From Ridgway we drove north and west into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I knew the least about this park going in but it was fantastic. Most areas of this park were open including the campgrounds, so we booked a night and planned on about two days to explore the park. We started out by combining a few smaller hiking loops to go down a little into the canyon from the visitor’s center on the south rim, then through some of the scrub along the top edge of the canyon for a few miles. This was great because we got a variety pack of walking through the little patches of trees finding a way to grow along the canyon wall, getting the dramatic views into the canyon depths, and through the more desert-like areas on top. The only downside was a lot of the trail was in full sun in 80-something degree weather in the dry air, which made for an extra-thirsty me and a sunburned Kevin, but in my book worth it for sure. Also note my poor choice in not bothering to change out of my sandals before doing this hike- I looked up part of it online which showed almost zero elevation gain, and I can walk for miles in whatever shoes if flat, but the part we added last minute was the canyon section. Oops. Made it! Just went barefoot for any bouldery sections.
Later we got abck to the van and located our campsite which we’d picked sight unseen from the few remianing online. It was… the worst campsite in the place by far. Ha! Full sun with very little in the way of shade until late evening, about 60% of the ground was covered in boulders sticking out from the ground so there was only one viable spot to pitch a tent, which happened to be only a few yards away from our neighbor’s fire pit and where they’d chosen to put their tent. Also whoever occupied this site before us left piles of oatmeal and rice out, which is just what one wants to find alongside the warnings that it’s illegal to feed the wildlife and, oh yeah, lock up everything because this is bear and mountain lion country. While we didn’t get any surprise bear visits we did have several fearless chipmunks come visit and gobble some of the leftovers. My attempt to scare them off by placing my creepy cat statue by the oatmeal was totally unsuccessful until one of the chippies sniffed him and he collapsed creating a hilarious run for dear life. If you’re on Instagram and haven’t checked it out already, search for #creepycatroadtrip for his other antics.
After making dinner (it was a great one- my favorite of my camp meals thus far, lemon couscous with a sautéed mushroom, onion, chickpea, escarole and balsamic glaze… still getting a handle on the whole cooking at altitude timing though) we checked out a bunch of the overlooks along the road as we went as far into the park as the road goes to catch the sunset. The pull off named “Sunset Point” was predictably our plan and of course packed by the time we arrived, but the next spot down (end of the road) offered just as pretty a view and was deserted aside from a nice group of retirees on their annual couples trip. They even had a telescope set up to do some major stargazing after as this is one of the darkest and clearest spots around and we got to sneak a peek.
The next day we got up early-ish to get a hike in before it got too hot, and drove back out to the end of the road where we did a little hike on a nature trail with a guidebook from which we took turns reading aloud because you can’t take the teacher out of me. From here we could see the end of the canyon and the view out over the plains toward to mountains we’d crossed the other day. Such a crazy difference depending on which way you looked, it was a great spot to reflect on how much variety nature is capable of.
On the way back to pack up camp we stopped at the rest of the overlooks we’d missed the day before. Some of these offered the best views of the striations and colors that look like someone took a paintbrush to the canyon walls and aimed for Dixie cup motif. It was also the best bird-watching and we spotted beautiful little birds swooping in and out of caves in the side of the canyon alongside larger birds that could have been hawks, golden eagles, falcons, or turkey vultures. I know we saw at least two of these but which ones they were I can only guess with the help of the signage. A few types of lizards, some rabbits, a small snake, and a bunch of cute rodents rounded out our wildlife sightings.
Our last stop before leaving the park was, at a ranger’s suggestion, driving down a 16% grade road to the bottom of the canyon for a picnic lunch by the river. The little van did it’s job with flying colors thank goodness! The ranger said it was one of if not the steepest road in the state, and I believe it. The bottom of the canyon was a different world from the top. It was cool, a little buggy, and so peaceful and quiet aside from the running water sounds. There’s a campground down here which I would totally come back to try out sometime, and with a permit you can hike down and back out further into the canyon in the backcountry. We saw people fishing with success, kayaking, and swimming. I dipped my toes in and it was chilly but warmer than I expected.
This was my favorite surprise of the Colorado Parks we visited. There’s something about how big a canyon like this feels that put our crazy world into perspective, which was welcome with everything going on out there.