If you were driving north from Durango, CO on Rt. 550—which you should because the drive along the Animas River up into the mountains is spectacular—you would pass through the historic towns of Silverton and Ouray before reaching Montrose in about 100 miles. You could do that in about two and half hours. But you should take your time. It is called the Million Dollar Highway not because it cost that much to build, but because the views are worth that much and more. There are numerous excuses to stop along the way, including in the historic towns themselves. The entire town of Ouray, for example, is a National Historic Site.
At Montrose, turn east on Rt. 50 for about ten miles to reach the entrance road to the south rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Then begin the long climb to the canyon rim. When Shirley and I were novice travelers in the West, we assumed that the great canyons were below ground level. After all, if the Grand Canyon is a mile deep, logically you would look way down into it. Which is true. But only after you climb a mile up to the rim. Like the rim of Grand Canyon, the Black Canyon is at an elevation of about 8,000 feet.
The Black Canyon was cut by the scouring action of the Gunnison River as it roars through the depths. The Gunnison descends farther in the 48 miles through the national park than the Mississippi does in its entire 1,500 miles between Minnesota and the Gulf of Mexico. Within the park boundaries, the Gunnison drops almost 100 feet per mile, and in one stretch it drops 480 feet in two miles. Fast water, laden with grit and rocky debris, continues to carve the canyon ever deeper.
The canyon is called Black because the walls are so close together that the depths are in shadow until the sun is almost directly overhead. The geological features and more subtle colors of the opposite canyon walls are more apparent because of their relative proximity. (Details are lost at the Grand Canyon because the opposite walls are miles away.) Geological features are particularly evident at the Painted Wall, the tallest sheer cliff in Colorado at 2,250 feet, where volcanic intrusions, or dikes, of lighter colored pegmatite create strange shapes that have been fancifully interpreted as Oriental dragons.
The South Rim Road follows the canyon with 13 pullouts along the way. From your vehicle, you can get a more or less adequate view of the canyon. Take just a short walk out to the very lip of the canyon from any or all of the pullouts, and the views are way better than just adequate. At the Sunset View pullout, for example, you can look down a long stretch of the canyon to where the sun seems to decline into the notch formed by the walls. It is a lovely place to visit right after your supper when the sky turns all golden and red and deep purple velvet. Last summer, Sunset View was where Shirley and I met about a dozen bighorn sheep. The ewes and lambs moved away promptly, but a couple rams hung around to give us a good look-over and serve as a rear guard.
The campground is a safe haven for quite a few deer, especially newborn fawns and their mothers, because predators are less likely to intrude there. A doe sought relief from the July sun by plopping down in the shade right next to our RV, and her twin fawns meandered through regularly even as we sat reading or sipping adult beverages in our camp chairs. Similarly, a grouse hen came to feed on the serviceberries at our campsite. She was not at all shy in our presence.
After sunset, the dark sacred night becomes the attraction. Because of its distance from major metropolitan areas, the night sky at the Canyon is unaffected by so-called light pollution. One moonless night, an astronomy club brought huge telescopes and invited campers to have a look. By “huge” I mean we had to climb six-foot step ladders to reach the eye pieces. Rings of Saturn, oh, my! And what looks like a bright star at a corner of the Big Dipper is actually a binary, two stars orbiting each other.
There are trails along the rim of the canyon and out to Warner Point that are relatively easy. There are also trails for the young, strong, and very courageous that make the precipitous descent all the way to the river. Many who do this are motivated by the trophy trout that reside in the rushing waters down there. Now, Shirley and I have used the park several times as a base for fly fishing in the area, but we have never been so highly motivated that we would go all the way down there and then deal with the near-vertical climb back up.
Another option for reaching the river is the East Portal Road that makes a steep, 16% grade descent through tight switchbacks. It is open only to vehicles less than 22 feet—including trailer. That’s a little national park humor. How many vehicle and trailer combinations do you think total less than 22 feet? And of at least equal importance is an absolutely reliable brake system and unshakable faith in your engine and transmission. How many tow truck drivers do you imagine would be willing to come to your rescue even if it were physically possible? Still, the limited number of drivers who do it seem to think it’s no big deal. Park literature says “Camping, fishing, and picnicking are available.” More park humor, I suppose.
