Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – July 7th to 9th, 2020

We’ve been to Black Canyon of the Gunnison before, but this time we spent two nights at the South Rim Campground which gave us ample time to explore the park in more depth at a more relaxing pace. Or at least that was the plan.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is a wonderful, unique place to visit. It's a deep, steep, dark and narrow canyon. To reach the bottom of the canyon looks impossible. The Gunnison River that flows through it looks impassible even for an experienced kayaker. The views from the rim are spectacular.

It was 6 pm by the time we reached our camp site the first night. While we were walking back from the vault toilets, a deer wandered through the campground in front of us. Right Buddy (RB) prepared gazpacho soup for dinner since it is quick and easy to make. We started to walk around the campground to check it out after dinner when we saw a sign by the amphitheater which said a program starts at 7:30 pm. So we hustled back to the van to grab our masks (don’t ask us why we didn’t have them in our pockets) and went back. Then we read the sign a little more carefully and realized we needed a reservation to attend. Oh well, maybe we can get a reservation for tomorrow night. We just walked through the other two campground loops instead.

Our camp site was in loop A. Loop B had electrical hookups and it looked like Loop C was first come/first serve. The sites are pretty close together, but the abundance of small scrub oak trees and serviceberry bushes provides a lot of privacy and shade. There was a water fill station in each loop, but a sign asked for people to conserve water and only use it for drinking water and not for dishes or anything else because the water is hauled in. When we went to bed, we could smell the empty gray water tank under the bed. We’ll have to deal with that one in the morning.

While we were sitting and enjoying our breakfast the next morning, a wild turkey with a couple of young ones in tow walked through our campsite. Then RB heard a rustling in the bushes and looked up to see a hawk carrying away a chipmunk for his breakfast. Another chipmunk chirped and chattered a while after the hawk had left. He was probably upset he lost his buddy.

After switching camp sites (we couldn’t get a reservation for two nights in the same site), we got our bikes ready for a ride. We rode the whole South Rim Road, from the campground to High Point, about 7.5 miles each way. We stopped at most of the view points along the way. It was a much harder ride than we thought it would be. We were only carrying less than two liters of water each and we just about ran out. Thank goodness there was a water fill up station at the Visitor Center. There was no water available at any of the stops, including the picnic areas.

Our original plan was to stop at all of the viewpoints and walk out to all of the overlooks including the 1.5 mile Warner Point Trail at High Point. We started out stopping at each one, then switched to stopping at every other one so we would have places to stop and rest on the way back. The road started out downhill from the campground entrance all the way to Pulpit Rock. Then the uphill started.

The road wound back and forth so we couldn’t see how far we had to go or what the slope was like further ahead. We would look ahead, thinking the uphill was just to the next curve only to turn the corner and realize it was still a steep grade up to the next curve. It started to wear on our spirits as we experienced this over and over and over again.

We only skipped Rock Point, Chasm View and Cedar Point on the way up to High Point. We also planned on skipping Sunset View on the way up, but we were struggling on the long uphill and needed to stop for a break. A gentleman from Wichita, Kansas struck up a conversation with us at Sunset View. He and his wife were on a three week tour of Colorado. When we finally made it up to High Point, the Wichita man was there cheering our success. Thank you!

Left Buddy (LB) was concerned about running out of water, so we skipped the Warner Point Trail. On the way back, we did stop at the three viewpoints we had skipped on the way up along with a few others to catch our breath. However, we did not walk out to the Cedar Point and Rock Point overlooks to save time and energy. When we reached the Visitor Center, we filled up our water and sat down to rest and rehydrate before the final push to the campground. While we were there, we made reservations for the ranger program that night. We didn’t want to sit there too long though because we were concerned our muscles would stiffen up or cramp. Even after our rest, we still stopped along the side of the road once or twice to catch our breath and drink some water.

The komoot maps app indicated we went 14 miles with a 1350 foot elevation gain. It took us about four and a half hours to complete our bike ride. When we reached our campsite at 3:30 pm, we grabbed some drinks and tortilla chips and plopped down in our camp chairs to rest, rehydrate, and replenish our salts. LB asked RB if she enjoys trying to kill him. She answered that she is trying to build up his endurance so he’ll live longer. LB will probably be more involved in researching our rides and hikes from now on.

After a lazy afternoon, we made cheesy broccoli quinoa for dinner. We believe part of the smell in the van was from the broccoli starting to go bad. Since we have very limited refrigerator space, we had the broccoli sitting in our storage drawers in the back. We rinsed it well and steamed it in the Instant Pot and it tasted fine. Next time we’ll either make room in the fridge for the broccoli or prepare it within a day or two of buying it.

