Black Canyon of the Gunnison: North Rim – August 10th to 13th, 2020

Earlier in the summer, we had visited the South Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. We returned to explore the North Rim. Crawford State Park provided a place for us to camp nearby for three nights. It is about a two hour drive to get from the South Rim to the North Rim, so visiting the North Rim while staying at the South Rim is not very feasible.

On our way to Crawford State Park from the Hecla Junction Campground, we stopped in Crested Butte. Yes, it’s about an hour out of our way, but we like the town, the ice cream is good, and we had arranged to meet up with Scott. The last time we were in Crested Butte (Crested Butte – July 7th, 2020), we drove down Elk Avenue. Scott contacted us on the Facebook VanDOit Owners group that he had seen our van going down the street that day and would love to have the chance to check out our van. He had a van on order that should be ready by October. By the time we read the message, we were already a couple of hours away at Black Canyon of the Gunnison, so we arranged to meet up with him the next time we were driving through the area. Well, August 10th was the day.

We arrived in Crested Butte about an hour before we were to meet Scott. The cell signal was strong where we parked in the Town Park, so Right Buddy (RB) was able to upload the video in about half an hour or less. We both were able to get some productive work in within that hour. Scott and his wife Katy met us in the park. We gave them a tour of our van and enjoyed talking about vans and camping for about an hour with them. We’re hoping we see them again at VOX2 (VanDOit Owners Xperience 2) in Moab in October and that they have possession of their new van by then.

After parting ways with Scott and Katy, we ate our lunch and, of course, walked over to Third Bowl Ice Cream in Tin Cup Pasty for dessert. RB was disappointed they were out of mint chip, but she still really enjoyed her waffle cone with blood orange dark chocolate and honey cayenne cinnamon. Left Buddy (LB) had a bowl of the honey cayenne cinnamon and honey lavender. It was not a vanilla shake, but he still liked it.

Back on US 50, after reaching the west end of Blue Mesa Reservoir, we turned onto Colorado 92. The highway first heads west, climbing in elevation, with views overlooking the Morrow Point Reservoir, before turning north towards Crawford. Blue Mesa Reservoir and Morrow Point Reservoir, along with Crystal Reservoir, make up the Curecanti National Recreational Area. We stopped at Hermits Rest Overlook for a bathroom break and to enjoy the beautiful views. Hermits Rest Overlook is also a trailhead for Hermits Rest Trail which leads down to the reservoir. The sign says it is a strenuous six mile trail. Maybe we’ll come back someday and attempt it.

The overlook parking lot was full of BMW convertibles, about a dozen of them, mostly from Texas. Their owners posed for a group picture against the scenic backdrop. We’re guessing they are part of a car club going on an excursion together. It looked like they were having fun!

We got to Crawford State Park in time for dinner. Ruebens were on the menu. Pastrami, Swiss cheese, Bavarian sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing on rye and pumpernickel swirl bread fried in a skillet on our butane stove (paid link). Delicious!

Crawford State Park was a little disappointing to us, but it may have been due to the time of year we were there. The campground we stayed in, the Iron Creek Campground, sits at the end of a dammed reservoir. The reservoir is used for agricultural purposes and the water level was extremely low. The boat ramp and dock near the campground was high and dry with the water of the reservoir about a quarter of a mile away. There were a couple of boats on the water, but they must have used the other boat ramp further down the road.

None of the camp sites had any shade and it was hot, in the high 80’s, in the sun. To be fair, that also meant that all of the camp sites had panoramic views of the surrounding mountain peaks. Some of the sites had shade structures over their picnic tables, but not our site, of course. All the sites have electrical and water hookups, so we could run our air conditioner. However, we were comfortable enough in the shade that we did not run the air conditioner. The next day may be a different story. However, as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped considerably, so much so that we put jackets on. We would imagine this park to be nicer in the spring, when we would expect there to be more water in the reservoir and the temperatures to be milder.

Since there wasn’t a whole lot to do at Crawford State Park for us and the short hiking trail along one side of the dried up reservoir did not look that exciting, we spent the next day at the North Rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The road to the North Rim is just to the south of Crawford State Park, off of Colorado 92. It is 11 miles to reach the national park. The road is paved for the first five miles, then turns to a dirt road for the last six miles, but it is in pretty good shape. There are a few small pot holes and some washboarding, but most of it is not too bad. The rim drive within the national park is also dirt.

We started out at the west end of the park and worked our way east, stopping at all of the overlooks. The first overlook, Chasm View, is a short nature trail near the campground. For a change, we grabbed a brochure at the trailhead and read the material for each numbered point of interest. Even though many of the topics were plants we were familiar with, such as the Utah Juniper and the Piñon Pine, the pamphlet contained some interesting facts that we had not heard of before. Perhaps we’ll take a brochure more often. When we were done with the nature trail, we put the booklet back in the box at the trailhead. The overlook from the nature trail had a gorgeous view of the Painted Wall.

