Montrose County, CO
Another Covid-19 vacation is in the books! My family is vaccinated but we are still trying to avoid crowds when traveling. We have spent the past year renting homes/cabins and cooking most of our meals when out of town. This rural southwest part of Colorado seemed like the perfect place to check out a National Park and visit with our adult children for a few days. It turned out to be a great trip.
We took a morning flight from DFW to Montrose. The direct flight was only an hour and thirty-eight minutes – quick trip! The Montrose airport was small (4 gates) and very easy to navigate. Getting our rental Jeep was a breeze. Our Vrbo house actually ended up being a convenient ten minute drive from the airport. So far, so good! We were ready to explore the area.
The first excursion to check off our list: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This area has only had National Park status since 1999 and I was not that familiar with it prior to our trip. After seeing a few pics on a National Park social media page recently, it got on my radar. Though not as popular as the Grand Canyon, it certainly seemed less crowded and had some spectacular views with towering walls, spiky peaks, narrow openings and startling depths. I put in a little bit of research, found out how to get there, and off we went!
The Black Canyon National Park entrance was only twenty minutes from downtown Montrose and the drive up to the park was quite scenic as our elevation changed (and ears popped!). This route took us to the park’s visitor center that featured cool displays, info on the canyon, picnic areas, restrooms, a gift shop, campgrounds, a nature trail and a great observation platform. It was well worth a stop. I got a map, a walking stick and went on my merry way.
The route through the park along the South Rim Road was easy to drive and well-marked. It allowed us beautiful views of the Black Canyon from many overlooks, most of which only required short walks. I loved seeing all the different landscapes, plants and trees along the way. Hiking there can be as simple as strolling to the various viewpoints and overlooks or as challenging as a 2,700 foot descent down into the inner-canyon to the Gunnison River, which we didn’t do (because we are sane people!).
The Black Canyon itself was breathtakingly beautiful with its dark, solid granite canyon walls that tower almost 3,000 feet above the greenish river snaking far, far below. The canyon gets its name due to the fact that certain parts of the gorge only get thirty total minutes of sunlight per day. The walls literally look black due to the shadows. It is very, very narrow and very deep! For you geology nerds, the canyon has some of the world’s oldest exposed rock that dates back two billion years to the Precambrian era. Today the impenetrable, steep cliffs provide homes and protection to the world’s fastest bird, the peregrine falcon.
We enjoyed many of the twelve lookout points along the rim with Pulpit Rock, the Painted Wall and Dragon Point being my favorites. The Painted Wall is the highest cliff (tallest vertical wall) in Colorado. From the rim down to the river, it stands 2250 feet high and as my daughter described it, “it looks like a big ole slab of marbled steak.” It is a huge, dark granite wall with wide, white “marble” streaks running through it. The size is somewhere in the neighborhood of ginormous!
At Dragon Point, the Painted Wall was across the gorge from us and far below was the Gunnison River. The river actually looked very curvy and small from our vantage spot so high above. Our view was quite deceiving. The Gunnison River actually drops an average of 43 feet per mile through the canyon, which is six times more than the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon – just to put it in perspective.
If we had more time, I would have liked to experience the canyon from the bottom up. There is a road at the park entrance that follows a steep, switch-back route into the canyon’s depths. This would certainly be a memorable day for hiking, fishing, kayaking or rock climbing. I would have loved to have seen the mighty river up close and personal. Maybe next time…
The Ute Tribe that inhabited these tribal lands for thousands of years referred to this area as “much rocks, big water.” I don’t think anyone could have said it any better.