Since LB didn’t feel like working in the afternoon after our ride, he decided to skip the ranger program and work instead that evening. RB went to the ranger program by herself. This was only the second evening ranger program of the season since they just started the night before. The ranger took a picture of everyone in the amphitheater before she started her talk, probably to show her boss that everyone was social distancing. She did ask if there was anyone who wished not to be in the picture. The program lasted about 45 minutes. The ranger explained how the Black Canyon was formed and compared the statistics of the Black Canyon to other canyons around the world and the solar system.

RB learned that the water for the park is hauled up from Montrose once a week. The park is also designated as an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). The ranger indicated that the best time to view the stars that night would be from 10:30 pm, the start of the astronomical night, to 11:30 pm, when the moon rises. RB passed on that information to LB, so we stayed up and tried to take pictures of the sky. We could see the belt of the Milky Way from one horizon to the other. It was hard to pick out the Big Dipper and the Small Dipper due to all of the stars in the sky, but we think we identified them. LB saw a couple of shooting stars.

Before we left Black Canyon on the final day, we decided to hit the couple of the viewpoints we missed the day before and hike the Warner Point Trail. We first stopped at the Visitor Center because we noticed that there was a second viewpoint behind the building that we missed the day before. Then we stopped at the Rock Point and Cedar Point overlooks. The Cedar Point overlook had informative signs along the trail out to the overlook, mostly about the local native plants. RB learned to tell the difference between serviceberry and mahogany.

RB was wearing an OSU t shirt which turned into a conversation starter. We had a lovely conversation with a man from Indiana who has two daughters going to Purdue and a woman from Texas who went to Michigan University and used to live in Detroit. The woman had COVID19 back in March when her husband came back from a business trip to Wuhan China. She was sick for weeks and there is a concern that there is permanent damage to her heart. She was struggling to go the couple hundred yards out to the overlook and she used to do a lot of hiking in the past. She’s hoping her stamina and endurance will gradually come back. Despite already having COVID19 and probably being immune, she was wearing a mask. The man from Indiana has a relative who had COVID19 and was on a respirator for three weeks, but survived and has recovered. The man said Purdue is currently planning on starting the school semester in August, but he’s not sure what that will look like. At least one of his daughters is in veterinary school and was unable to complete any of the labs in the spring because they are not something you can do online. The woman has a daughter at Texas A&M. Texas A&M said they are opening back up in the fall, but when her daughter signed up for her classes, all of the classes were shown as online courses.

In the High Point parking lot, we parked next to a car of three young people who looked like they were gearing up for a long hike. RB asked them if they were hiking to the bottom of the canyon. Yes, they were. RB had researched trails to the bottom a little bit. They require a wilderness permit and usually involve some type of scrambling. The trails are not well marked and considered just routes so you are basically expected to find your own way. The route the three we saw were starting out on the Warner Route, which, according to the NPS website, is 2.75 miles each way with a vertical drop of 2722 feet. NPS highly recommends camping overnight. They say the descent takes about two to two and a half hours to descend and about four hours to ascend back out. We’re assuming that is for someone who is in excellent shape and is an experienced hiker. RB stopped researching these routes when she read someone recommending to not take trekking poles because you need your hands free. We hope the three people had a great time at the bottom. It sounds like a neat experience, but beyond our skill level and desire.

As we were getting ready to hike the Warner Point trail, a couple of women came over eyeing our van. We gave them a quick tour. It sounds like one of them has been considering a camper van and had lots of questions. We wish her the best and hope she finds what she is looking for.

The Warner Point Trail is 1.5 miles with a 400 foot elevation gain. We logged this as Hike 10 of our 52 Hike Challenge National Park Series. The trail was different from the trails out to the other overlooks because there were views to the south overlooking the town of Montrose along the way. There were numbered points of interest along with a box at the trailhead to hold the brochures with the descriptions. LB thought that was a better idea than the informational signs along the Cedar Point Trail since a couple of the signs seemed to point out things, like cactus, which were no longer by the sign. If plants died, or something else changed, you wouldn’t need to change the numbered sign post, but just change the brochure. However, we read the signs along the Cedar Point trail, but didn’t bother picking up a brochure for the Warner Point Trail. So which method is truly better?

After our hike, we ate our picnic lunch at High Point before driving to Ridgway State Park. At the end of our stay at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, we felt we did explore more of the park than we have before, but the bike ride turned out to be not quite as relaxing as we imagined it in our minds. There is still more of the park that we did not get a chance to see, such as some of the hiking trails near the Visitors Center, the East Portal, and the North Rim. That just give us something new to explore the next time we visit.

Revisiting a place we’ve been before always turns into a new experience. There is something comforting about already having a feel for a place and exploring deeper. What places have you revisited lately?

Check out our related video: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

(RB)