/hot weather.
The Spencer Trail was forged by huckster businessman Charles H. Spencer in 1910 as a route to get workers (and mules laden with coal) from Warm Creek to Lee's Ferry. The overland route was arduous and inefficient so it was replaced by his infamous steam boat, the remains of which can be seen from the base of the Spencer Trail.
The Dominguez Pass gets its name from the Dominguez and Escalante expedition of 1776. The two friars departed Santa Fe bound for the California missions. The group did not end up in California and in fact ended up only in northern Utah before turning back. The fathers passed through the Page area twice, once forging a crossing of the Colorado River at what became known as "The Crossing of the Fathers", the second time on the way back via the easier and more obvious crossing that would become known as Lee's Ferry. This crossing entailed descending the Echo Cliffs, and the point of descent became known as Dominguez Pass.
The hike begins by ascending the Spencer Trail
. From the top of the Spencer Trail, there is a faint boot-worn trail that is marked with cairns that leads northwesterly, paralleling the Echo Cliffs ridgeline, but avoiding the arduous ups and downs of the ridgeline proper. This trail disappears into the sand and rocks about a quarter of the way to the new power line road, but the way forward is pretty obvious. The communications tower on the ridgeline is easy to see and provides a convenient point of reference. There is a sand dune field just before the new power line road, but just head towards the ridge to get on the road.
Once you are on the powerline road, turn left and follow the road up and around the ridge (through a road cut), down into the next valley, and then up again as it heads towards the communication tower and the Echo Cliffs ridgeline. At a point of your choosing, depart from the road and begin paralleling the cliff face. You are now entering the toughest portion of this hike. This is the time when your map becomes your friend.
You have to cross a series of ridges and valleys before dropping into the Dominguez Pass valley. There are a series of faults that run parallel to the Echo Cliffs precipice that make ridge crossings easier, but regardless you will be doing a lot of up and down, in and out as you cross the slickrock. Depending on where you enter Dominguez Pass, you may think you have an additional ridge to cross. The key is the large "mule ear" formation that is on the north side (beyond) Dominguez Pass. Keep that as your landmark and do not pass it.
Once in the valley of Dominguez Pass, head towards the rim for some beautiful views across and up the Paria Canyon, as well as out across the Marble Bench and the Colorado River. The way down is along the north side of the pass, under the "mule ear" spire. You may notice a large pile or rocks (a mega-cairn, so to speak) that marks the way out of the swale that the pass sits in. It may be knocked over but the base is pretty obvious to see from down in the Dominguez Pass basin.
Once past the mega-cairn, a faint but obvious trail heads down the imposing looking slope. At key points there are cairns that guide you down to the sand slide below. This portion is not challenging or technical, but it is remote and exposed. Use caution. Once on the sand slide, hug the lip of the drainage to your left on the way down. You will reach a small break in the cliffs at the bottom of the sand slide where another faint but obvious trail zig-zags down to the next sand slide. At the base of the cliffs, on the sand-slide, there is sometimes an obvious route down. Here is where you will depart from the normal Spencer/Dominguez loop. Keep left, heading towards a spur of the cliffs at the bottom of this sand slide. This spur is easy to descend either via a talus/scree slope or just down a gentle descent. There you will encounter another faint boot-worn trail that leads towards a large round rock that has been cracked in half (this is especially obvious from above the cliffs - look for it). This boulder also has very good desert varnish on its east and south side, making it easy to keep track of. On the ridge where the boulder sits is an old uranium mining road. It follows the ridge top and is very easy to find and follow. Again, this feature is easy to see from above so you can trace your route in advance. The roads branch and branch again. Generally stay to the left. If a road disappears, you can usually keep heading down without too many issues - your goal is the bench of Shinarump, the hard white sandstone that forms a ledge above the Paria.
Running along the Shinarump bench is an old uranium mining road. You will actually pass a few old uranium diggings. This road will run from your point of arrival on the Shinarump bench to the Lee's Ferry parking lot. It grows faint at times, but as long as you are following the bench and paralleling the Paria River you are heading in the right direction. This section is very scenic with views into the river, Chinle badlands, Navajo cliffs, and Lonely Dell Ranch (as you get closer to the end).
Near the end of your hike you will come to a power line (the same one you passed under on top of the cliffs). There is a bad to decent dirt road that you can follow from the power line down to the Lee's Ferry parking area. Occasionally there are people working on these lines - please be respectful of them and their equipment. They keep the lights on and water pumping at the ranger station, Marble Canyon, Cliff Dwellers, and Vermilion Cliffs. That's it - you've completed this tough loop! Lateral distance traveled is deceiving though - there are no straight lines through this country. Head back to the highway to grab a burger and a beverage of your choice!
None on the route. Water fountain and spigot at trailhead.
Backcountry camping is not allowed in Glen Canyon NRA at Lee's Ferry, but hiking outside of the NRA boundary to camp overnight is possible on BLM land. There is a developed campground at Lee's Ferry, a few miles back up the road towards the highway.