Black Canyon of the Gunnison & Navajo National Monument

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After much deliberation and poring over our Colorado map, we decided to visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Interestingly, the last time we were there in the late 1980s maybe, it was a national monument and we didn’t even realize it. In 1999, Congress declared it a national park. We remembered it being beautiful, but we’d forgotten just how impressive it is.

We followed US-50 west along the Arkansas River. Folks were enjoying the river … fly fishing, rafting, swimming. Originally created in 1926, this is the same coast-to-coast route US-50, by the way, that starts in Sacramento, traverses Nevada as ‘The Loneliest Road’ and ends up in Maryland. Though very scenic, we think some of this road has not been repaved since its original construction. Just sayin’.

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We threaded our way through steep-walled, narrow canyons following the winding course of the river. We were on the lookout for bighorn sheep, but never saw any. Suddenly, the peaks of the Rockies popped into view. The road climbed and climbed to the top of Monarch Pass and we were over the Continental Divide. The gift shop there offers oxygen at this altitude. Glad to know, it’s not just me affected by thin air.

 Black Canyon of the Gunnison views ... simply stupendous!

Black Canyon of the Gunnison views ... simply stupendous!

We arrived mid-day at Black Canyon and had our choice of campsites at the park’s South Rim Campground. Once settled, we headed out along the 2-mile Rim Rock Trail loop to the Visitor’s Center to plan our time here. We watched the park video, checked out the exhibits and headed back along the trail to camp. Because of the wildfire hazards in the area, campfires were prohibited … a little disappointing, but certainly understandable. We attended an evening ranger program in the campground amphitheater on hiking safety and preparedness compared to outer space (Mars) travel. Sounds a bit of a stretch, but it was quite well done. An astronomy/night sky program followed … planets and stars lit up the ink-black sky … the Milky Way was never brighter.

 The Painted Wall viewed from Cedar Point

The Painted Wall viewed from Cedar Point

Water, weather and time have carved this magnificent canyon. Early explorers and engineers, like John Gunnison, for whom the river is named, deemed the canyon ‘impenetrable’. It was in 1901 that Fellows and Torrance, two geologic surveyors finally descended into the canyon, explored the river and determined where a river diversion could be constructed. Interested in some canyon facts? Check this out.

 A ribbon of gushing water below ... the Gunnison River.

A ribbon of gushing water below ... the Gunnison River.

After a brisk morning walk to get our bodies moving, we drove along the panoramic South Rim Road. We’re talking serious eye candy here. The views were stomach-wrenching, dramatic as we peered over 2,200’ cliffs to view the Gunnison River far, far below. Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge images.

Though we could have spent a week here, we opted to move along … a taste of this park was better than not visiting it at all. By late afternoon, we were in travel mode again. There was more to see and time was becoming limited. We camped the night in Matterhorn Campground just off the San Juan Skyway, not far from Telluride in the Umcompahgre National Forest. Being on National Forest land, David was allowed to gather and cut firewood … that new chainsaw really came in handy as he filled our woodbin full. We had a roaring good campfire (contained within the fire ring and well-attended) that evening.

It was cold when we rose in the morning …. 52F, which got us moving quickly. We discovered the Galloping Goose trail out of the campground which followed a forest service road and took a long morning walk through stands of aspens and Douglas fir. At 9,500’, the altitude was bothering us a bit and we definitely did not gallop along the trail. We were winded and hadn’t slept all that well. Time to move on.

 A hazy view of the Lizard Head at Lizard Head Pass

A hazy view of the Lizard Head at Lizard Head Pass

Across the scenic, 10,222’ Lizard Head Pass, we made our way through this gorgeous part of the country. Words and pictures do not do it justice … what natural splendor. Bright red sandstone cliffs, mountains blanketed in deep greens (no fires or beetle kill here), thick, lush meadows, rivers and creeks all under a cerulean blue Colorado sky. The wildfires in other parts of the state and further west however, made for some hazy views.

 This used to be a free, fun stop. Now, it's commercial and overpriced.

This used to be a free, fun stop. Now, it's commercial and overpriced.

Clumps of sage and yellow rabbitbrush lined the roads. The last of the summer’s wildflowers lingered, but were past their prime. We crossed into Arizona. Four Corners Monument was along our route and we thought we’d stop, just for old time’s sake. We’d been here years and years ago with the kids … everyone stretched out with one hand and one foot in each of the four contiguous states … Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. When we last stopped, it was free. Somewhere along the line, it became a commercial Native American enterprise and the charge was now $5/pp. We gave it a pass.

 Such incredible natural rugged beauty along this route

Such incredible natural rugged beauty along this route

There is incredible natural beauty along this route. I know I sound like a broken record, but the dazzling views never ceased to amaze us. Sandstone and limestone buttes, mesas, bluffs and sawtooth peaks. Awe-inspiring landscapes that nearly overwhelm you and whet your appetite for more.

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We entered the Navajo National Monument to view the ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancient Puebloans. To our amazement and delight, camping in the Sunset View Campground was free. It was late afternoon and the campgrounds were nearly empty. Appropriate to the campground name, we perched our camp chairs on the rim of the western overlook, sipped our wine and watched a hazy, but beautiful sunset.

 The campground warned of mountain lions in the area, but we didn’t think they came in calico?

The campground warned of mountain lions in the area, but we didn’t think they came in calico?

We were up early to walk the self-guided trails in the cool of the day. Sunrise at Betatakin Canyon was glorious. An enormous naturally-arched red sandstone amphitheater was once home to the cliff dwelling ancient Puebloan people c. 1200 AD and the cross-canyon views from the Sandal Trail were breathtaking.

 Ancient cliff dwellings in Betatakin Canyon

Ancient cliff dwellings in Betatakin Canyon

 A thick, smoky haze obliterated some of the views along the steep, switch-backed Aspen Trail.

A thick, smoky haze obliterated some of the views along the steep, switch-backed Aspen Trail.

 An outside exhibit behind the Visitor’s Center contained a hogan, a typical native American dwelling for this part of the country, and a sweat lodge. Though modern housing is in use now on the reservations, many Navajo people still maintain a hogan nearby for traditional ceremonies.

An outside exhibit behind the Visitor’s Center contained a hogan, a typical native American dwelling for this part of the country, and a sweat lodge. Though modern housing is in use now on the reservations, many Navajo people still maintain a hogan nearby for traditional ceremonies.

By the time the sun was high in the sky, we were on our way … heading west, but not exactly sure where. We’ll figure it out by the next time you join us.