The campground inside the national park looked pretty nice. There are only about a dozen sites and they are all first come/first serve. There are vault toilets, water, and trash cans with commingled recycling as well. Most of the camp sites were nicely shaded from the small juniper and pine trees. We don’t know how often the campground fills up, but the next time we come, we’ll probably take our chances and try to snag a camp site instead of camping at Crawford. If we happen not to get a site, it looked like there was some information on the board at the campground of where disperse camping spots were in the area.

The views from each overlook was different and beautiful. Our favorite overlook for the day was Chasm View. The North Rim doesn’t have as many overlooks as the South Rim, but the views from the North Rim were just as spectacular if not more so.

It was lunch time by the time we reached the last overlook. There weren't any picnic tables or shade in that area, so we ate inside the van to get out of the sun. While we were there, two park vehicles pulled in after us and four rangers headed out to the overlook. After we were done eating, we headed down the short trail to the overlook and discovered what the four park rangers were up to. They were having their lunch in the shade of a tree alongside the trail. Why didn’t we think of that?

We decided to put off hiking any trails at Black Canyon until the next day. From Black Canyon, we headed back to Crawford. The town of Crawford is only a mile from Crawford State Park. We headed to the library in search of a good cell signal. There was a shady parking spot in the lot between the library and the Crawford Town Hall. The Verizon signal was pretty good, so we set up shop to get some work done. One of the town workers came out to leave in his truck, so we asked him where to find ice cream within the town. He told us a couple places that might have some and then we had a short conversation about traveling the country in a van as he fondly reminisced about the van he owned years ago.

On the way back to Crawford State Park, we stopped off at one of the places the man told us about, the Desperado gas station and market. They had ice cream novelties in a freezer and they also had beer. LB was one beer short for the rest of our trip until we get back home to resupply, so he picked up a large can of beer along with an ice cream sandwich. RB had a Klondike bar. It wasn’t ice cream shop quality, but it was cold and frozen and sweet, so it still hit the spot.

For dinner, we grilled brats in the skillet on our butane stove (paid link) and added the leftover sauerkraut from the day before. We sliced the brats in half lengthwise so they would fit better on the swirl bread leftover from the reubens. Applesauce with cinnamon completed the delicious meal. The night sky was not as dark as when we were at Hecla Junction, but we still enjoyed staring at the stars. We saw a few bright shooting stars that we believe were part of the Persied Meteor Shower.

Most of the following day was spent hiking in Black Canyon National Park. We set an alarm and were on the trail by 9:20 am. On the drive in, we spotted an Amish horse and buggy that pulled into a nearby farm.

The first trail we hiked was to Exclamation Point. The trailhead is at the Ranger Station. Exclamation Point is along the North Vista Trail. Judging by the number of cars in the parking lot, this is the most popular trail on the North Rim. The North Vista Trail continues past Exclamation Point, up to the top of Green Mountain. It’s 1.5 miles each way to Exclamation Point and 3.5 miles each way to the top of Green Mountain. We’re not sure what percentage of the people go all the way up to Green Mountain, but we know it was not us, at least not that day.

The trail to Exclamation Point is fairly flat, unlike the rest of the trail up to Green Mountain. Utah juniper and piñon pine trees shaded the trail most of the way. Exclamation Point is on top of the Painted Wall, so you can’t see Painted Wall from the overlook, but you have an unobstructed view of the canyon and river for quite a ways in both directions. The view definitely lives up to its name.

At the point were some very large Utah juniper trees, both live and dead. The diameters of the trunks of a couple of the dead ones were about two to three feet. We wonder how old those trees were when they died. The trunks of Utah junipers have so much character as they are usually very twisted.

After the first hike, we at lunch at the picnic area in the campground. Well, we think it was the picnic area. The sign indicated the campground and picnic area were in the same direction. We drove the loop through the campground and around to the Chasm View trailhead and didn’t see a picnic area. We drove the loop one more time and noticed that what looked like the last campsite did not have a number, so we assumed that was the picnic area. The picnic table was in the sun, so we pulled out our camp chairs and set them up in the shade. There was barely enough room to park our van, let alone another vehicle, so hopefully no one else was looking for the picnic area while we were there.

After lunch, we headed to the other end of Rim Drive and parked at the Sitting Camel Overlook. The Deadhorse Trailhead is a short distance from the overlook. It is 2.5 miles all the way to the end of Deadhorse Trail, not counting the loop over to a couple of canyon overlooks. The loop itself is 1.5 miles long. We opted to hike to the loop, take the loop and head back to the trailhead, a total distance of about four miles (Deadhorse Loop). The trail does not have any shade to speak of. There are no trees along the trail, just sage brush, serviceberry, scrub oak, and other bushes. We found the one overlook along the loop, but we’re not sure if we found the second one or not. The first one is unmistakable and hard to miss. It is a breathtaking view down the canyon to the west. After that, there were a couple of views of the canyon, but we were not sure any of those was the second overlook marked on the map. In any case, the views were definitely worth the hike to get there. The Deadhorse Trail is not as popular as the North Vista Trail. We only saw a couple of people on the trail the whole time.