We think there is a much better way to get into the canyon. The Park Service offers a ranger-narrated boat tour on the Gunnison River that begins at Morrow Point. Reaching the 42-passenger pontoon boat requires a drive back down to Rt. 50 and then east about 25 miles. There is no point in making that drive unless you first call ahead for the required reservations. And there is no point in that either if you have physical limitations.
The Park Service is very explicit about the effort required to reach the boat dock: first you descend exactly 232 steps (which, obviously, you will climb coming out) to a trail on an abandoned narrow-gauge railway bed that follows the river for a scenic 3/4 mile. “We suggest leaving the trailhead no less than 45 minutes prior to the tour and allowing more time for a slower pace,” says the Park Service. After descending from the canyon rim, you are still at about 6,500 ft. elevation and, if not yet acclimated, you may find yourself a little short of breath and walking slower than usual. If you are not confident that you can descend 232 steps and walk 3/4 mile at the brisk rate of 1 mph, perhaps you should rethink the whole thing.
If you decide to go, be prepared for more park humor. On the dock, we were required to don life vests and have the security of the buckles pass ranger inspection. Once we actually climbed aboard, however, we were permitted to remove the vests and stow them under our seats. If you are inclined to scoff, bear in mind that safety should be taken seriously. So, do your scoffing in the silence of your head. The rangers are all too aware that they are sometimes required to follow ludicrous procedures established by bureaucrats who have never been within 1,000 miles of the park. Smart alecky passengers don’t make things any easier for them.
Besides, by the time you complete your tour, you will probably have forgotten all about that anyway. The boat cruises past landmarks such as the granite Curecanti Needle, rising 700 feet at a bend in the river, and Chipeta Falls that spills from way up the cliff face. There is also the chance to see falcons, ospreys, and swifts, and hear a canyon wren sing “Down, down, down, down!” Watch for bighorn sheep on the sheer cliff walls, too.
Now, back at the beginning, I suggested that the Black Canyon could be reached via the scenic route up from Durango. Actually, that is just one of the scenic routes. Shirley and I have also enjoyed the drive west on Rt. 50 from I-25 and to the North Rim on Rt. 133 from I-70. There is a campground on the North Rim that is somewhat quieter and less visited if you prefer that sort of thing. Bear in mind, though, that there is no visitor center on the North Rim. If you like national park exhibits, souvenirs, and advice from rangers, this may not be your best choice. Also note that there is no direct route from one rim to the other so you will need to allow two or three hours should you decide to make the drive to the other side of the canyon.
If you pick up a Colorado map, you will notice that the roads in the western two thirds of the state tend to have little black dots all along them because they are designated scenic routes. Well, yes, of course they are! All of the ways to reach the Black Canyon are scenic. There is simply no bad way to get there. Even I-70, not particularly awe inspiring between Ohio and Denver, suddenly becomes a joy to drive, especially through the Glenwood Canyon section that parallels the Colorado River with white-water rafters rushing through it. In our opinion, once you reach the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, you just can’t go wrong.
If you enjoy resort communities, you should visit Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge, or Glenwood Springs. They are all located conveniently on or close to I-70. If, like us, you prefer camping, hiking, and fishing, we heartily recommend either Rt. 160 across the south or Rt. 50 across the middle of the state. You might even plan a circle tour by combining both routes so as to include Great Sand Dunes National Park and Mesa Verde National Park as well as the Black Canyon.
None of this matters, though, if you are totally unimpressed by purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain. (That would be Pike’s Peak near Colorado Springs that inspired the song.) But being unimpressed is not entirely beyond possibility. Shirley’s father, bless his heart, was a flat-land farmer apt to make observations such as “Ya seen one mountain, ya seen ‘em all” or “Mountains just get in the way of the view.” Which is why I am tempted to think that infant Shirley was secretly left by the fairies. She has a soul built for outdoor adventure. And a good thing it is, too, or she would have missed out on many a delightful walk in the park.
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site.