We enjoyed our time on the North Rim of the Black Canyon. It was a different experience than our time on the South Rim (Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – July 7th to 9th, 2020). To compare the two, the North Rim is more remote, harder to get to, unpaved roads instead of paved, no reservations allowed at the campground, less services, fewer overlooks, fewer trails, fewer guard rails, and a lot fewer people. The views of the canyon seemed better from the North Rim, but, due to fewer guard rails, you needed to pay more attention to where you were going. We would not recommend the North Rim for families with small children. The risk of falling over the edge is much higher on the North Rim. Which rim do we like better? That’s a hard question to answer. That’s like asking which child we like better. The rims are different from each other. We’re glad we visited both rims and loved them both.

We counted the combination of the two hikes as hike #45 of our 52 Hike Challenge. The combined distance was seven miles with a 1000 foot elevation gain in about four hours.

After our cold Coke ritual after our second hike, we called it a day and headed back to Crawford. Of course we drove past the state park and on to the Desperado General Market for ice cream. We had the same thing as the day before, a Klondike bar and an ice cream sandwich. No beer this time, as LB had enough to last him one more day.

When we got back to our camp site, RB decided to take an outdoor shower. Crawford State Park has coin showers, but we only had three quarters left and the change machine was out-of-order. We rigged up a tarp across the back doors of the van using the magnets from our Moon Shade at the top and bungee cords hooked into the door hinges at the bottom. Even though RB wore her bathing suit, the tarp provided a little more privacy so she didn’t feel like she was being watched while showering. She washed her hair, but she used baking soda and distilled vinegar instead of shampoo and conditioner, so it shouldn’t hurt anything by letting it soak into the ground. The warm shower was comfortable while the water was flowing, but the dry air gave her a chill every time she turned the water off. LB read an information board near the restroom and discovered that you can check out a Colorado State Park pass from any Colorado library (Check Out State Parks Program). That thought never even crossed our minds!

Dinner was hash browns and apple sauce. We grated a few potatoes and fried them in a thick layer in the skillet in canola oil. The combination of the crispy potatoes and cool applesauce reminds RB of the potato pancakes and applesauce (Kartoffelpuffer mit Apfelmuß) they used to buy at festivals over in Germany several decades ago. Another evening was spent gazing at the stars. The fridge was pretty empty, so it was time to head home the next day.

It was a long day of driving home. The last time we had cell service a couple of days prior in Crawford, LB had noticed there was a news report of wildfires in Grand Junction (Pine Gulch Wildfire) and Glenwood Springs (Grizzly Creek Wildfire). The fastest way home from Crawford State Park was to head north to Glenwood Springs to I-70. We drove one mile north to the town of Crawford to pick up a cell signal to get the latest news to determine which route we wanted to take home. If Glenwood Springs was not an option due to the fire, then we would head over to Aspen and take Independence Pass. As soon as we picked up a cell signal, Google Maps indicated our best route was back south on Colorado 92 to US 50. The news reports confirmed it. I-70 was closed at Glenwood Springs. Vehicles longer than 35 feet are never allowed on Independence Pass due to the tight switchbacks. However, people were violating the length restrictions since alternate routes were much longer, so CDOT closed Independence Pass.

From Crawford, heading back to US 50 and then taking US 285 to Denver was not that much longer, about five and a half hours instead of less than five hours. Traffic was heavy since it was a detour route around I-70, but not heavy enough to significantly slow us down. We went 15 minutes out of our way so we could have a picnic lunch in Riverside Park in Salida, watching kids trying to surf the standing wave in the Arkansas River. It reminded us of people surfing the standing wave in Englischer Garten in Munich, Germany. Only the wave in Salida is smaller and the kids were using boogie boards instead of full surf boards. Some of the kids were trying to kneel and stand up on their short boards. One kid managed to stand up for a minute or two before falling.

Since it was a weekday, the park was not as crowded as the last time we were there the weekend before. Of course we had to get ice cream at Chill Salida for dessert. This time they asked LB if he wanted any of the toppings on his vanilla milkshake, so he was able to enjoy it without the chocolate syrup coating on the inside of the cup. That made him happy. RB had a waffle cone with Dutch chocolate and mint chip. She enjoyed that better than the salted peanut butter cup she had the time before.

We made it home in time to order out dinner with our kids and just in time to receive our shipment of our new inflatable kayak, a Sea Eagle 370 (paid link)! Just like most outdoor gear, inflatable kayaks were in short supply during the pandemic. We ordered it directly from the manufacturer back in June and patiently waited. Now we can enjoy the reservoirs at the state parks even more!

Even though we had been to Black Canyon of the Gunnison before, visiting the North Rim was a different experience. We like to explore new places, but revisiting the same place can also be a new exploration. It also reminds us that we don’t have to rush and see everything the first time we visit a place. Save something for the next time. It was exciting to look across the canyon and pick out familiar landmarks on the South Rim. There is something comforting about returning to a familiar place, like visiting with an old friend and learning something new about them. What places do you like to revisit?

Check out our related video: Black Canyon North Rim

(RB)